TAMPA — Tod Leiweke said that hockey was his first love when Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik lured him away from the NFL's Seattle Seahawks in 2010 to come rebuild the bay area's failing hockey franchise as its new CEO.
Now pro football has wooed Leiweke back.
The Lightning CEO resigned Friday to take on one of the top jobs in the National Football League: chief operating officer, a position last held by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell himself in 2006.
Leiweke, 55, was Vinik's top lieutenant. Leiweke (pronounced LIGH-wih-kee) not only helped transform the Lightning into a Stanley Cup contender, but was also part of the team Vinik assembled to lead his ambitious $1 billion effort to redevelop downtown Tampa.
"It was, believe it or not, a hard decision," Leiweke said. "I was so happy during our playoff run. I felt that a lot of hard work and blood, sweat and tears came to fruition. This organization is poised to be very good for a long, long time to come.
"You don't just walk away from that."
But he could not say no to the NFL, or to Goodell. In 2009 while Leiweke was Seahawks CEO, he literally climbed a mountain — Mount Rainier in Washington state — with the commissioner in a drive to raise money for charity.
"Maybe it's a bit of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in a job like that," Leiweke said, "in a position like that, with so many people I know in the NFL, in a room I'm comfortable with and with a commissioner I have a deep and abiding respect for."
He will join the NFL's front office in August. But until then, Leiweke will stay with the hockey team in a lesser capacity while Lightning president Steve Griggs takes over as the franchise's new CEO in charge of its business and arena operations. General manager Steve Yzerman will continue to run hockey operations. Both report to Vinik.
"It's a bittersweet day," Vinik said during a news conference Friday at Amalie Arena.
Though the separation appears amicable, Leiweke was not present.
Leiweke also is giving up his minority ownership stake in the Lightning — that was a carrot offered by Vinik to lure him to Tampa Bay — and resigned as CEO of Strategic Property Partners, the Vinik real estate firm guiding the redevelopment project.
It was in that role that Leiweke talked passionately about the potential of creating a place where it would be fun to walk around, ride a bike or even arrive by water, as he did when he often commuted from his Davis Islands home to the Amalie Arena by paddleboard.
"I thought Tod had as big an impact in as short a period of time as anyone I had ever seen come to this community," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
The immediate question for civic leaders after news of Leiweke's resignation was how it might impact Vinik's development project. But Vinik said Leiweke's departure won't change anything.
"Our goals haven't changed, our aspirations haven't changed, the way we're going to achieve it hasn't changed," Vinik said. "We're full speed ahead on this to change Tampa for generations to come."
That work continued these past few weeks. Team Vinik has interviewed four potential hotel operators to be the flag for the hotel Vinik plans to build on the lot west of Amalie Arena. SPP is also "actively in discussions," Vinik said, with corporate tenants to fill the office buildings he plans to build. Construction to realign roads will begin in about two weeks.
"I hope to have several cranes working here within 18 months," Vinik said. "One of the things with these walkable districts: The various elements are very synergistic — whether it's residential, retail, office, hotel, restaurants — so our strategy is kind of build it all at once. We're going to go from no construction to a lot of construction very quickly."
Leiweke is considered one of the top sports executives in North America. But he has also been more than that. As Leiweke did in Seattle when he was CEO of the Seahawks, he quickly began working in Tampa's philanthropic circles shortly after arriving in 2010.
In Seattle, Leiweke headed a United Way campaign to fight family homelessness, a project that led him on that two-day expedition to climb 14,410-foot Mount Rainier with Goodell and others.
Over the past four years, Leiweke has played a leading role in helping to reorganize public-private efforts to address homelessness in Hillsborough County.
He worked with local officials and other business executives to re-craft Hillsborough's strategy. The group came up with a "housing-first" approach: find homes, plus concentrated support services and counseling, to help chronically homeless individuals who tend to cost the public the most when they're on the street.
He also has supported the American Heart Association and the University of South Florida Foundation, among other charities.
John Schueler, former executive director of corporate development at USF who has worked with Leiweke on charitable efforts, said Leiweke has the ability to rally a community to make not just a better sports franchise, but a better community.
"One of Tod's trademarks is his ability to bring out the best in others and get people interested in making the community a better place to live," Schueler said.
Vinik praised Leiweke as the best CEO in sports and said he had helped turn the Lightning into a "world-class organization" — the owner's favorite mantra.
"I think it's a great opportunity for Tod," Vinik said. "I think it's a great addition for the NFL. It's a loss. We're disappointed to lose Tod. A friend is going to be going up to New York."
Vinik said Leiweke's move to the NFL had been "in the works for a few weeks." Though Vinik sits on the NHL's board of governors, he understood the appeal of working for the NFL.
"Tod loves it here, and frankly, if I were a betting man, I would have bet that he would have stayed," Vinik said. "But you know what? How often does someone get to be the COO of the NFL?"