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Speculating in a used Cougar

The three players who bought a WHA franchise don't know if they got a good deal or a lemon

Three months ago the WHA's Chicago Cougars were about to become defunct or go to Baltimore. There just seemed to be no way that the team could continue to operate in Chicago. For one thing, the owners, Jordon and Walter Kaiser, after losing almost $4 million in 2½ years, had decided to unplug their money machine. For another, the Cougars' planned new arena in suburban Rosemont had melted away in the heat of local politics. Finally, how could any team survive while playing its home games at the International Amphitheatre hard by the malodorous stockyards?

But when the WHA volunteered Baltimore as a new home for the Cougars, three of the best players balked. Player-Coach Pat Stapleton, Center Ralph Backstrom and Goaltender Dave Dryden all pointed to fine-print clauses in their contracts that stipulated they did not have to accompany the Cougars in the event of a franchise shift. And without Stapleton, Backstrom and Dryden, the Cougars were hardly worth the price of a gallon of gas. "Because we wouldn't go to Baltimore," Dryden says, "we felt we had an obligation to the other 20 players on the team. I mean, the other option was to disband the club."

So, in an unprecedented move, the three players and their attorney, Jeff Rosen, pooled their loose cash and bought the Cougars. "The price was cheap," says Backstrom. In fact, the new owners probably put up less than $100,000 in cash and the terms were what your local used-car dealer would call friendly. Says Rosen, "The WHA has promised to swallow some of our losses, if we have any losses in the end." Adds Stapleton, who as player-coach-owner leads all professional sports in hyphens earned, "The best thing is that the franchise came clean. We are not responsible for debts incurred by the previous owners."

What Stapleton, Dryden, Backstrom and Rosen bought was time. "Before the start of next season," Stapleton says, "one of three things will have happened to the Cougars: we will have sold the franchise and will be playing in another city; we will be playing at the Amphitheatre while waiting for a new building to be completed; or we will be defunct." The Baltimore option is out, the WHA having moved the Michigan Stags there in February. The likelihood is that the players will sell the Cougars to one of the interested parties that have surfaced in Ottawa, Calgary and Miami. Last week Stapleton and Rosen spent 36 hours in a Miami Beach hotel suite with prospective buyers, including a transplanted Chicago millionaire who supposedly said he was tired of seeing ice only in his cocktail glass. Miami, however, lacks a suitable facility for pro hockey. "We are really hoping to get a new building in Chicago," says Stapleton, who owns two small skating rinks in the city's western suburbs. "We want to stay in Chicago." What about trying to rent Chicago Stadium, home of the Chicago Black Hawks? Stapleton laughs. "All three of us once played for the Black Hawks," he says. "They don't even want us in the town."

On the ice the Cougars have played surprisingly well in recent weeks despite the frequent absences of Stapleton (sore shoulder) and Backstrom (pulled groin muscle). Before last Saturday night's 4-2 loss to the Aeros in Houston the Cougars had launched a playoff drive, winning five straight games—including three in overtime and another with just six seconds remaining in regulation time—to pull within three points of second-place Cleveland in the WHA East. They also have produced one of the game's top rookies, 20-year-old Center Gary MacGregor, who spurned the Montreal Canadiens to sign with the Cougars. MacGregor leads Chicago with 35 goals and 30 assists and, says Stapleton, "plays like a young Stan Mikita."

Off the ice Dryden and Backstrom handle administrative duties, Stapleton deals with the playing personnel, and Rosen manages the books. "I'm now seeing what's killing the game—phenomenal salaries and travel costs," says Dryden, who, like his playing partners, commands a six-figure salary. "I told my brother Ken [Montreal Canadien goal-tender] that I could lose a fair chunk of money in this deal, that a loss of $100,000 was not out of line. He really panicked."

Rosen, meanwhile, has cut financial corners at every turn. The day the purchase deal was closed, he moved the Cougars from a suite of plush offices overlooking Michigan Avenue to a back room at Stapleton's ice rink in Carol Stream. Then he trimmed the office staff from 17 to three, eliminated the scouting department, ordered the pregame freeload room for the media closed and disposed of expense accounts. "I know we have the lowest operating overhead in hockey," says Rosen. "Unfortunately, it is really lower than it should be, but you need cash to operate—and we don't have a lot of cash."

Rosen estimates that the Cougars must average at least 9,000 fans at each home game to break even. For the last few months, though, the team has averaged fewer than 3,500 and much of the income does not appear on the new owners' books. "According to the purchase agreement, the Kaisers got to keep all the season-ticket money," Rosen says. "So we are surviving, or trying to, on the live dollars from the gate." Those live dollars total about $5,500 per game, Rosen says, minus the Amphitheatre's rental charge of about $1,200 per date. "We don't share in the concessions or the parking," he says, "so we wind up with an average per-game net of about $4,000. Now consider our expenses. The monthly player payroll is $110,000. It should be higher, but we asked the players to spread their paydays over 12 months instead of six—and they were happy to help us out. Our travel expenses run about $20,000 a month, and the office overhead goes about $10,000. So our monthly expenses run almost $150,000. In the same time we play perhaps seven home games at $4,000 net per game—$28,000. In other words, we operate at a net loss of about $120,000 per month for now."

Sunning himself under the hot Miami sun recently, Stapleton shuddered at the mention of that monthly deficit. "The other day," he said, "one of the players was kidding me and saying that we ought to put in a profit-sharing plan for all the team. I told him we'd be glad to do it, as long as they'd let us put in a loss-sharing plan, too."