Jeff Vinik, Lightning’s Extraordinary Owner

On February 5, 2010, the NHL approved the sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning from a partnership known as OK Hockey to a former hedge fund manager by the name of Jeffrey Vinik. The sale price was reported to be approximately $170 million.

In his first press conference as new owner of the Lightning, Vinik said “I will do everything in my power to bring a world-class organization to the community, both on the ice and off the ice. I am going to put the resources forth that are necessary to making this a successful organization.”

In this day and age, it is rare that such a high profile individual would not only keep his word but the resources required in many instances came from Vinik’s own bank account.

Cowboys Run Amok

To turn the franchise around was no easy task for Vinik. Saying the organization was in shambles was putting it lightly. The joke around Tampa at the time was that the ownership group should have been called NOT OK Hockey.

Oren Koules and Len Barrie were the principals of the organization and the two people Vinik bought out when he purchased the franchise. Yes, these two somehow drafted Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman but in all frankness, it’s pretty hard to screw the pooch with the number one pick and the number two pick in successive drafts.

After those two draft decisions, a person would be hard pressed to find another decision by this group that simply wasn’t a blunder. Hire a coach for 16 games? Done. Try to raise money from investors without telling the CEO? Next. Fire the only coach that brought a Stanley Cup victory to the franchise? Done and done. Sign an aging Vinny Lecavalier to an franchise choking 11 year contract that paved the way for his departure from Tampa? It’s OK with OK Hockey.

Upon his termination, John Tortorella called Koules and Barrie “cowboys” in as derisive a manner as that word was ever used. It stuck. People in the NHL, in Tampa and the Lightning fan base all began calling these dunderheads, cowboys in the most unflattering tones.

Vinik Saves the Day, the Franchise

The franchise was circling the drain five short years from the only Stanley Cup in the team’s history. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had to on more than one occasion, step in to put the two cowboys in timeout.

Guess we should not have been surprised by the Vinik comments after the purchase about creating a world-class culture. Then, after careful consideration, after a few weeks Vinik makes an incredibly substantive decision.  He hires Hall of Fame player and current Detroit Red Wing Vice President, Steve Yzerman as the new Lightning Vice President and General Manager.

Vinik is secure in the knowledge that the Yzerman hire takes care of the on-ice part of the operation. Now, he turns his focus to the off-ice portion of his new franchise and hits another home run with his second big decision by hiring Tod Lieweke as the CEO of the organization.

In the highest levels of professional sports management, Tod Lieweke is not only a known but highly respected executive. Lieweke has an impressive resume that show tenure and success in various professional sports leagues. He was the CEO of the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL, President of the Minnesota Wild in the NHL and President of the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA. Apparently, Lieweke doesn’t know enough sabermetrics to get a call from an MLB team.

Community Hero

The first two hires must have seemed like a walk in the park for Vinik when faced with the ruins of his predecessors, OK Hockey.  Attendance, along with fan interest around town was down. The damage to the brand was palpable.

In the deal for the team, Vinik takes ownership of the building now known as Amalie Arena. Opened in 1996 as the Ice Palace, the building looked every bit its 15 years. Vinik did not hesitate to put a substantial amount of his own money to upgrade the barn.

Pouring approximately $35 million into this makeover resulted in a plethora of new items in the arena such as a huge digital theatre organ, an 11,000 square foot party deck and a new digital video board above center ice that is the largest indoor video display in North America. Then in a stroke of brilliance, the installation of two Tesla coils. Any NHL team can sound a goal horn, the Lightning is the only team that shoots out electrical discharges.

Hard as it may seem to believe, there was still more to do but the direction of Vinik’s vision was taking hold. The next bold move was the implementation of the Tampa Community Hero. In 2011, Vinik and his wife, Penny, began the Lightning Foundation that honors a local community hero and donates $50,000 to the non-profit of their choice at every single home game.

In case your calculator isn’t working, that is upwards of $2 million a season. The foundation will exceed the $10 million mark in the upcoming season. Every single home game, a person who is doing good work in the Tampa community gets the $50,000 for their charitable or non-profit organizations.

This is the part of the article to remind everyone of Vinik’s pledge to build a “world-class organization”. With little fanfare outside of Tampa, without tooting his horn, Vinik has developed a strong foundation for the prototypical NHL world-class franchise.

Prospects are Good

During Vinik’s ownership, his building has been in the top five of busiest arenas in the United States. He used his own money to renovate his building. Imagine a professional sports team owner in this day that doesn’t go hat in hand to local and state government looking for money to help his franchise. No ultimatums to the voting citizens, no city or county tax to offset his costs. Just rolled up his sleeves and made it happen.

Let us not forget that the on-ice portion of the organization did pretty well this season. Runner up in the Stanley Cup Final as the youngest team by average age in the NHL playoffs is mighty impressive. Reports from both local and national media began talking about a window of Stanley Cup opportunity that exists for this team.

Vinik, Lieweke and Yzerman are a popular triumvirate in the greater Tampa Bay area. Their team is winning, their arena is first class, and the excitement of the recent team success is contagious and the community doesn’t want the antidote. Attendance is top ten in the NHL and climbing.

The day he purchased the team, Vinik said he would make this organization something that this town could be proud of and after the un-OK cowboys, this required yeoman’s work. People might view everything Vinik has done here with a shrug of their shoulders but it warrants more. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Hall of Fame player and Lightning founder, Phil Esposito talk about how important Vinik is to this town and team.

The accomplishments are impressive. Perhaps, even noteworthy as Vinik finished his first half decade as the Lightning owner but I have a different word. I’d use extraordinary. It went beyond just talk. He blew way past just lip service. When he realized his building needed more than just duct tape, he didn’t ask his community for help. He dug into his own very deep pockets and paid the piper.

Knowing all this was done in the span of five short years, I’d call it extraordinary. Well above average. When your organization has this kind of extraordinary run, can world-class be that far behind?