The long-running ownership saga that has kept the New Jersey Devils on both the financial and sports pages came to a close today, with the announcement that a controlling interest in the team was sold to Philadelphia 76ers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer.
Financial terms were not disclosed in a news conference this morning. Multiple sources have said the deal is worth more than $300 million; of such speculation, the new owners said "most of it's been wrong," but did not elaborate.
In the news conference at the team's Newark arena, the new owners spoke of their excitement to be entering the New York area sports market, but also of a commitment to Newark and to improving the team's financial footing.
"We can rethink the way business is done, and infuse the franchise with the resources and talent, both on the hockey and business side … to help the Devils achieve stability and long-term growth," said Harris, the principal owner of the 76ers and a co-founder of Apollo Global Management, in New York.
Harris spoke specifically to how he and Blitzer can "help great franchises that might have some financial issues … deal with those issues." Apollo is well known as a private-equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts and the purchase of distressed assets involving corporate restructuring.
Harris, whose grandparents lived in Newark, said Jeff Vanderbeek will remain with the team as a senior adviser. Vanderbeek is selling his controlling share of the team after buying out partners Ray Chambers and Mike Gilfillan in January. That process was difficult, following reported tension between Vanderbeek and Puck Holdings, the group represented by Chambers and Gilfillan.
The team's general manager and CEO, Lou Lamoriello, also will remain with the team — Harris called him "a tremendous asset to this organization" — but the new owners said Scott O'Neil will become CEO, and will be responsible for selling and marketing the team. That's been a challenge for the Devils in a crowded sports marketplace that features numerous NFL, MLB and NBA teams, in addition to pro hockey teams in New York and Philadelphia.
"Nobody ever calls you in this business," said O'Neil, who secured sponsorships with clients like JP Morgan and Coca-Cola in a similar role with the Philadelphia 76ers.
"To the corporate community — we're gonna come see you," O'Neil said. "This will be the most sponsor-friendly building in the world. We want to do business and we're open for business."
That will include suite and ticket sales as well as sponsorships, he said.
Blitzer, a senior executive at the Blackstone Group, said he was encouraged to come to Newark, citing development projects like hotels and restaurants that have sprung up in the Prudential Center's wake.
"What Governor (Chris) Christie and Mayor (Cory) Booker have done is fantastic, and we look forward to working with the state and city to drive that forward," Blitzer said.
Lamoriello, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009 as a builder, took the helm of a struggling franchise in 1987 and guided it to five Stanley Cup Finals appearances, including championships in 1995, 2000 and 2003.
He said he only met Harris and Blitzer recently, but "each time that I did spend with them, I got more impressed."
"When you think of new ownership, you look up their bios," he said. "Well, it didn't take long to just close it and say, 'They're successful.' No question."
He also cited the pair's commitment to winning. "Everybody wants to win, but not everybody knows how," Lamoriello said. "I felt 100 percent that they know how and in the right way."
Lamoriello, who said he has known O'Neil for a decade, will continue to run the team's day-to-day hockey operations, while O'Neil will handle business development.
While the new owners have deep Philadelphia roots, Harris denied reports the 76ers would leave Philly.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to open the news conference, and said the sale marks "a very exciting time for the team, but also the city," and went on to name a number of downtown development projects, including Teachers Village and the Hahne & Co. project.
"I think the future of the city, this building and the New Jersey Devils franchise has never been brighter," Bettman said.