Local News

Whalers to Make Home Port in Raleigh, Change...

Posted May 5, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— Professional hockey is coming to North Carolina either this season or next season, playing in Greensboro before moving permanently to Raleigh.

The Centennial Authority, in charge of raising money for and building a new $120 million arena, approved the outline of a proposed 20-year lease agreement with the Hartford Whalers, likely to be renamed the Carolina Hurricanes. The lease would give the NHL team control over the arena's day-to-day operations.

The Centennial Authority took the action about an hour before Raleigh officials formally announced that the Whalers were relocating to Raleigh.

The lease agreement calls for the team to contribute $12 million to the arena's cost. The arena would open in 1999, with construction set to begin in about three weeks.

The Centennial Authority approved the proposed lease 11-1 after a closed-door meeting. Voting against the agreement was businessman and NCSU supporter Wendell Murphy. Murphy said he felt the building should be controlled entirely by the Centennial Authority.

The agreement permits the Whalers to hire concessionaires, with the authority's approval, and to control the arena's day-to-day operations.

However, North Carolina State University, which would share the venue with the Whalers, would have priority in selecting playing dates at the arena under the proposed lease.

NCSU also would have the first crack at naming the arena under the lease, but the authority agreed to discuss naming rights in more detail later.

Karmanos was expected to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding the lease later today, but the lease itself -- expected to run over 100 pages -- will be drafted between now and July 1.

At Tuesday's press conference, Karmanos said the lowest priced seats to pro hockey games in the Triangle would be "probably $20." Asked about the proposed team name, Karmanos said the decision was "easy."

"It was between the Hurricanes and Ice Dogs," he said. He added the team's jersey's would be "traditional."

"I'll guarantee you it won't be teal," Karmanos said, referring to the team colors of the Charlotte Hornets.

But before the Whalers bring their pucks and sticks down south, there are a couple of hurdles to clear.

The Whalers must pay Connecticut $20 million to end their lease agreement a year earlier than scheduled. If the Whalers stay in Hartford another season, they would have to pay only $5 million to leave. State House Speaker Thomas Ritter has proposed boosting the early exit fee to $40 million.

``Play here next year or pay at least the $40 million,'' said Ritter, a Hartford Democrat who is worried about the fate of the city when the hockey team departs. ``The Whalers have a contract with us.''

If the Connecticut Development Authority wants to charge Karmanos $40 million to leave, the Whalers likely will play one more season in Hartford before coming to North Carolina next season.

Gov. John G. Rowland has called a meeting of the Connecticut Development Authority for 4 p.m. today in Rocky Hill, Conn.

Dean Pagani, the governor's spokesman, confirmed that. "The governor thinks this has gone on long enough," Pagani said. "There is no reason to think we can get more than $20.5 million. This could have been done at the last scheduled meeting in April. The governor has been holding back in deference to [House Speaker Thomas D.] Ritter."

Rowland, despite a call by Ritter to double the fee, has maintained in recent weeks that the agreement would be ratified as negotiated.

Said Karmanos, "There's a long, checkered history of politics there. The governor and I agreed on a deal. I negotiated the deal with the person

Also, the Whalers are still working on a financial settlement with the minor league Carolina Monarchs, the current tenant at the Greensboro Coliseum. Greensboro will play host to the Carolinas' new NHL team while the new Entertainment and Sports Arena is completed in Raleigh.

General Manager Jim Rutherford said the Whalers have reached a deal with the Greensboro Coliseum to play there for two seasons while the new west Raleigh arena is built.

Rutherford, quoted byThe News & Observerof Raleigh, said of Karmanos: ``This is his announcement ... He has worked long and hard on these negotiations to make this happen.''

Karmanos, who purchased the Whalers in 1994, announced in late March he would leave Connecticut when negotiations between government officials failed to reach an acceptable deal on a new Hartford arena. The Whalers began play in 1972 in the now-defunct World Hockey Association and joined the National Hockey League in 1979.

The lease between the Whalers and the Centennial Authority would span the 20 years following the Raleigh arena's opening in 1999. It also contains two five-year renewal options. The proposal calls for the Whalers to pay $3 million a year rent for the first three years and then 6 percent of gross revenues in the years following, up to $55 million. The Whalers would pay the city 3 percent of any revenues collected above $55 million.

Whalers' general manager Rutherford says that he eventually wants the entire region involved with Raleigh's new hockey team. The big plans include the NHL team in Raleigh, possibly named the Carolina Hurricanes, the American Hockey League affiliate in Greensboro, and the East Coast Hockey League affiliate in Fayetteville.From staff and wire reports