These are heady times for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League on the ice.
The Otters have advanced to the finals of the OHL playoffs against Oshawa with the best teenage player who is not in the National Hockey League, Connor McDavid, and Dylan Strome, who is projected as the No. 4 prospect in this summer’s NHL entry draft.
Erie’s 2015-16 schedule is out, and fans can think about life without McDavid and consider single game, partial or full season tickets.
Off the ice, the Otters’ fortunes are not as certain, or as clear. At this point, their fate lies in the hands of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Agresti. At this point, Agresti is a more important player for Erie hockey than McDavid.
The Erie Otters filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 8 to stop the plans of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers to sell the team to recoup the $4.7 million the Oilers loaned current Otters’ owner Sherry Bassin. The Oilers wanted to buy the Otters and move the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario. The sale to the Oilers never happened, and Bassin never repaid the loan.
The bankruptcy was filed to keep the Otters in Erie, and now Agresti has to decide the fate of the Otters. On one hand, Agresti will be looking for a new buyer who will look out for the best interest of the creditors.
On the other hand, Agresti will consider the impact the hockey team has on the Erie economy. Obviously, the judge will attempt to satisfy both areas of interest.
Agresti was told during a recent hearing that a preferred buyer has stepped forward and signed an asset purchase agreement for the Otters. The prospective buyer’s identity was not disclosed during the hearing, but has indicated the new owner will keep the Otters in Erie.
Agresti will conduct an auction, tentatively scheduled for June 25 or June 26, for the ownership of the team. The bidding will begin with the offer from the unidentified preferred buyer. Agresti has agreed to conduct the sale as soon as possible to allow the eventual new owners’ time to conduct a marketing campaign for next season.
There is history in Western Pennsylvania of a bankruptcy judge saving a local hockey franchise for its city. Judge W. Bruce McCullough was asked by Bankruptcy Judge Bernard Markovitz to serve as a mediator in the 1999 financial mess that became the bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins. With outside interests circling the Penguins, and the NHL threatening not to include Pittsburgh in its schedule, McCullough produced a resolution that led to the current ownership headed by Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle.
“But for Bruce McCullough, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not be playing hockey in this city today,” Lemieux’s attorney, Douglas Campbell, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for Judge McCullough’s obituary on Nov. 23, 2010. “There was no one else who could have made it happen in the time allowed. I think he was born to save the Penguins.”
In the days and weeks ahead, another bankruptcy judge will have the task of deciding the fate of a Western Pennsylvania hockey franchise. Bankruptcy saved the Penguins for Pittsburgh. It will likely save the Otters for Erie too.