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Phil Kenner could skate like the wind and had a shot that frustrated many a goalie. He was a star on one of the best teams in the 104-year history of Nichols School hockey and was good enough to earn a scholarship in 1987 to play at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation’s top college hockey programs.

The Amherst native never accomplished his dream of playing in the National Hockey League, but he found another way to get close to hockey stars – as a financial adviser, helping them to invest their millions.

At least 28 NHL players, including several who starred for the Buffalo Sabres, hired Kenner to handle their money or joined with him on business deals. But hockey stars don’t trust Kenner with their money anymore.

Many have filed civil suits, claiming he stole money from them.

And the 44-year-old Kenner has been in jail in New York City since mid-November, after federal prosecutors charged him and a former business partner, Tommy C. Constantine, with swindling 13 current and former NHL players out of $15 million.

Kenner, who had been living in Scottsdale, Ariz., and also spending time at a villa at a Mexican golf resort, pleaded not guilty.

The players are not identified by name in the federal indictment. So far, Bryan Berard, a retired New York Islanders defenseman, is the only player who publicly acknowledges that he is one of the victims.

“I was impressed that Phil was a really smart guy,” Berard said, “He seemed like a real friend. I thought I could trust him. All the guys did.”

But court documents from the civil cases identify at least 28 former Kenner clients, including former Sabres Michael Peca, Jason Woolley, Jay McKee, Brian Campbell and Joe Juneau.

Kenner is accused in the federal indictment of looting money from hockey players’ accounts after convincing them to invest millions in a Hawaii real estate development, a prepaid debit card company called Eufora and other ventures.

“Rather than investing the money as promised, Kenner and Constantine used it to fund personal real estate purchases, pay personal expenses and pay down debts necessary to conceal the scheme,” prosecutors charged.

Kenner and his partner are even accused of scamming hockey players into thinking they were getting scammed by someone else, a golf course developer working on a project in Mexico. Prosecutors say Kenner convinced players to contribute $4.1 million to a legal fund that they would use for litigation against the developer. Much of that money was used for other purposes, including Kenner’s personal investment in a Mexican tequila company, prosecutors say.

Peca and Campbell were two of the Kenner clients who invested in the Mexican golf course, according to documents filed in a civil case in Los Angeles in 2009.

A judge held Kenner without bail after federal prosecutors said Kenner threatened a government witness with physical injury. They also alleged that Kenner has told people that he has money stashed in several cities, and on a moment’s notice, he could take a duffel bag filled with cash and escape to Australia if he had to.

“Phillip Kenner spun a web of lies, deceit and broken promises that stretched from Hawaii to Mexico to the East End of Long Island,” charged U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch of New York City. She said Kenner stole the money from hockey friends and financed an “extravagant lifestyle” for himself.

“He wove himself into the lives of these players. He knew some of them for 15 years,” said Thomas Harvey, a New York City attorney who represents a businessman allegedly victimized by Kenner. “Phil Kenner stood up in the players’ weddings, or went to birthday parties for their kids. He’s cunning and calculating.”

Kenner denies all wrongdoing.

He says that he is the innocent victim of a huge, complex conspiracy. He told The Buffalo News in a recent letter from jail that media reports about his case – the Daily News, the New York Post and other New York City media have carried the story – have been “one-sided” against him. The victims of what happened are “me and my family,” he said.

His attorney, a federal public defender from Long Island, declined to comment.

Who is the real Phillip A. Kenner? And how did the pee wee hockey star in Amherst become the central figure in a scandalous case involving NHL players?

•••

Hard-driving father

The Buffalo News spoke to more than 20 people ­— including family members, friends, alleged victims and individuals from the world of hockey – who know Kenner. These interviews portray a slick, smooth-talking man with an intense thirst for money who moved into the world of finance after he was unable to reach the top level of hockey.

Kenner’s father, Evan Kenner, was one of those over-the-top hockey dads who loved the game and desperately wanted his talented son to play in the NHL, according to Nancy Kenner, the second of Evan Kenner’s two ex-wives. Evan died at 51 in 1997.

She said Evan Kenner, a private investigator, loved his son and provided well for him, but added that he had a hot temper and would explode in anger if he was unhappy with the efforts of Phil and his younger brother, Bobby, who also played hockey.

“Evan would get angry and smash things in the house, even our antique clocks,” said Nancy Kenner, who was the stepmother to Phil and his brother. “Sometimes, Phil was so afraid that he would run outside and hide in a field until his father cooled down.”

