Less than two months after coming into Columbus promising to revolutionize minor league hockey, the Southern Professional Hockey League has broken off talks with a New York City businessman seeking ownership in the league.
Fidel Jenkins, chairman of Residential World Media, had been working to acquire SPHL rights to the Columbus market. His plan was to replace the Columbus Cottonmouths, an SPHL franchise that ceased operations in June, with the Columbus Burn.
Thursday afternoon, that speculation ended as SPHL Commissioner Jim Combs said Jenkins was out of the picture as a possible owner, even though Jenkins had previously announced he was going to name his team the Columbus Burn.
“We are no longer considering Fidel Jenkins for membership into the SPHL,” Combs said. “It was a decision made this morning by the Board of Governors to terminate his application.”
Jenkins had been talking to the league about a franchise prior to Columbus Cottonmouths ceasing operations at the end of its most recent season. Last month, Columbus Council agreed to lease the Civic Center to Jenkins for a hockey team, which he did not own at the time.
City Manager Isaiah Hugley said Civic Center Director Jon Dorman told him Wednesday that there were potential issues with Jenkins’ attempt to reach a deal with the SPHL.
“Mr. Jenkins has a lease with the city if he is able to reach an agreement with the SPHL,” Hugley said. “If he is not able to reach an agreement with the SPHL but is able to reach an agreement with another hockey league, we can amend the agreement. If he is not able to reach an agreement with the SPHL or another hockey league, then we do not have an agreement because he does not have a hockey team.”
Jenkins, when first contacted on Thursday by the Ledger-Enquirer, said any information regarding the SPHL would have to come from the league. After Combs confirmed the league was no longer considering Jenkins’ application, the prospective owner said he would continue to work toward bringing hockey to the Columbus Civic Center.
“My position is I have a lease and I am going to do everything I can to bring a team to Columbus,” Jenkins said.
He said he would pursue other leagues, including the East Coast Hockey League.
“I am not going to back away from my commitment to the plan and the city,” Jenkins said. “We had a disagreement with the SPHL. They are good guys, but we just had a disagreement.”
As the Cottonmouths were disbanding, Jenkins came into Columbus and presented a plan to keep professional hockey here.
In June, Jenkins made an undisclosed payment to the league that allowed him to participate in part of the annual league meetings. After attending those meetings, he came to Columbus on June 20 and met with prospective advertisers and sponsors, many of whom had worked with the Cottonmouths. He outlined a plan that involved incentives and give-aways for fans attending games. He also revealed a new logo and team name.
The plan was for the team to miss the 2017-18 season and start play in the 2018-19 season.
The Cottonmouths name and logo are still owned by Wanda Amos, who sold her franchise rights to the new team in Birmingham and the Columbus market rights went back to the league.
In June, Combs said Jenkins had financial deadlines he had to meet to get the Columbus franchise. The league has refused to say how much money was involved, but Combs said in June the final deadline was Aug. 1.
Combs would not discuss the details or financial arrangements with Jenkins, but it is clear when it came time for the money to change hands, it didn’t happen.
Jenkins said he transferred payment to the league from a business payroll account, but later stopped that payment after the league changed the terms of the deal.
Jenkins on Thursday confirmed the original franchise fee was $125,000 and the league changed it to $300,000.
“This is not a money issue for us,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said there were typos and mistakes in the second contract that the SPHL sent to him more than a week ago.
“We don’t transfer large sums of money without a signed contract,” Jenkins said.
Columbus Cottonmouths general manager and coach Jerome Bechard, who was not involved in Jenkins’ ownership bid, said it was unfortunate nothing could be worked out.
“At the end of day and more than three months of getting people’s hopes up, it is unfortunate that it does not look like there will be hockey,” Bechard said.
Bechard has been involved in Columbus hockey as a player, coach and executive since 1996 when the franchise was formed. One of the reasons that Amos ceased operations was the team consistently lost money over its 21 seasons, including the 17 years she owned the club.
“Maybe there is an opportunity in another league,” Bechard said. “But we tried the ECHL. It’s a great league and great hockey, but we couldn’t make it work. It is tough to sustain a team in that league.”