TAMPA — Jeff Vinik said there really was no place to play hockey where he grew up, not in Deal, N.J., or in New York City, where his parents moved the family when he was in eighth grade.
Baseball? Vinik said he was a good-fielding, no-hitting first baseman. Soccer? He was a strong center fullback.
His hockey fix, though, came purely as a spectator.
"I remember being 5 years old lying in bed at night, having a little tiny TV in my room my parents didn't even know I was watching," Vinik said. "I watched the Rangers every time I could when they were on. I remember falling asleep to icings (of the puck). So, the passion is there."
Forty-five years later, he still can't skate, not that it matters when you own the team.
Vinik on Friday signed a purchase agreement to buy the National Hockey League's Lightning, the St. Pete Times Forum lease and 5 1/2 acres around the arena for what is believed to be about $110 million. Exiting owner OK Hockey paid about $200 million in June 2008.
The transfer of ownership needs the approval of the NHL's Board of Governors, and the financial deal has to close, but considering that the NHL brokered the deal and Vinik is paying cash, those steps are formalities.
That means in two to four weeks, the Lightning should have its fifth owner, a hedge fund manager who lives in Boston, has a 2 percent stake in Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox and said he is committed to turning around a franchise that since winning the 2004 Stanley Cup has lost games, fans and millions of dollars.
"I will do everything in my power to bring a world-class organization to the community, both on the ice and off the ice," he said. "I am going to put the resources forth that are necessary to making this a successful organization."
The first step was taking over player payroll, an important stabilizer because of reports the team took an advance on its league revenue-sharing fund to help meet January's payroll.
For now, that seems to be the limit of Vinik's involvement. He declined to speculate on potential personnel moves in the front office or on the ice, saying he is not yet the owner.
"I don't want to commit to anything at this point. I want to meet people here and understand the situation," he said. "What I will assure you is I will do everything to the best of my ability to get the best people in the right places and make this successful.
"My decisions historically in life are well thought out."
• • •
Vinik — who, depending on what article you read, is worth $515 million to $800 million — understands people will look skeptically at his ownership.
He's a finance guy, the principal owner of Vinik Asset Management. The Lightning is a distressed property that could be a buy-low, sell-high investment.
But Vinik, sitting in a hotel lobby across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum, said that is "wrong, 180 degrees backwards."
"My business is my business, and I enjoy it. I'm a money manager, and that's terrific. But this ownership is going to be myself … and I'm going to control it 100 percent. I make investments at work. I don't want to make investments here."
"He has a long-term view of this," said Jac Sperling, a financial adviser and alternate governor of the NHL's Minnesota Wild whom the league brought in to guide Vinik through the purchase process. "No one invests in a sports team to make money. They do it because they love it … because you want success on and off the ice. That is his vision."
Vinik said his desire to own a hockey team began in the winter of 2008 while at a Christmas pop music concert in Boston.
He and daughter Kyra, 16, go every year with a close friend, Vinik said. The conversation turned to what was next for Vinik.
"I wanted something fun to do," he said. "I said, 'You know what? I'm going to buy a hockey team.' I love the sport. I'd love to be an owner of a business. I have a passion for it. It's exciting."
Vinik said he read three or four books on sports management. He talked to hockey business and front-office people. He even got to know NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
When the opportunity to buy the Lightning came up, Vinik jumped.
His 82-year-old father, Donald, lives in Boca Raton. (His mother, Edna, died in 1984.)
He said the Tampa Bay area has growth potential once the economy bounces back and there is a "track record here of fans caring about the team."
Vinik, 50, likes the area so much, he said, he plans to eventually relocate his wife and four kids. He wants to buy a house here "as soon as possible. … I'll be a big part of the community."
"I understand there is a degree of skepticism," he said, "but my mission is to accomplish what I'm setting out for day by day, month by month, year by year, so you can judge me over time. My comments are genuine, my interest sincere."
"He just seemed like he was committed," said Lightning founder Phil Esposito, who Thursday had a 15-minute conversation with Vinik. "He wants to know what's going on, and that's what I was looking for. It made me very happy."
• • •
Vinik said being "straight with people" is the noblest trait he got from his parents, whom he called "incredible role models."
Funny, though — he never realized he had his stock-manager father's acumen for money management until he interned for him, programming purchases and sales into a computer.
"He never discussed it at home, so I never realized I had such an interest until I was in college" Vinik said. "It was at that time I learned that I liked it. As soon as I got out of school, I went right into the stock market."
But don't call Vinik stodgy. In fact, his playfulness is refreshing.
He and wife, Penny, take the family to Disney World every year so they can "spend a lot of time with the children," he said.
Vinik said he and Penny love their dinner conversations with their kids — Kyra, Danny, 19, Jared, 17, and Joshua, 9 — because "they're smart and they say intelligent things."
Despite growing up near Asbury Park, N.J., Vinik said he was too young to appreciate Bruce Springsteen at his peak. He is a Green Day fan, he said, and has its song Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) as his phone ring tone.
Considering his new venture, it could not be more appropriate.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.