Tom Dundon was able to build his fortune without fame, found success far from the spotlight and seemed to have all the answers, even if there was no real public questioning.
“I never did any interviews and never wanted any attention,” Dundon said.
There’s no avoiding it now. Suddenly, there is a whole lot to talk about — and even more that he says he can’t talk about. In his first full season as professional sports team owner, Dundon’s Carolina Hurricanes are back in the NHL playoffs, snapping the league’s longest dry spell and drawing the spotlight to the on-ice party in one of the league’s smallest markets.
“Given where the franchise has been, just this step of getting to the playoffs and not having to talk any more, not think any more about what used to be,” Dundon said in an interview this week. “We can now be pretty focused on what we want the Hurricanes to be going forward.”
Depending on one’s viewpoint, the Hurricanes are either the feel-good story of the NHL season or an affront to hockey’s tradition of stoic celebration. And their 47-year-old owner in his first full season is either a disrupter who bought an organization in need of disruption or the leader of a “bunch of jerks.” And it’s just possible that all those things are sort of true.
“Listen, there was some shaking that needed to be done,” NBC analyst Mike Milbury said. “… Whatever the formula was that was used down there, it’s shaken out a pretty good team, a team that’s made the playoffs for the first time in forever.”
But Dundon’s soaring Q rating in the sports world is largely due to his association with the Alliance of American Football, a minor league operation that had garnered attention for its heady ambitions and quick demise. As his Hurricanes take the ice against the Washington Capitals in the opening round this week, Dundon is still picking up the pieces from his short-lived, high-priced foray into professional football.
In January he swooped in as a savior, pledging $250 million to rescue a league that was struggling to pay its bills. But less than seven weeks later, Dundon decided to pull the plug eight games into the AAF’s inaugural season, cutting his losses — estimated at $70 million — and dooming a start-up just as it was getting started.
Although rumors had been swirling, the swift ax caught many by surprise. Team and league officials were given no advance warning, and the handling of the situation has been roundly criticized. Players, coaches and team employees stopped drawing a salary immediately. Many were left stranded in cities without housing and forced to pay for flights home. Those who were injured were suddenly on the hook for necessary medical expenses.
“My thing is, I don’t know who the dude is — Tom Dundon, whatever his name is — you could have at least finished out the season, these last two games,” said Taiwan Jones, a former Michigan State player who signed with the AAF team in Memphis barely 24 hours before the league folded. “…You took that away. You could have folded this at the end of the season.”
Dundon declined to answer questions this week about the football league, citing ongoing legal issues that need to be worked out. Last week, the league put out an unsigned statement, saying: “We understand the difficulty that this decision has caused for many people and for that we are very sorry. This is not the way we wanted it to end, but we are also committed to working on solutions for all outstanding issues to the best of our ability.”
A maverick making calculated risks
The recent hockey turnaround and the football flop are among the most high-profile business dealings of Dundon’s wildly successful career. He has a net worth that has been estimated around $1 billion, built largely from working in financial services and auto lending after a failed foray into the food industry. His financial firm is based in Dallas, where he attended Southern Methodist University. His splashy venture into the sports world has garnered attention and made headlines, but his approach shouldn’t surprise anyone who followed his career marked by bold ideas, calculated decisions and big results.
“I try to measure every risk,” he said, speaking generally about business philosophy and his hockey franchise. “I don’t think we do anything that’s not measured. … I’m not a risk-taker. I’m not going to jump out of an airplane with a parachute.”
In NHL circles, Dundon has quickly established himself as a maverick of sorts, an owner who didn’t need to sit in the background or rely on an old playbook. He purchased controlling interest of the franchise for $420 million, taking over in January 2018. The franchise was floundering, struggling in the standings and in the stands.
Thirteen years had passed since Carolina’s Stanley Cup championship and 10 since its previous postseason appearance. It was time for change, even if some were uneasy about what that might mean.
“The truth is, we have a small group of very passionate fans. The job was to grow that number,” Dundon said. “So there wasn’t a lot of risk when you're on the lower end. We only had upside.”
