Bandits rallied, put house in order New owner Caggiano key to establishing credibility

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Mike Caggiano took over ownership of the Bandits a couple of months ago, the wolves weren't at the door, they were already sniffing around in the living room, the kitchen and everywhere else in the house.

Here's a partial list of the people who were upset with the hockey team: suppliers, media, players, coaches and the parent club, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

"The most immediate thing we had to work on was our lack of credibility," recalled Caggiano, credibility in this case meaning the Bandits had taken on the annoying habit of failing to pay their bills.

Stability and direction seemed to be lacking, too. Had Caggiano purchased the Brooklyn Bridge, the famed waterfront lot in Arizona, a pig in a poke?

No way. He had studied the situation for a good bit before he decided to submit a bid to previous owners Bob Teck and Alan Gertner.

Teck and Gertner had owned the franchise for less than six months when the American Hockey League stepped in.

"Teck and Gertner had been told to get certain [financial] issues resolved," AHL commissioner Dave Andrews said. "Their response was to sell. They did the best they could under the circumstances, but we did apply some pressure, yes, and I think they did the right thing."

Said Teck: "It was an unfortunate situation we ran into, made worse by our losing a major investor. We thought we had raised enough money, but we hadn't. When it became necessary for us to sell, our prime objective was to save the franchise for Baltimore. I thought we did a good job selling to [Caggiano] and we were honest with people."

Caggiano, 35, had experience with minor-league sports. He had owned the Prince William Cannons of baseball's Carolina League from 1987 to 1990.

"Immediately, it was important to establish a foundation, not only among the [Bandits'] staff, but in the locker room," said Caggiano. "Leadership was needed so badly, and trust was not quick in coming. People had been used."

The first order of business was to ease the minds of the players, the coaching staff and Anaheim, which was supplying the personnel. "How could they play well? They were worried about so many things," said Caggiano.

"Being able to pay our bills was primary. Right now, we owe the Ducks one small payment due in a couple of weeks. We've negotiated with our creditors to their satisfaction, and we have payment schedules worked out there. We're maintaining a strict financial picture now."

After the AHL approved the sale to Caggiano, the Bandits started playing like a team with hockey on its mind, not one worried about whether the paychecks would bounce. The club streaked at the end, made the playoffs, then advanced to the seventh game of a second-round series.

"You could see the team coming together. You could see the experience being beneficial and the team living up to its role of being a developmental team for the NHL," said Caggiano.

"The Ducks have indicated to me that they want to stay here for a long time, and they feel we're winners now. They've seen the commitment we've made, and they were impressed with the turnaround. They've seen the motivation, and are encouraged for next year."

Which leads to the question, how much will next season's team resemble the late-season cast that could play with anyone in the league?

"I'm confident we'll have two-thirds of the guys back," said the owner: "We have the advantage now of figuring out what players [four] we can go out and get to complement the [18] players the Ducks will be providing."

Clearly, the Ducks did not provide sufficient talent to make the Bandits competitive at the start. It wasn't until coach Walt Kyle had permission to scout around for help that the team was able to make any progress.

"We will figure out a budget for the free agents we'll sign, in the meantime knowing which current players we're apt to get back," said Caggiano. Goalie Mike O'Neill, the team's most valuable player, has another year to go on a contract, for example.

Meanwhile, the toughest part of owning a hockey team in this town lies ahead for Caggiano: "Sure, a new arena down the road would be nice, but all we'd like from the city right now is that the area be made a little safer.

"Then it's up to us to make people aware of the team and to make coming to a hockey game an event. We can't market every one of our 40 home games, but with added entertainment, a big game against a rival or a terrific giveaway, you can make some games special."

The Bandits' average attendance was 3,601 for 40 home dates at the Baltimore Arena, an increase of about 300 a game from the Skipjacks' last season at the Arena, 1992-93.

"Not only do we have to make people aware of this team, we want to make people want to come here," Caggiano said.

"Next year, kids will be able to get in for $7.50. A big hockey market now is kids 5 to 11 years old. They're all in skating and street hockey. We'll push for the family market where two adults and two kids can get in for $35.

"It was our fault we didn't do that last year. Previously, the strategy was to market from the top down. I learned from my baseball experience that isn't the way it goes. You market from the bottom up."

Pub Date: 5/18/96

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