The owner of a professional ice hockey team in Belfast has been dramatically frozen out amid a bitter fall out with his players and staff.
Star skaters from the Belfast Giants today signed for a new company that intends to use the same name and play at the same venue - the Odyssey Arena in the east of the city - but under a different management regime.
US investor Christopher Knight had bought the controlling shares in the Giants from long-term owner Jim Gillespie last November in a deal reputedly worth £145,000.
But his reign hit the rocks after just two months when the company that operates the arena - the Odyssey Trust - moved against Mr Knight after claiming “major issues” came to its attention.
The Giants won the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League title last season and lie second in the current campaign.
In its first intervention at the start of this month, the Odyssey Trust activated a clause in its contract with the Giants over the use of the arena.
It is understood both the trust and Mr Knight then entered into a holding agreement, which would have enabled the team to continue playing at the Odyssey as long as the businessman committed to selling his 90% stake.
The trust offered to purchase the Giants’ assets from Mr Knight - apparently for the £145,000 he had invested - but no deal was reached by last Friday - the deadline set by the trust.
At that point the trust terminated the holding agreement - a move which meant the company owned by Mr Knight - Belfast Giants (2008) Ltd - could no longer play at the Odyssey Arena.
Within hours of that, the players wrote to Mr Knight claiming that their contracts were no longer in effect.
The squad went on to play two games over last weekend - one of which was a charity fundraiser - on the understanding they were not contracted to any team.
Long-standing general manager of the Giants’ Todd Kelman resigned from Mr Knight’s company in the days prior to the players’ action.
Today the Odyssey Trust formed a new Belfast Giants company, prompting the playing squad and other staff to sign up en masse. Mr Kelman has been taken on as a consultant with the trust.
That apparently leaves Mr Knight as the owner of a team with no home or players.
The trust claims the naming rights of the Giants rested with an earlier company, not Mr Knight’s, and said it had now taken control of those rights.
It is understood Mr Knight retains ownership of current Giants’ merchandise products and he disputes the right of the trust to form a new team.
Brian Burke, chairman of the Odyssey Trust, insisted the future of the team was secure.
It is understood the trust, barring the emergence of another third party investor, intends to retain ownership of the team going forward.
“We became aware of major issues relating to the new owner of the Belfast Giants on February 1st,” said Mr Burke.
“We immediately moved to protect the Odyssey complex by conditionally terminating the Belfast Giants (2008) Ltd’s contract to play at the Arena while entering into a without prejudice agreement to ensure the team continued with its games and its commitment to the league and its fans until the end of the season.
“The Belfast Giants has been one of the most successful sports teams in Northern Ireland and an integral part of the success of the Odyssey Arena.”
Mr Burke said the trust has done “all in our powers to protect the integrity of the team and ensure the future of professional ice hockey in Belfast”.
He added: “Last week we offered to purchase the assets of Belfast Giants (2008) Ltd, this was not responded to leaving us with no alternative other than to secure the name and brand of the team and create a new company structure by which the team could continue to play.
“Today, the entire staff including players and administrators will be signed to an Odyssey Trust owned company permitting the team to finish the season and continue the battle to retain their title.
“This has not been an easy period for the Belfast Giants but it is highly commendable that the players, who were without contracts, fulfilled their commitment to the team’s two games this past weekend including helping to raise money for the team’s nominated charity at the match on Friday evening.
“We would also like to assure the loyal Belfast Giants’ fans that we are committed to protecting the excellent reputation and long-term future of the team.”
A lawyer for Mr Knight said her client did not want to comment on what she said were private negotiations with the trust.
“The discussions between the Odyssey Trust and Christopher Knight are confidential,” she said.