Bobby Kenner got worse treatment than Phil, because he was not nearly as talented a player, Nancy Kenner said.

She recalled that Evan Kenner would get angry with Phil’s coaches if he didn’t feel his son was getting enough playing time.

“Evan was always calling the coaches at Nichols and RPI, and if they wouldn’t take his call, he would dictate a letter,” Nancy Kenner said.

Similar recollections came from several family friends, including Peter M. Vito, a Buffalo private investigator who was Evan Kenner’s business partner for several years in the late 1970s.

“Our families spent a lot of time together,” Vito recalled. “Phil was Evan’s pride and joy. But Evan was a tyrant. He’d push Phil really hard from 5 a.m. until midnight to make him a better hockey player.”

Kenner was “an extremely talented player,” said Peter Ciavaglia, who met Kenner at age 7 and played with him on the Buffalo Regals, the Wheatfield Blades and on the Nichols team. Ciavaglia, a speedy center who played briefly with the Sabres in the early 1990s, remembered that the Kenners had a big, beautiful home with tennis courts in the backyard.

Les Kuntar, who played goalie on the Nichols team, said Kenner came from a wealthy family and was a “charming, charismatic” person in high school.

“He was a good-looking kid and definitely a smooth talker,” Kuntar said.

Another former Nichols teammate recalled that Phil Kenner sometimes had “serious arguments” with his father and wound up spending weekends with the families of other hockey players.

Kenner was a star on some of Nichols’ best teams ever, including the 1985-86 team that went undefeated. His hockey future looked very promising when RPI awarded him a scholarship in 1987, just two years after RPI won the national championship for National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I schools.

But on an RPI roster loaded with talent, Kenner was just another player. He scored 18 goals over a span of four years, and no NHL team drafted him. He played one game with the Lakeland Ice Warriors, a minor league team in Florida, and was out of hockey by 1993.

But Kenner made a valuable connection during his disappointing college hockey career. His best friend, teammate and roommate at RPI was Joe Juneau, a Quebec native who did make it to the NHL. Juneau had a solid NHL career, playing 13 seasons, scoring 156 goals and starring for the Canadian team that won a Silver Medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics.

Juneau, according to the HockeyZonePlus hockey website, made just under $20 million over the course of his NHL career. Phil Kenner stood up as best man at Juneau’s wedding.

After that, Kenner became Juneau’s financial adviser.

•••

Trusted by NHL players

Many NHL players come from small towns in Canada or other countries. Many have no more than a high school education, and some, because of the time they devote to hockey, haven’t even finished high school.

The typical NHL rookie has lots of money and little knowledge about how to handle it. In other words – according to Berard, Ciavaglia and Kuntar – they’re easy targets for unscrupulous financial advisers.

“They’re living large,” said Kuntar, a Williamsville resident who played six years of minor league hockey and very briefly in the NHL. “I was never on that level financially, but I knew guys that had … $30,000 paychecks sitting on the dresser in their room for three months. They had no idea what was going on. There are guys coming from all over the world, and it’s a shame some people take advantage of them.”

After a phenomenal career as an amateur, Berard was the first pick in the entire NHL entry draft in 1995, signing a contract that paid him $2.55 million over his first three years. Kenner began recruiting him as a client when he was 17, about a year before the draft, he said.

Kenner and his boss at the time, former Boston Bruins star Derek Sanderson, came to visit him and his parents in 1994, Berard said. Kenner and Sanderson were working for a financial firm in Boston.

“They knew I was about to be coming into some money,” Berard said, “so they came to recruit me. Phil seemed to be a really nice guy, and it was nice to meet Derek.”

Sanderson – who has not been implicated in any of the crimes alleged against Kenner – still works as a financial adviser in Boston. He said he met Kenner “through Joe Juneau.” He recalled that Kenner impressed him as “intelligent, young and energetic” and said he saw no signs of dishonesty in him. Sanderson said Kenner worked with him for four years, leaving “very suddenly” to work with another financial firm.

Berard said he invested some of his money through Sanderson and Kenner, and later Kenner became his sole financial adviser. Kenner would sometimes meet Berard on the road, going out with him for dinner or beers, and getting to know other players.

Watching Kenner handling financial matters for Berard and Juneau, other NHL players signed on with Kenner.

“Hockey players are simple, basic guys,” said Berard, 36. “They see a teammate trusting a guy, and other guys are likely to sign up with him, too.”

