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Privateers owner optimistic deal can be reached to sell team

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The co-owner of the Watertown Privateers said Monday night that he believes a deal can be struck with a group of local investors who have expressed interest in buying the Federal Hockey League team.

Contacted Monday night by phone, Don Kirnan, who lives in the Syracuse area and is the league’s commissioner, said he hopes to meet with the group in the coming weeks to discuss a deal to sell the lower-level professional hockey team.

On Friday, local businessman Stanley H. Tibbles confirmed that he and five others have been negotiating to purchase the team from Mr. Kirnan and his daughter, Nicole J. Kirnan, who brought the Privateers to Watertown last year after the franchise played in Alexandria Bay for two seasons.

Mr. Kirnan said the two sides have not talked since an initial meeting in December.

Despite his optimism for the team, he acknowledged that the Privateers continue to lose money — but the team needs local involvement for it to succeed, he said.

“We think it can turn around with community support,” he said.

If a deal can be worked out, Mr. Kirnan said, the investors must be vetted to make sure they have the financial wherewithal to operate the team, adding that the Privateers have a $500,000 annual budget.

“We would need to see if they meet the financial obligations of the team and the league,” he said, noting that the owners could end up losing money on their initial investment.

Playing in the smallest arena in the four-team league, the Privateers need to fill every seat for every game for the team to break even, Mr. Kirnan said. They attract 400 to 500 fans each game in the 1,400-seat Watertown Ice Arena.

On Monday night, the subject of the Privateers came up during the Watertown City Council meeting, when council members talked about the process for a franchise agreement for a team to play at the city-owned ice arena at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.

The investors also are being courted by a Palm Bay, Fla., man who would like the group to start a new team in Watertown and join his new league, the North Atlantic Professional Hockey League. But Mr. Tibbles said Friday that he and the other investors would consider joining that league only “as a fallback position,” if the Privateers and the Federal Hockey League fold. Mr. Tibbles could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Nevertheless, council members appeared more interested in remaining with the Privateers, saying that it would be too risky to get involved in a team in a new league. If more than one team were to express interest in playing at the Watertown arena, the city would be required to go out to bid.

Erin E. Gardner, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent, said she expects the city will start working as soon as today on putting together a bid process.

Last year, the Privateers came to Watertown with much fanfare after playing in the Bonnie Castle Recreation Center. Now, there is some doubt whether the team or the four-team league can survive for another season. It may depend on luring other teams into the league, with the need to suit up to six or eight teams, Mr. Kirnan said.

A group in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been talking with league officials about establishing a team. Groups in Wisconsin, Long Island and the Pittsburgh area also have approached the league, he said.

Mr. Kirnan’s daughter, Nicole, who recently had a baby and now lives in Syracuse, has had a less visible role in the team, he said. And the Privateers, who play a 56-game season, fired coach and general manager Brad Zangs on Feb. 20 after the team went through a nine-game losing streak. He was replaced by two Privateers players, Brent Clarke as the interim head coach and Kris McCarthy as general manager.

Mr. Kirnan said Monday night that he was not satisfied with the job that Mr. Zangs was doing as general manager in getting the team exposure and community support.

Earlier this season, the hockey team also received some bad publicity after Danbury, Conn., coach Philip P. Esposito Jr., 43, of East Haven, Conn., was arrested on two counts of harassment and endangering the welfare of a child after allegedly pushing a Watertown woman and her 7-year-old daughter following the Jan. 1 game against the Privateers.

City officials also confirmed that a fight broke out two weeks ago in the lobby of the arena between the Privateers and the opposing team. Mrs. Gardner said the scuffle happened in front of fans while they were leaving, but she did not have any other information about the incident.

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