After just a couple of months of ownership, Dundon demoted general manager Ron Francis, perhaps the franchise’s greatest player and wildly popular with fans. He was later fired, though his jersey still hangs from the rafters at PNC Arena. The coach, Bill Peters, resigned after the season. Dundon eventually gave his interim GM Don Waddell the job permanently and promoted assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was a captain on Carolina’s championship team, to head coach.
He was disruptive, challenging his staff to rethink the way it did things and scrutinize costs. Nothing was sacred, and not everything was popular. Radio play-by-play announcer Chuck Kaiton had covered the franchise since its inaugural season in 1979, moving from Hartford, Conn., to Raleigh and never missing a game. He was reportedly offered an 80 percent pay cut last spring, which was essentially an invitation to leave.
“He sees things differently and doesn’t get emotional about his decisions” is how a friend, Charlotte Jones Anderson, a Dallas Cowboys executive vice president, once explained Dundon to the Dallas Morning News.
In Dundon’s other businesses, his track record lent credibility to his new ideas. “The difference here is you come in and you want to do something different — people start off thinking, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re not a hockey person or you haven’t been in the sports business,’" he said. " … I wouldn’t want to overstate that as being difficult, just that it’s different.”
Presiding over ‘a bunch of jerks’
Dundon liked what he was seeing on the roster and behind the scenes. The team drafted Andrei Svechnikov with the second pick, signed free agent goaltender Petr Mrazek to a team-friendly one-year, $1.5 million deal and acquired winger Micheal Ferland and defenseman Dougie Hamilton in a trade with Calgary. The team later named Justin Williams its captain and would see 21-year-old Sebastian Aho continue to blossom into a dominant first-line center.
Perhaps the most visible change came following home wins this season, when the Hurricanes received considerable attention for their elaborately choreographed postgame celebrations. Players did a limbo line under a hockey stick and played duck-duck-goose on the ice. Williams used his helmet as a bowling ball, knocking down teammates lined up like pins, and a pair of players fished from the bench, reeling in a teammate flopping on the ice.
“All those little celebrations somehow managed to be a cohesive thing for them, despite getting some pretty strong criticism from up north,” Milbury said.
Old-school purists with ice in their veins weren’t amused. Canadian analyst Don Cherry called the Hurricanes “a bunch of jerks.” Rather than kowtow to traditionalists, the team responded by printing T-shirts that read “A bunch of jerks.” They sold several thousand, and the team had an identity.
“I think it’s been great,” Dundon told ESPN. “I’m glad [Cherry’s] talking about us. People don’t always talk about the Hurricanes, so I hope he keeps talking about us.”
While some bristled when the team opted to wear Hartford Whalers jerseys for a pair of games, many more started taking notice of what the Hurricanes were doing. Attendance increased more than 15 percent on the season, and according to a team official, new season ticket sales are up 260 percent from this time a year ago.
“He is a very smart guy, and he applied what worked for him in his other businesses to Carolina,” Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, said in an email. “It’s obviously worked for him.”
Reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs feels different than other business success, he said, in part because it’s a shared accomplishment and the culmination of months and months of work. “I wasn’t looking to be vindicated,” he said. “I just wanted the organization to take this step because things tend to be easier when you’re talking about the future versus the past. We don’t have to talk about the past any more.”
But people continue to talk about his role in ending the AAF midseason, even as Dundon maintains his silence on the matter.
“He was in a bad spot but it also seems like he doesn’t care,” Jones said. "He didn’t come out and make a [personal] statement or nothing because it doesn’t affect him — which it doesn’t. You have money.”
Dundon knows for now people are talking about him and his loud entrance into the sports world. That wasn’t his goal, but at least they’re talking, he figures, particularly about the future of the Hurricanes.
“When I bought the team, I realized the Carolina Hurricanes weren’t a topic of conversation in the world, and they have to be,” Dundon said. “Long-term, it needs to be about our players and our coaching. But short-term, I felt like I had to help. I think you’ll find over time that I’ll move into the shadows. The more the team is the story, the better.”
Tramel Raggs contributed to this report.
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