Over the years, an impressive list of players signed on with Kenner. According to civil court papers, the players included Peca, a former team captain who was one of the most popular Sabres ever; Campbell, a former Sabre who made several NHL all-star teams and is still a top defenseman in the league; McKee, a tough former defenseman for the Sabres; Sergei Gonchar, a stellar defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins and other teams; and Owen Nolan, whose 422 career goals rank him as the 73rd-leading goal scorer in NHL history.

These players made a lot of money. Campbell has made more than $33 million since 2002, according to published reports. Peca made $24.7 million in a career that ended in 2009. McKee made $17.5 million, retiring in 2008. Gonchar, who is still playing, has made more than $55 million. Nolan made a total of $43 million before retiring four years ago.

Berard made a total of $14.6 million before retiring in 2008. He told The News that he now believes Kenner stole about $3 million of that money.

“Phil and I would go on ski trips. He seemed like a real friend,” Berard said. “In hindsight, I should have seen he was the type of guy who was on his own and didn’t care about other people.”

•••

“A California guy”

Peca, McKee, Campbell and Woolley all declined to comment on their associations with Kenner. Juneau could not be reached for comment.

Former Sabre Matt Barnaby recalls Kenner “hanging around” the Sabres after games and trying to make friendships when Barnaby played for the team in the 1990s.

To Barnaby, Kenner seemed more like a laid-back “California guy” – wearing shorts and casual clothes – than someone who used “hard-sell” techniques.

“I knew he was from up here, but he had that California attitude,” Barnaby said. “He would try to fit in. He tried to be your buddy and gain your trust.”

Barnaby didn’t invest with Kenner.

“He seemed like he was that guy who was into something that was too good to be true,” Barnaby said of Kenner. “We see these guys all the time. We see get-rich schemes.”

•••

The unraveling

It all began to unravel for Kenner around 2008, when some of the players – and even his friend, Juneau – began filing lawsuits against him, accusing him of mishandling their money. Juneau filed his suit in federal court in Los Angeles.

“Kenner perpetrated a series of investment scams against Juneau,” the lawsuit alleged.

Juneau claimed that Kenner “secretly controlled” many of the businesses that he convinced Juneau to invest in. He alleged that Kenner received “secret interests and kick-backs” from the investments. He accused his former best man of secretly withdrawing money from Juneau’s brokerage accounts for his “own personal use.” The Juneau lawsuit was resolved out of court in 2010.

Another lawsuit was filed in 2008 by former Edmonton Oilers captain Ethan Moreau, who alleged that, while promoting the Mexican golf course venture, Kenner “hosted lavish parties and flew potential investors to Mexico in private planes.” Moreau also resolved his lawsuit with Kenner out of court.

In a ruling that was upheld by an Arizona appeals court in 2011, Nolan received a $2.7 million arbitration award against Kenner.

“None of our deals with Kenner ever paid off, and he would have excuses every time,” Berard said. “It was never his fault. He’d blame someone else.”

After the flurry of civil lawsuits against Kenner, federal agents took an interest and began a criminal investigation.

Berard provided documents to the feds and has worked closely with investigators for two years.

“I’ll be a witness in the trial,” he said.

Some of the alleged victims say Kenner enjoyed a life of luxury and expensive travel. One of his business partners was Constantine, a convicted drug dealer who drove race cars on a racing team sponsored by Playboy magazine. One document filed in Juneau’s lawsuit features dozens of photographs of Constantine and his cars, surrounded by Playboy “bunnies.” Constantine, who had a falling-out with Kenner in recent years, also denies allegations of criminal activity and any other wrongdoing related to the alleged swindling.

Kenner “drove nice cars and had a 5,500-square-foot home in Arizona” worth a small fortune, said John R. Kaiser, one of Kenner’s alleged victims. “But he did it with other peoples’ money.”

Last year, federal prosecutors filed a legal action in Arizona, seeking forfeiture of Kenner’s Scottsdale home.

Kaiser, 46, of Long Island, is a former New York City police officer who has known Kenner since 2002, traveled with him and worked on business projects with him in Hawaii and California. Like Berard, he now holds Kenner in the lowest regard, and he too plans to testify against Kenner.

“Phil is a complete sociopath, a pathological liar,” Kaiser said. “He will tailor his approach to each individual that he deals with, and will use anybody.”

Kaiser said Kenner will not hesitate to make up stories about hockey players and other associates, in order to protect himself.

When Kaiser was asked how well he knew Kenner, he said: “In hindsight, I guess I didn’t know him at all.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com and bgleason@buffnews.com