News Column

NHL Franchises Remain In Demand

Dec. 26, 2012

Chris Kuc

NHL

The owner's suite at Allstate Arena sits empty during Wolves games.

Don Levin instead watches from a nearby production booth with a better view of the ice. He stands on a small wooden step, living and dying with every line rush and shot on goal.

The setting is nothing like the boardrooms around the world where he has amassed a fortune by owning paper mills in France, a tobacco factory in North Carolina and by producing movies in Hollywood, among other ventures. While owning the Wolves for the last 19 years hasn't done much to help fill his bank account, it has combined two of Levin's passions: business and hockey.

"I've held two Cups and there's one more I want to raise -- the Stanley Cup," Levin said. "That would be a lot of fun."

A lifelong Chicagoan who made an unsuccessful run at purchasing the Cubs, Levin, 65, has the connections, motivation and resources to be an NHL owner but is lacking an available franchise.

"I've been trying to do this for years," he said. "What I've learned is you have to strike when the iron is hot. Toronto sold (in 2011) and I couldn't afford that. Montreal sold (in 2009) and I came in second on that. I don't know what else will come up. You don't know when and where these things will happen. You just have to be prepared."

Levin called the near-miss on purchasing the Canadiens "difficult to swallow." He said he offered "around $500 million" but was outbid by Geoff Molson by about $60 million. "In hindsight, perhaps I should have offered more money for Montreal, but the die is cast," Levin said. "There's nothing I can do about it."

Until another NHL franchise becomes available in a situation he finds attractive, Levin will bide his time hoping for expansion. But he says it has to be a location where hockey is viable, with warm-weather sites low on his list.

"If I didn't feel comfortable with the market I wouldn't do it," said Levin, who has kept a close watch on the negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' association. "I hope they will get the CBA resolved and be able to get the markets stabilized they have now and then hopefully in the next two or three years have expansion."

Levin has heard the rumblings of possible future NHL franchises in Quebec, Las Vegas and Kansas City but mainly has focused on Seattle, a city that is attempting to build an arena that could house both an NBA and an NHL team.

"Seattle would be a great market for hockey, but right now there is no building -- it's years away," Levin said. "(But) if there was something that came available I might try to buy that."

The question begs, why would anyone -- especially a man so successful in other businesses and seemingly so level-headed -- yearn to join a league on the brink of a second canceled season in seven years due to labor strife?

"Hockey is my passion," Levin said matter-of-factly.

That passion could lead him into a business situation that hasn't been profitable for many owners in recent years. According to Forbes Magazine, 18 of the 30 NHL teams lost money during the 2010-11 season and current financial woes are among the reasons owners have locked out players and are seeking considerable salary reductions.

But profit isn't Levin's driving force.

"There are those (NHL) teams that make a lot of money, there are teams that lose a lot of money and there are teams that sort of break even," Levin said. "(Breaking even) is fine with me. It's not to make money. I just don't want to lose money."

A big motivation is the chance to work with his son, Robert, currently a goaltender with the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

"His desire for the sport and our relationship has been about hockey through the last 18 years," Levin said. "Since he was 2 he's been coming to the Wolves games so it's become part of what we do. He loves it and understands it. So I'd like to be able to find a team that we could work on together. I think we'd do a good job."

Said 20-year-old Robert: "Hockey is something we've bonded over and done together throughout the years. For me, growing up around it and playing now I understand the players' side. I'm learning as I go along how players relate and how the game works. It would work well.

"It's all about winning and getting results, and for (my father) that's huge for a hockey team and in business."

If Levin does again attempt to jump into the fray, it won't be a surprise to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his staff as "they know my interest. We talk occasionally," Levin said.

One member of the NHL's Board of Governors, which must approve the new ownership of any NHL franchise, said he'd see no issue with Levin joining the ranks of NHL owners.

"I know that's always been his passion," said Blackhawks President John McDonough.

McDonough and Levin have known each other for 15 years, during which McDonough has contacted Levin numerous times about hiring members of the Wolves front office.

"He's done a great job with the Wolves for a long, long time. He's really passionate about hockey and I think he'd be a very good addition. Having had the chance to be around all of the other NHL owners, I think (Levin) would fit well. He's very, very personable, very candid and obviously he likes to put winning teams on the ice."

So how did Levin position himself financially to make a run at joining the NHL landscape?

"I always wanted to be in business since I was a little kid," said Levin, who got his first job at age 9 at a drugstore near his home in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. "(And) the only sport I liked as a kid was hockey. I was on the swim team (at Von Steuben High School), but we lived across the street from a park and they used to flood it and we'd go out and play pond hockey."

Backed with a strong work ethic instilled, in part, by his late father, Jack, who was a used-car salesman ("he worked 12 hours a day, six days a week"), Levin worked at a hot dog stand and a hardware store before bypassing college to attend a General Motors training center and eventually landing a job at a car dealership.

He later moved on to co-own a used-clothing store, and after being introduced to a businessman in France, began selling cigarette paper and founded DRL Enterprises in 1969.

Levin has made his mark in Hollywood as a movie producer: IMBD.com lists 12 films to Levin's credit, including executive producer of "Maximum Overdrive," written and directed by Stephen King.

"That's an interesting man," Levin said of the horror author. "Every day he would take the New York Times crossword puzzle and he would sit there and in five minutes fill it out and be done. We figured that's not true, nobody could really do it. So we stole it a couple of times after he did it -- and he'd done it. Bright guy."

All the while, Levin's passion for sports -- hockey in particular -- burned. Levin attended Hawks games with a business partner and when presented with an opportunity to purchase and help found the Wolves in 1994, he made the leap into team ownership. The team has won four titles in its existence, the Turner Cup in 1998 and 2000 and the Calder Cup in '02 and '08.

Those and other successes in hockey have put Levin in the spotlight. He will be ranked in the Hockey News' Top 100 People of Power and Influence issue published in January and he will be inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame on Jan. 27.

Wolves senior executive vice president Wayne Messmer has worked with Levin since the organization's inception and pinpointed what makes Levin successful.

"His attention to detail and he has an exceptional memory," Messmer said. "He's not afraid to hear bad news and he's calm, cool and collected. He's just really one of the most solid individuals as a person and as a friend that I've had over these past 20 years."

If and when Levin does land ownership of an NHL team, he's in it for the long haul.

"I'm looking for something to build and be there for my lifetime and my son's lifetime," Levin said. "I'm not looking for a flash in the pan."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2012 Chicago Tribune


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