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New Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik not flashy, and that's good

New Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, left, and center Steven Stamkos answer questions at a fan event Friday.

DIRK SHADD | Times

New Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, left, and center Steven Stamkos answer questions at a fan event Friday.

TAMPA — We have seen better first impressions. Heaven knows that.

Oren Koules and Len Barrie? Now those guys knew how to make an entrance. They were funny, they were loud, they were hip. They had fistfuls of charm and mouthfuls of promises.

Art Williams? The guy was a carnival. On his first day as owner, he called the Lightning a disaster. This was before he called his players pansies and after he talked about finding studs instead of duds.

Even the Palace Sports & Entertainment guys talked bold their first day in Tampa Bay. They introduced themselves by way of a contract with fans, one that included lowering the prices of some 5,000 seats.

So, yes, it is probably fair to say Jeff Vinik did not make hearts flutter or pulses race in his first appearance as the new owner of the Lightning. He seemed a little shy. A little reserved. A little understated.

On the other hand, he seemed sturdy and serious. And shouldn't we try that for a change?

There may not be a franchise in more desperate need of a father figure. At last glance, the previous occupants of the owners' suite hated each other. But apparently not as much as one of their star players hated them. The coach was ticked at the general manager, and the fans were turned off by the whole mess.

So maybe it's time for an owner with a grownup haircut. An owner with a tie around his neck and a Lightning pin in his jacket lapel. An owner who does not claim to be a hockey expert but seems to know the difference between his elbow and his assets.

"His success is based on analyzing businesses and deciding which are good and which are bad, and then investing in the good ones," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He doesn't make snap decisions. He does his homework. What he's saying is: Here are my goals, here are my objectives, here are my values. Now I'm going to get into the organization and figure out what needs to be done to fulfill them.

"Don't rush to judgment on him. Let him do it the right way. If somebody came in here and gave you 100 answers, you'd have to scratch your head and say, 'How could he know that?' Judge him on his actions once he starts."

This has been a problem with previous owners. Maybe you chuckled at Williams' folksy ways, and maybe you were seduced by Koules' charisma. But both behaved as if they had been running teams their entire lives, when in truth they were novices. The Palace Sports people knew what they were doing but were not the least bit interested in staying in this community long term.

So what is it we should want and expect from an owner? A lot of what Vinik said Friday.

In terms of commitment? Vinik and Bettman said the Lightning will stay in Tampa Bay. And they left no room for equivocation. Vinik's family will remain in Boston, where his children are in school, but Vinik said he will buy a home in Tampa and spend much of the season in town.

In terms of organizational structure? During a Q&A session with fans, the biggest ovation Vinik got was when he said nobody wanted to see him making hockey decisions. Lately it's been hard to tell who was in charge of what. Vinik has made it clear he will hire one person to be in charge.

In terms of direction? Vinik offered no specifics. He did not mention names. He did not mention styles. He did not talk about payroll size. Instead, he talked about providing the necessary resources to make the Lightning a perennial playoff contender.

None of it was very sexy. Nor was it terribly revealing. And it's easy to question why a money manager from Boston thinks he can prosper when the producer from Hollywood and the NBA owner from Detroit and the insurance salesman from Palm Beach and the disembodied voice from Japan all failed to create a permanent home here.

Time will tell if Vinik's tenure will be more successful. But there is one major difference between the incoming and outgoing owners. Koules and Barrie had financial problems almost from the beginning. They paid a high price for the franchise at $200 million and carried a heavy debt load. It meant they needed immediate results; that led to rash decisions.

Reports have indicated Vinik paid $110 million, although Bettman said that figure is substantially lower than reality. That may or may not be true. But everyone seems to agree that Vinik has zero debt on the franchise, and that is going to have a dramatic impact on the way things are run.

"I wouldn't have bought this team if I didn't think it could be successful in every way," he said. "Successful as a big part of the community, successful winning games and bringing back the Stanley Cup, successful giving fans a great experience in this facility. Tampa Bay chose me, to an extent. With all of the great things going for this area, how could I not want to be here?"

He's here now, and he's in charge of your team. So maybe it's not love at first sight, but we've been through that before. Maybe this is something different. Maybe this is better.

New Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik not flashy, and that's good 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 11:35pm]
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