Hurricanes past, present, future collide

Justin Williams’ return to Carolina, ownership rumors making for busy offseason

Cory Lavalette—0
Justin Williams talks to the media July 17 about his return to the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. (Cory Lavalette/North State Journal)

RALEIGH —— Justin Williams made his first appearance in Raleigh on Monday since returning to the Carolina Hurricanes at the opening of free agency July 1, and he continued to promise much of what he did right after signing a two-year contract worth $9 million.

“It’s a fun time, I think, to be a Carolina Hurricane,” Williams said to reporters in the Hurricanes’ locker room at PNC Arena. “And I want to be part of something good. I’ve been on some successful teams, so I’m going to try and do the same, do my best here to make sure that happens.”

In doing that, Williams sounded exactly like the kind of leader the Hurricanes need in the locker room and on the ice. Does that include wearing the captain’s C on his sweater? Williams wasn’t biting.

“That’s something I don’t really want to talk about at all,” he said, shaking his head. “As I said, I’m coming here to be me and that’s not something I really want to talk about.”

How about the players to watch on the young Hurricanes teams he’s played in recent years?

“I don’t want to single out anybody,” Williams said. “Just I know, just by playing against them, they’re high-end talents and it will be a pleasure to play with any of them.”

Oh, and that ownership thing that came up last week —— you know, the one that sees former Texas Rangers co-owner Chuck Greenberg buying the team from Peter Karmanos Jr., the only NHL CEO the Carolinas have ever known, for half a billion dollars?

“I’m not privvy to any information,” Williams said. “All I know is where I’m going to be playing next year, and that’s here. I don’t know anything else.”

The truth is, not many seem to know where things stand with the Hurricanes’ ownership situation. The Hurricanes released what amounted to a nonstatement last Thursday, one that made it seem like Karmanos needs to weight the benefits of selling the team he bought for $47.5 million in 1994 for a cool $500 million just 23 years later.

“Since an offer has been made to purchase the team, Mr. Karmanos intends to evaluate that offer and also will continue to evaluate his other options, including retaining his ownership of the team,” the statement said.

Rest assured if the price is right —— and the rumored proposal is —— Karmanos will be willing to ride off into the sunset with a Stanley Cup ring and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on his ownership epitaph.

Greenberg —— who made his fortune as a sports industry attorney, including help Mario Lemieux buy and keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh in 1999 —— is also keeping quiet, opting not to comment on the offer, though he did let out a hint something is cooking.

“Kind of a hectic Thursday on this end. How about you? Solid way to unwind tonight at the Choctaw Lazy River @RidersBaseball,” he said on Twitter the day the news broke, tweeting from Texas at a Frisco RoughRiders game —— one of three minor league baseball teams he owns, including the three-hour-drive-from-Raleigh Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans.

While his forays into sports ownership have previously been in baseball, Greenberg has also been a supporter of the Dallas Stars and was approved by the NHL as a potential bidder for the team when it was in bankruptcy in 2011. He opted not to make a run at purchasing the team.

By all accounts, Greenberg is the type of owner who could pull the Hurricanes from its doldrums: he’s reportedly committed to the fan experience while also being competitive.

Would Greenberg, like Terry Pegula in Buffalo, be willing to spend closer to the cap ceiling than its floor? Perhaps, especially if he was joined by fellow deep-pocketed co-ownership. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was rumored to be part of Greenberg’s considered bid for the Stars, and the NBA owner’s latest first-round draft pick, Dennis Smith Jr., could offer Cuban insight into both the Triangle and PNC Arena —— where Smith Jr. played college ball at NC State.

That sort of “what if” is miles in the distance, and similar to what Williams tried to dodge Monday regarding the team on the ice.

“It’ll be fun, and the best thing is to let the play do the speaking for itself,” Williams said. “You don’t want to come here and spout off and make guarantees and say all that. You just want to let the play speak for itself.”

There’s no guarantees for the Hurricanes in 2017-18: no guaranteed better attendance; no guaranteed playoffs; no guaranteed new ownership committed to keeping the team in Raleigh.

“You never know where it’s going to go, and that’s the good thing about the NHL,” Williams added. “You can can get on a roll, you can start to feel good and mentally you feel great and then anything’s possible.

“It’s an exciting time for the city and the team and especially for me, personally.”