Steinbrenner was tough sell for NHL

George Steinbrenner was already well established as a cantankerous Yankees owner in 1982 when he looked into buying the NHL's struggling Colorado Rockies franchise. He was not received warmly.

Can you imagine The Boss as a hands-on NHL owner?

Neither could the NHL, apparently.

Already well-established as a cantankerous owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner in early 1982 met with Peter Gilbert, who was looking to offload his struggling Colorado Rockies franchise at the time.

While Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at the age of 80, always had a multitude of interests on the go, the timing of his Rockies meeting seemed curious given the fissures that were appearing with the New York Yankees.

Just months earlier, the baseball team had imploded in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Steinbrenner would rip Dave Winfield for his post-season performance and issue a public apology to Yankees fans.

Most notoriously, he emerged before the final game of the Series with dark shades and a cast on his left hand — the result, he said, of an altercation in an elevator with a pair of young Dodgers fans. The pair in question were never located.

The 1982 season was even worse. Steinbrenner fired manager Bob Lemon after 14 games, and Lemon's replacement, Gene Michael, wouldn't last either in the dugout. Clyde King finished the campaign as skipper as New York dropped to fifth in the AL East.

(Most baseball observers in retrospect point to the 1981 Series defeat as the beginning of a long decline for the Yankees, although in later years, Steinbrenner was always quick to point out that his club had the American League's best regular-season record in the 1980s).

'No support' from NHL owners

There was much doubt as to whether Steinbrenner had a sincere interest in owning a hockey team. He had owned the Cleveland franchise in the American Basketball League in the early 1960s, and had long counted football as his favourite sport, but never had a serious connection with hockey.

Cynics suggested he was just looking to make life difficult for Houston Astros owner John McMullen, who'd already expressed some interest in the struggling Rockies franchise.

McMullen in the 1970s had been a minority partner with the New York Yankees, but in the Bronx, he had never been a trusted consigliere of Steinbrenner and was shunted aside.

McMullen sold his interest in the Yankees, uttering the famous phrase, "I came to realize there is nothing in life quite so limited as being a limited partner of George."

The NHL governors at the time didn't appear to want any part of Steinbrenner, even if he was sincere.

"George has no overall support from the owners," an anonymous source told the New York Times. "He's not the type of person we want to deal with. If there were a vote on him now, he'd lose 19-2."

Trusted Lamoriello

It was assumed that one of the "Yay" votes would be cast by Steinbrenner's friend William Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks. The pair knew each other through the Chicago Bulls, of which Steinbrenner bought a seven per cent interest just months before getting involved in the Yankees.

It's believed that Wirtz and even McMullen were later quick to get on the phone with Steinbrenner in 1991, such was the interest in the NHL having a franchise in Florida.

At the time, Phil Esposito's expansion bid for the Tampa Bay Lightning was beginning to crumble financially, and Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident, was one of a number of people coming forward to prop it up, with a stake of less than 10 per cent.

McMullen in 1999 sold the Devils to holding company YankeeNets, which would help forge Steinbrenner's biggest connection to the NHL, a lasting friendship with Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils.

Unlike his promise to concentrate on his ship-building empire and not the Yankees in 1973, Steinbrenner never meddled in the hockey affairs of the Devils.

"I'm busy with the Yankees; I want to leave the Devils alone," Steinbrenner told the Times. "I'm not a stranger to hockey. Back in Cleveland, I was associated with its American Hockey League team, the Barons. I've had people tell me, 'It's not like you not to be involved with the Devils,' but it is like me because the Devils are in good hands.''

Steinbrenner appeared yet again to be full of bluster with respect to his connection with the Barons, but he never said a bad word about Lamoriello in the years to come.

Steinbrenner said he knew about Lamoriello by reputation for years before meeting him, through mutual connection Rev. Joseph Taylor, who was associate athletic director at Providence College, where Lamoriello coached for over a decade before joining the Devils.

Steinbrenner even persuaded Lamoriello to help sort out the NBA's New Jersey Nets during one of their frequent periods of struggle, and the pair were often seen together at Yankees and Devils games.

After learning of Steinbrenner's death on Tuesday, Lamoriello said in a statement that the relationship had been an "exceptional one."