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Sunday, June 4, 2006
Updated: June 6, 3:02 AM ET
Karmanos: Hard-nosed owner, die-hard hockey fan

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

As Edmonton and Carolina get ready to square off in the Stanley Cup finals, ESPN.com takes a look at the front offices of the two team, front offices that, in their own way, saved the franchises. We start with the Hurricanes. Later in the week, we'll break down the Oilers.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Here is what we think we know of Peter Karmanos.

He is the NHL owner who defiantly called out the players during the lockout, saying the NHL would stay silent for two years or more if it meant getting a salary cap.

He's the man who referred to former Carolina center Keith Primeau as "a prima donna, a petulant, pouting player" during contract negotiations.

Peter Karmanos
Fans weren't won over by Peter Karmanos' outspoken comments during the NHL lockout.
He is the man who enraged other owners by tendering Detroit star Sergei Fedorov an offer sheet that included a $14 million signing bonus.

He is the man who, more than a decade after the departure of the Hartford Whalers from Connecticut, remains one of the most vilified men in the state and whose likeness still appears on at least one Web site with a harpoon perpetually digging into his kisser.

Here is what we might not know about Peter Karmanos.

Every year, he pours $1 million into minor hockey programs.

In 1995, he started the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in his hometown of Detroit in honor of his former wife and high school sweetheart, who died of breast cancer in 1989. His donations, which now top $26 million, have helped transform the institute into one of the largest cancer treatment centers in North America.

A Greek immigrant, Karmanos didn't learn to speak English until elementary school and has never learned to skate, but used to appear on the ice during father/son hockey games playing goal.

"He needed something to hang onto," longtime business partner Thomas Thewes said.

That has always been the challenge with Karmanos, trying to reconcile the often visceral reactions to the man with the man himself. In some ways, it is the same for his Carolina Hurricanes.

Going into their second Stanley Cup finals in the last four NHL playoff years, the Hurricanes still are perceived by many in the hockey community as the Beverly Hillbillies of the NHL, interlopers from a strange land. Worse, the argument goes, is they remain strangers in their own land.

But as is the case with the man and the team alike, appearances might not tell the full story. Thewes was there in the beginning, not just the beginning of Compuware, the computer software company the two helped found in 1973, but also at the time Karmanos' passion for the game took root.

Not long after starting Compuware, which now boasts revenues of $1.2 billion and 8,000 employees, Karmanos told Thewes they needed to spend more time with their children. So, the two businessmen began taking their sons to learn-to-skate programs on Saturdays, after which they would go to a local hamburger stand, then head back to the office.

The next year, the hockey excursions extended to Saturday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

"The next year, it was every day," Thewes recalled.

When the boys started playing games, Karmanos sometimes would run the score clock. One day, he got into a disagreement with a referee and a parent over the game.

"After, he said, 'You know, Tom, I'd like to change hockey,' " Thewes said.

Over the years, the Compuware minor hockey program has become one of the most successful in the country, producing a host of stars, including Pat LaFontaine, Al Iafrate and Jimmy Carson.

Thewes recalls going to a minor hockey tournament in Ottawa and finding Karmanos talking to team managers, coaches and scouts instead of watching the games.

"He was there to learn," Thewes said. "He's an amazing guy."

"He's a doer. He's very intelligent. Very wise and very nice," Thewes said. "He does things in the right way, not just sometimes, but all the time."

Already, the howls of protest of such a characterization can be heard from Connecticut's faithful.

After first buying the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, then establishing the first U.S.-based team in the Canadian Hockey League, in Detroit, Karmanos' hockey appetite grew to include the NHL.

He had hired former NHL netminder Jim Rutherford shortly after Rutherford retired in 1983, and by the early 1990s, Rutherford estimates he had knocked on 10 or 11 NHL doors looking for a team.

At one point, Karmanos was interested in the Tampa Bay franchise, but he balked at the expansion fees. Instead, he waited around until he found a weak sister. He found one in Hartford, thus reinforcing his image as a cutthroat businessman.

