Since becoming majority owner of the Carolina Hurricanes in January 2018, Tom Dundon has been one of the NHL's most unconventional owners. Look no further than the team's choreographed victory celebrations, which have ranged from players competing in "duck, duck, goose" to human bowling.
On Tuesday, Dundon continued down an uncommon path: He invested $250 million to become chairman of the Alliance of American Football, the new eight-team spring pro league that debuted to strong ratings and reviews. The NHL told ESPN that Dundon didn't need its permission to take on the role, nor were they concerned that the financial commitment would adversely affect the Hurricanes.
The ESPN on Ice podcast interviewed Dundon on Tuesday to discuss the AAF, whether he sees an NFL merger or takeover, as well as the state of the Hurricanes and the recent comments by Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry about the team's victory celebrations, calling them "a bunch of jerks."
ESPN: What inspired you to get involved with the Alliance of American Football?
Tom Dundon: I had seen the deal when they were conceptualizing the league. It wasn't something that I would do, because there were so many questions about the quality of football and all the things that come up when you try to start something new. Once it went on TV, looked great, got good ratings, I talked to people that were supportive of it. At the same time, through mutual acquaintances, I understood they had a need for someone like me to step in. It all came together on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. I wish it was more thought out than that, but it was that simple.
ESPN: There were reports of payroll issues with the league in Week 1. Did your investment directly cover those costs? How does that work, as far as where the money goes?
Dundon: It's a little sloppy to say that on the payroll side. But I provide capital, and they have bills to pay. To directly correlate one to the other might not be right, but I made my investment on Thursday and people get paid on Friday. There were other people the league was talking to and they had other commitments from investors. I can't perfectly say what would have happened if I hadn't [invested], but I know I invested on Thursday.
ESPN: This league has backing from CBS and Charlie Ebersol. It debuted to general favorable reactions, but had some financial trouble early on. What makes the AAF a solid investment?
Dundon: When startups raise capital, that's just how it is. You raise capital, hit certain milestones, you raise more capital. I would say that separating between the committed capital, and whether people were able to fund that capital, and how successful they were in quality of football and the ratings ... they have good players and coaches and good technology. It looked great on TV. I'm actually glad that there was an opportunity that was created for whatever reason, based on how their capital structure was set up.
ESPN: The football was good. It's not like when the XFL debuted and then people immediately started trashing its product. People are excited there's a spring league.
Dundon: And it's growing. It's growing.
ESPN: But to hearken back to other startups in football: You think about the USFL, and one of the goals from some owners was to eventually get absorbed into the NFL. When you get involved with the AAF, do you envision this as an endgame scenario for the league? That perhaps the NFL decides to get into the spring football business and takes the AAF over as a feeder league?
Dundon: That wasn't in anything that's crossed my mind. For whatever reason, people love American football. They watch it. There are enough good players -- about 1 percent of college players make it to the NFL. Now, with our league, maybe 2 percent of players get to play. It's viable just to be a support or development area for players whose ultimate goal is to get to the NFL. This league only exists because of the NFL's success. If the NFL had wanted to do it, they had the wherewithal to do it. I don't think about them as someone to buy a league. I think about them this as "let's just create a league, because it was a compelling thing to do."
ESPN: Thirteen months ago, you took majority ownership of the Carolina Hurricanes. Now you're the chairman of a professional football league. What are your other aspirations in sports? Do you want to partner with the NFL one day?
Dundon: I have no idea. I didn't even think about doing this until Wednesday morning. When the next thing comes up, I'll look at it. But my favorite thing to focus on is the Hurricanes. That's enough for me right now.
ESPN: Speaking of the Hurricanes, there are people that are going to see the financial commitment to the AAF and worry about what that means for your investment in the Carolina Hurricanes. Does one correlate with the other at all?
Dundon: No. Zero. I wouldn't do anything that would affect my ability to give us the best chance to win with the Hurricanes. This has no impact, whatsoever.
