Tampa Bay Lightning CEO and minority owner Tod Leiweke in his own words
As we have said in the past when long interviews are conducted for what are relatively short newspaper stories, a lot gets left on the cutting room floor. With that in mind, here is the entire transcript of what new Lightning chief executive officer and minority owner Tod Leiweke said in a phone conversation on Monday.
Leiweke, 50, who comes from the NFL's Seahawks, had lots to say about helping the fans enjoy the games more. He also spoke about why he decided to leave Seattle and his life-long love of hockey; growing up in St. Louis he was a Blues fan.
On coming to the Lightning: "I’m a life-long hockey fan, and as a kid I played it. I still go out and skate in a beer league. Jeff Vinik from the first time I talked to the guy I knew he was going to be a very successful owner because he had the right orientation about how you do it and do it right by looking out for the fans, and ultimately building a winning culture. And when Steve Yzerman and I spoke. I remember being a little nervous when I got him on the phone. He’s a guy I have admired him for so many years and the thought of getting a chance to work with the guy was pretty cool. I’ve done some interesting stuff in my career. I’ve taken things on. We started a team from scratch twice in the last 10 years with the Sounders and the Minnesota Wild. So I’m not intimidated, but a chance to do it with Steve and a chance to do it with Jeff and to have a rooting interest in the ownership piece is really cool as well. When everything added up, all the arrows said it’s the right thing for me. But I also wouldn’t be doing this is if I didn’t think we could get it to work on the highest level, and I’m going to give it everything I've got."
On changing his mind to come to Tampa: "I think I give Jeff a lot of credit for being politely persistent and for circling back to me as he did. When he came back he had more evidence of what he’s trying to do. When he talked initially he had talked about the kind of general managers he wanted. And the more recent discussion, he said, 'This is the guy I got.' … It was really quite striking to me."
On when Vinik's approach started to pay off: "Some number of weeks ago, and even at that, this is a good world for me here (in Seattle). We have a lot of good things going on. Our teams are all sold out. Between the Sounders and Seahawks we have close to 100,000 season tickets. The Sounders have been an enormous pleasure to be involved with it. We draw 36,000 people every night, and it’s given real hope that soccer in America can operate at a really high level. Even with as many compelling things as there was on the Tampa Bay Lightning side of the ledger it was still a very hard decision. At the end of the day there’s a chance to dream about building something truly extraordinary there and I think we will. ... I got out of bed today and said, 'I can’t wait.' It’s really exciting."
On being an owner: "As a kid I have vivid memories of this old AM radio, sneaking it into my bed, and listening to Dan Kelly calling St. Louis Blues games. So, later that same life, to think I could have a rooting interest in an ownership play in a team is truly a dream come true. At the end of the day it’s cool to say you own part of the team, but I’m there to go to work and I’m going to work for Jeff. He is clearly the majority owner and I’m going to go shoulder to shoulder with Steve and we’re hopefully going to push that franchise to the highest level possible."
On the size of the ownership stake: "I’m not going to get into that because that’s something between Jeff and I. Was it a factor? Yes, but there were other really compelling factors about this. If that had been the only thing it wouldn’t have done it for me."
On his vision: "What Jeff didn’t bring me on for is because I had some unique expertise in hockey. Clearly, what I’m going to bring to the party is the focus on the business side of things, ultimately getting the business to work. Ultimately, how you do that is you make fans a part of the organization. My first order of business Wednesday is I’m going to buy four season tickets and I’m going to become a season ticket holder because, ultimately, that’s who we’re going to serve, and I want to understand what it’s like to be a Tampa Bay Lightning season ticket holder. I think we can create a special relationship between this team and their fans. I love the game of hockey and I passionately believe the game of hockey can work at the highest level in Tampa Bay."
On his season tickets: "I’m going to be honest with you. I’ll probably buy two upstairs, and when I came to the Seahawks I bought two in our Hawks Nest and bought two additional elsewhere in the stadium. It was an important thing. We had here a brand that needed a lot of work. It was important for me to understand what it was like to be a season ticket holder, to see what kind of mailings came, what kind of e-mails came, how it felt. It was also important for me when I went around town to tell people I’m a Seahawks season ticket holder, too. I pay for my tickets like you do. I understand the plight of what this feels like."
On how business an fan experience are not mutually exclusive: "They are one in the same. We’ve gotten soccer to work here at the highest level because we’ve created a brand the fans can believe in, and they feel passionately about the Sounders and we’re going to unlock that same passion that exists for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is there and the fans actually have supported the team. I talked to a friend of mine here who was with the Bucs when they won the Super Bowl and he said the Lightning parade was about as big an event as when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. So, that market has seen hockey at the highest level, and the team owned the town for that period of time. We have to regain that and sustain that."
On his plan: "When the fans come into our organization, the brand they’re going to see reflects their values, and it’s going to unlock the passion of hockey. Our job is going to be to take that facility and make it the best arena in all of the NHL. It has great bones but we’re going to really take that building and pledge it to the overall experience of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it’s going to be a lot of fun, and our game presentation is going to be as good as any in the NHL. The way we treat our fans, specifically our season ticket holders, is going to be on the highest level. We’re going to innovate in ways that we serve them. I’m going to make sure the hot dogs are hot. We’re going to make sure every aspect of being a fan is a wonderful, fulfilling experience. If I do that and Steve Yzerman does what I think he’s going to do, we’re going to get to the promised land."