RALEIGH — “This sweet tea is sweet. It’s not a thing at home.”
Tom Dundon had joined one final group of reporters after a long day Friday being introduced as the new majority owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, giving a slight head turn as he sipped his drink.
For the New York-born Texas billionaire, the Southeast’s beverage of choice will probably be an acquired taste. Hockey — which took time to take root in North Carolina — is already flowing through his veins.
The transfer of 61 percent of the NHL team — valued at more than $500 million — from Peter Karmanos Jr. to Dundon officially took place Thursday. The next day he was ushered around PNC Arena, speaking to a large crowd of media and employees at the official press conference on the second floor of the building he now operates, doing a live radio spot, and taking time to answer questions from a line of television crews getting their first chance to meet the man who now runs the Hurricanes.
The stop at this table was his last of the event. But rather than look tired or overwhelmed by the flurry of certainly repetitive questions, Dundon seemed determined to make clear his vision for his latest venture.
“What’s fascinating to me … is everything’s so close,” Dundon, 46, said. “If we do a really good job creating slight advantages across the organization, we can give ourselves a really good chance to compete, make the playoffs and, ultimately, win. And I think that makes the sport investable.”
“Investable” might sound like a business term, but Dundon clearly isn’t in this to simply turn a profit.
He talked about his 16-year-old son joining him on a trip with the team to Nashville, being mostly disinterested at first but, after meeting the players, being all-in when they watched the Hurricanes dispatch the Predators 4-1 on Dec. 21.
“The thing that’s great about sports is you get to build an emotional attachment,” Dundon said during the formal press conference, flanked by Karmanos, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Hurricanes GM Ron Francis and Gale Force Sports & Entertainment President Don Waddell.
He brushed off one Karmanos statement — a moment when the at-times cantankerous owner went off message to grind old axes — that “crummy crowds” were due to a season ticket base that needed to be doubled.
“If we don’t sell more tickets, it’s not the fans’ fault. It’s our fault,” he responded. “I believe we do certain things, the result will be there.”
Among those certain things, Dundon said, was improving the fan experience and bringing value to the games.
There have already been tweaks.
The Eye, the Hurricanes main team store in PNC Arena, has been better-staffed and, for lack of a better term, more aggressive in trying to push merchandise since Dundon took over. April’s Bon Jovi concert was cross-promoted on Sunday — free tickets were included during in-arena giveaway, and “Livin’ On A Prayer” blared on the speakers during one stoppage, a reminder of the upcoming show and not the team’s recent bare-bones approach to trying to build a winner while spending as little as possible.
On that point, Dundon made it clear he was wiling to spend to not only improve the fan experience, but also on-ice performance.
“If (Francis) finds opportunities that create value, and we do our job on the business side, then it won’t be about the money, and it shouldn’t be,” Dundon said. “It should just be about making good decisions.”
The Hurricanes are 30th out of 31 teams in payroll this season, more than $15 million under the salary cap. Some player raises are already on the horizon for next season, but Carolina could be a big player this offseason if Dundon is true to his word.
Most importantly, Dundon’s ownership puts an end to frequent rumors of the team relocating.
“With the things that Tom envisions — not just winning, but being active in the community and, organizationally, the fan experience that’s being provided — those are the things that will drive this franchise to even greater heights,” Bettman said. “There was never a risk of this team moving, and it used to drive us crazy when we’d have to spend hours on the phone refuting stories that were just made up and, in some cases, disposed wishful thinking.”
Bettman wasn’t alone. Last season, Waddell was forced to hold a midgame press conference during a matchup with the Canadiens to refute rumors of the team moving to Quebec. The French Canadian media — source of many of the rumors — were not invited.
“This puts to rest all those rumors and speculation and now we can concentrate on winning and being successful on the ice and giving our fans and the people of Raleigh something to really be proud of,” Francis said.
If Dundon follows through on all his promises, everything will taste even sweeter.