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Horror-themed masks part of Koules' early legacy

by Doug Karda
Halloween is usually a time for Oren Koules to scare the wits out of the movie-going public, but this time around, it also means some of the thrills and chills will help the less fortunate.

How exactly did Koules accomplish both in one fell swoop? The owner and CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning played to his strengths -- which are making horror movies and running a successful business.

Koules' latest installment of his SAW horror franchise -- SAW V -- recently hit theaters to give horror-movie fans their latest fix. For the uninitiated, SAW V revolves around Jigsaw, a vigilante mastermind who offers redemption to those who have erred significantly in life, using gut-wrenching and mind-blowing rehabilitation methods.

SAW V, like the previous installations of the Saw franchise – has played to packed houses across the country since its release last week, grossing $30.1 million.

As the new owner of the Lightning, Koules saw the opportunity to marry his passion for hockey with his love of horror, while raising money for charity. He approached Lightning goalies Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig, broaching the idea of the goalies wearing commemorative masks to promote the movie and raise money for charity.

Both goalies are now wearing SAW V-themed goalie masks for the next two weeks. Upon being retired, the masks will be auctioned off at Fans can make bids now. The proceeds from the auction will benefit Smith's The Lightning Foundation and Athletes against Autism, a charity founded by Kolzig, Byron Dafoe and Scott Mellanby.

"I was really clear that this was absolutely their choice," Koules said. "Because goalies are so fastidious and/or superstitious on what they do and don't do, I didn't want to ever make them do anything."

The entire Lightning team had the opportunity to attend a special screening of the movie during its opening weekend. Several players took Koules up on his offer and had an enjoyable movie night. It's proved to be an excellent team-building activity for a team that underwent major upheaval this offseason.

Koules was the director of that franchise upheaval, translating his lifelong obsession with hockey into ownership of the Lightning when he spearheaded the ownership group that purchased the team on June 30, 2008.

Immediately, Koules set about putting the Lightning franchise on a new story arc.

It took little time before former NHL head coach Barry Melrose was coerced away from the television studio and went behind the Lightning bench. The next order of business saw team captain Vincent Lecavalier signed to an 11-year contract extension. 

From there, several others roster changes – including the selection of Steven Stamkos with the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft – sparked an intensive effort to turn around the franchise.

Where does Koules' passion for hockey originate?

That story begins in Chicago when Koules when, at the age of 6, Koules was having some problems with his feet.

"The local foot doctor said I had bad feet and thought the high arches in figure skates would do me good," Koules said.

He gave the figure-skate prescription a try, but that effort did not last long.

"I figure skated for a little while and soon thought, 'That's not for me,' "  he said.

With that decision, a hockey player was born.

Primarily a center, he excelled from a young age and was able to continue that success throughout his youth. 

"I started playing local hockey in Chicago, had a great run and before I knew it I ended up in the Western Hockey League ... I was one of the first American players to ever skate in the Western junior leagues," Koules said.

Koules played for 5 teams during his 3-year stint in the WHL before moving on to the pro game. There, he played briefly for Saginaw in the now-defunct International Hockey League and more extensively for the Hampton Roads Gulls and Virginia Raiders in the Atlantic Coast Hockey league before retiring in 1983.

At that point, he knew it was time to move in another direction professionally. And it was another event from his childhood that planted the seeds for his transformation in a movie producer specializing in horror films. Koules will never forget the instant he officially became a true fan of the horror-movie genre. The 1973 release of The Exorcist was the defining moment for Koules

"There's only one (movie), and anyone around my age who tells you any different is crazy ... The Exorcist," he said.

Acknowledged as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, the story revolves around a 12-year old girl who becomes possessed by the devil. The film was deeply disturbing and controversial upon its release and has held up well during the past 35 years as it still delivers a deeply emotional viewing experience.

"I remember seeing The Exorcist and sleeping with my lights on for about a month," Koules said.

From there, he was hooked and embarked on a career that would one day see him produce one of the most successful horror franchises of all time. Now, he hopes to enjoy a similarly thrilling, and successful, ride as the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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