"He has a plan, and he has an idea of how he wants to go about it," Rutherford said. "He's very passionate."

Karmanos paid $47.5 million for the team in 1994, less than rival bidders had offered. Critics still point to the fact that former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker became a member of the Compuware board of directors not long after the deal was done, an indication of the team's shaky future in Hartford.

Whatever the political machinations were at the time, this much is clear -- the franchise was junk. There was no television money, no concession money, no advertising revenue coming in.

"The only revenue streams we had were tickets in the smallest-capacity building in the league," Karmanos said in an interview this week.

Although an aggressive ticket campaign saw the number of season-ticket holders almost double to 11,000, and it looked for a time as though the state was going to work with Karmanos to build a new rink, he instead paid almost $20.5 million to extricate the team from Hartford after the 1996-97 season. Fans felt betrayed. Karmanos said he was losing $1 million a month.

When Karmanos yanked the Whalers out of Hartford, the franchise became the first pro sports team to leave a town without having a place to go. After debating Columbus and other locales, Karmanos looked at the demographics and studies and put his finger on Tobacco Road. The Carolina Hurricanes were born.

If the exit from Hartford was messy, the arrival in the South was no less ugly.

Rutherford said that when you move a professional sports team, generally you need 18 months to two years to complete the process. He and Karmanos did it in three months.

Karmanos acknowledged that having the team play in Greensboro, about 70 miles from Raleigh, for two seasons while a new rink was built wasn't the best way to grow a franchise in a nontraditional hockey market.

The fact Karmanos refused to discount tickets for most of that time only exacerbated the problem. Fans stayed away in droves.

Sports Illustrated savaged Karmanos and the team, suggesting the Hurricanes' choice of nicknames was appropriate given that they were a "natural disaster." The Hockey News, in one of the funniest bits ever, suggested the Canes were conducting a scientific experiment similar to ones in which baby monkeys are taken from their mothers "and denied physical contact and verbal comforting."

"It was hard and it was embarrassing to read the articles," Karmanos said. "As it turns out, [Greensboro] was probably a mistake."

The history of the NHL, of course, is rife with errors in judgment and questionable decisions. Yet Karmanos and the Canes seem unable to peel themselves fully away from that past.

Two Stanley Cup finals appearances in four NHL seasons and people are still dissing them. Think the Vancouver Canucks, or the Toronto Maple Leafs, would mind having that kind of successful recent past?

"In terms of running a hockey franchise on the ice, they've clearly done an outstanding job," New York-based sports investment banker Sal Galatioto said this week. "They've been able to compete even before the new collective bargaining agreement."

Perhaps only a Stanley Cup will free both Karmanos and his franchise from the niggling feeling they somehow don't belong in Raleigh.

"Is it sustainable? I don't know. It's a market where a very small percentage of the people there are true hockey fans," Galatioto said. "They can't be mediocre there and be successful. And [winning consistently] is hard to do."

One former NHL GM said he thinks Karmanos rubs people the wrong way because he has such a strong personality. The GM also thinks it might be the reason that Karmanos hasn't taken on a more prominent role with USA Hockey, to the detriment of the U.S. hockey program.

"I really like Peter and feel that our league and sport is fortunate to have somebody with his passion, intelligence and success associated with it," the former executive said.

During the lockout, Karmanos said the owners were going to exert their will over the players. He didn't make many friends among fans and players, but on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals, it appears as though his faith both in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and in the need for the system to be realigned was well-placed.

Earlier in the playoffs, he said the team would turn its first profit since relocating to Raleigh.

"I understand the economics of the game very well. It's very, very fair to call me a hard-liner," Karmanos said. "The only way to achieve what we've achieved is with our collective bargaining agreement. I was just being more honest than some other people were being. I agreed with Gary's position. We were either going to fix it or we were going to stay out.

"We had a league that was messed up financially, and now we've been able to straighten that up," he said. "To make a long story short, it's been quite a battle."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.