ESPN: You're obviously someone with a good handle on your time management. We have to imagine you can own the Hurricanes and the AAF at the same time, yes?
Dundon: Obviously, Roddy [coach Rod Brind'Amour] doesn't need my help. Don [Waddell, the general manager] doesn't need my help. I want to help them where I can. A lot of the things we needed to do to set up the Carolina Hurricanes for success, a lot of that has been done, in no small part to who is doing the work now. I have a lot less to worry about when you have Rob Brind'Amour. I trust him so much. I trust him, I trust Don, and I've gotten familiar with many people in the organization and how things work. I spent a lot of time absorbing and understanding, to see what we could do for them to give them the best chance. We're up the learning curve pretty far now. The amount of time I've been spending on it is much less.
ESPN: We're six days from the NHL trade deadline. The Hurricanes have the longest playoff drought in the NHL. Where do you stand on the state of the team?
Dundon: They've done great. I'm happy for them, because they've all worked so hard. They deserve to have success. I'm hoping, like all our other fans, that it continues. But look: These players are not the reason for the last nine years. The last nine years had nothing to do with these people today. All they can control is today. Everybody is doing the best they can to win the next game. If they do, they do; if they don't, they don't. I'm going to be super frustrated if we lose a game or give up a goal or don't make the playoffs, but it doesn't have much to do with what happened last year or 10 years ago.
ESPN: So what about the trade deadline?
Dundon: It's an interesting time, right? We're in a spot where it can go lots of different ways. We'll take in all the information and make a good decision. We're fully committed to trying to win. Rod's really happy, he's told me repeatedly. He appreciates the effort and the people in the locker room. Right now, I can tell you that he doesn't need anything. He's happy with what he's got. That's our starting point. We'll have conversations in the next week and we'll see where it goes. But I don't think we have a huge incentive to do any one thing right now outside of listening.
ESPN: You have a decision coming up this summer on restricted free agent Sebastian Aho, the 21-year-old who leads your team with 67 points in 59 games. Did your life become easier or harder when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Auston Matthews, also scheduled to become a restricted free agent, to that five-year extension?
Dundon: [Laughs] I don't really know. I know he's going to play for us. I don't know how we're going to get it done, but we're going to get it done. I think all the other teams are going to run their teams like they're going to run their teams. Whatever they do, they do.
ESPN: Finally, we have to ask about Don Cherry. The "Hockey Night in Canada" commentator has again attacked your team's postgame victory celebrations at home, claiming they're meant to embarrass opponents who aren't even on the ice at the time. When you see the clip of Cherry calling your team "a bunch of jerks," what's going through your mind?
Dundon: I actually enjoyed it. I've listened to a couple of his things. I can't say I'm totally familiar, but I've seen enough where I know that he's good for hockey and entertaining and he cares. I enjoy it. Nobody wants someone to think ill of them. But I'm not malicious, and I know that our players aren't. I don't think that it's accurate that we're doing it and anyone's harmed. And if I did, we wouldn't do it. I think it's been great. I'm glad he's talking about us. People don't always talk about the Hurricanes, so I hope he keeps talking about us. I'll still listen to him. He gets to say whatever he wants to say.
ESPN: You're selling "Bunch of Jerks" shirts now. You're monetizing that outrage. You are Kevin Bacon and he is the town elders in "Footloose." This has got to be good for business.
Dundon: Anytime someone's talking about you, I think it's good. Look, people were critical of the Whalers Night we had, saying 'Oh, you're just doing it to sell T-shirts.' But let's be honest: You don't make a lot of money selling T-shirts and clothes. That's not how I pay the bills. I'm glad it exists. I'm glad for the opportunity. But it's not about selling the T-shirts. It's about that the people who buy those T-shirts enjoy it. They get to enjoy the Hurricanes and enjoy the sport. We don't have to control what people say about us, we just have to react.