In the moments before the puck drops, in those precious seconds when the rare energy threatens to blow the roof off the arena, when the players stand and fidget from the sheer anticipation of the moment, the man in the stands will be a fan once again. In that snapshot, Jeff Vinik will no longer be a businessman, and he will no longer be an ambassador for his team. In those precious seconds before play begins, he will once again be a fan, watching his team, yearning for its success. You know, just like the rest of you. This is the part that Vinik seems to grasp, the part that makes him one of the most popular sports owners in Tampa Bay. He cares, deeply and passionately. He watches, intensely and without blinking. He believes, in today and in tomorrow.
It is a good time to be Vinik. A little more than four years into his ownership, the Lightning has become a successful business. The yahooing of the Koules-Barrie days, which on the surface was slippery in the locker room, too, has ended. The team is young, and despite its obstacles, it recorded 101 points this year. The franchise seems to have bonded with the community. The team seems on the brink of a very successful period.
In the middle, there is Vinik, 55, who has perfected the art of owning a franchise. As the Lightning prepares to begin its playoff series Wednesday night, it seems like a good time to notice him, too.
In sports, there are owners who are hands-on to the point of meddling. You know them. Oren Koules and Art Williams are among them. Then there are owners who are too distant. You know them, too. Bill Davidson and Kokusai Green are among them.
Vinik has perfected the middle ground. He is at almost every home game, and some road games. Yet he visited the locker room exactly one time this year, on the night the team made the playoffs. Yes, everyone knows he cares. No one has seen his fingerprints, though.
Vinik laughs, gently. It is Monday afternoon, and he sits in an office and talks. About his team. About Steve Yzerman. About the playoffs and the team expectations. And about how seldom he travels to the locker room.
"I don't bug the players,'' Vinik said. "I don't go in the locker rooms. Hardly ever. The players have a job to do. They don't need the owner around. I let it be known that I care deeply about winning and that I want to win a Stanley Cup. I think they understand that.''
Could it happen this year? Vinik certainly hopes so.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that his team has too many newcomers on it to last deep into the playoffs, that the latest injury (to goaltender Ben Bishop) will be the one that finally catches up to this team.
On the other hand, this season was such an unexpected success. Who saw these guys coming?
Go back a year, when the Lightning finished eight games under .500 and 14th in the East. Could you have predicted a 101-point season? Especially if you knew the best player, Steven Stamkos, was going to miss half the year? Especially if you knew the captain, Marty St. Louis, would demand a trade? Especially if you knew the most important player, Bishop, was going to be hurt late?
Yeah, it was a pretty good year, wasn't it?
"I'm very proud of this team,'' Vinik said. "Given the adversity they've faced at times, I think it's remarkable that they've been able to earn 101 points. We have a good coach. Let's not undersell the way Jon Cooper has kept this team driving ahead despite these setbacks.''
Last year? If you're asking, Vinik was confident this season would be a good one all along.
"I will admit the young players were better sooner than I thought they would be,'' Vinik said, shrugging.
All of that seems to set up the Lightning for the next few years. General manager Yzerman seems to have the farm system set up, and for the first time in franchise history there is help from the minor leagues.
The thing is, Vinik cautions against too much praise.
"It isn't a time for congratulations,'' he said. "We just made the playoffs. We hope we win the series, and we hope we win the Stanley Cup. But our goal is to be a world class organization on the ice and off. We've made excellent progress, but we still have a way to go.''
It's odd. Vinik remembers getting nervous only once this year, in the late going of Sunday's game No. 82 against Washington.
"I could feel myself shaking,'' he said.
Oh, there have been other hard moments this season, too. In particular, Vinik points to the broken leg that Stamkos suffered and the trade of St. Louis as the worst of them.
"They were both disappointing,'' Vinik said. "I was happy we were able to get as much out of Stammer as we were. That says a lot about his hard work and his drive to get back.
"With Marty, I was saddened and disappointed this franchise lost arguably the best player in our history. But I recognize some of the reasons why Marty wanted to be traded to the Rangers, and I think we were able to make a reasonably good deal.''
A moment later, he is talking about the playoffs again, and the resiliency of his team, and how special the playoffs are.
It's a good time to be Vinik.
It's a good time to pull for the Lightning.
It's a good time to be a hockey fan.