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New Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik plans to restore the community's passion for hockey

TAMPA — There was a point Friday, amid the questions about hiring a CEO and the due diligence he did before buying the team, that new Lightning owner Jeff Vinik figuratively threw up his hands.

"I've been here only 48 hours," he said, laughing, while talking to a small group of reporters after a news conference at the St. Pete Times Forum. "I'm still trying to find the bathrooms."

Jokes aside, Vinik wanted to send a message in his first appearance before the Tampa Bay area media. And though the rhetoric was broad, the words had purpose — to put distance between himself and the previous owners, who had serious financial problems and characterized themselves as owner-operators.

So Vinik made sure he repeated: "This franchise is not going to be restrained by financial resources." And added: "You don't want me running the team on a day-to-day basis. You want a terrific, professional CEO doing that."

And at the end of a long day that included a meeting with players and coaches, and culminated with a Q&A with about 200 fans at the Times Forum, he sat in front of a banner with the team's new marketing tag line: Bring It Back.

The "it," said Vinik, who was part of the brainstorming session that came up with the slogan, is the passion with which the area embraced the team when it won the 2004 Stanley Cup. Its season-ticket renewal brochure even has several pictures of the Cup, references to which the team has downplayed the past two seasons.

"This club has a history of passion by the fans," Vinik said. "I know it's still there. It may be on sabbatical right now, but I know if the Lightning organization can do the right things with this team, I know we can pull that passion out of people here."

Gary Bettman beamed.

The NHL commissioner introduced Vinik to the media, something he did not do in June 2008 for previous owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie.

"If I had to computer-generate an owner for this situation, I think we got the right guy," Bettman said.

Vinik, a Boston hedge fund manager who turns 51 on March 22 and is worth up to $800 million (depending on the publication one reads), paid about $110 million for the team, the Times Forum lease and 5½ acres next to the arena in a transaction that leaves the franchise with zero debt. It also gives the franchise the financial stability the previous owners lacked.

"This owner has the resources, the ability and the commitment," Bettman said. "This franchise is on stable, strong footing."

"It's nice to hear," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. About Vinik's meeting with the players, he said, "It was just very down-to-earth, honest, genuine. It makes everybody excited about the future of this franchise."

In the immediate future, Vinik said, is finding a CEO to "preside over the organization" and conduct a top-to-bottom evaluation.

Vinik said he has no timetable except to make the hire as soon as possible. The hire won't necessarily be a hockey guy, but someone with "great business experience."

Then, some housekeeping:

On Lecavalier's contract for 11 years and $85 million: "I have no problem with Vinny Lecavalier on the team. … He's an elite player. … All I can say is, this franchise is not going to be constrained by financial resources."

About the flap between general manager Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet over the firing of assistant Wes Walz: "Being a good leader is important. Hopefully, that tone is set from the top."

About moving the team: "Not even on my radar."

Vinik said he is going to "invest for the long term" in players and player development. He'll even spruce up the Times Forum. "I do pledge that I will do my best to back up my words with actions."

And learn the locations of the Times Forum bathrooms.

New Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik plans to restore the community's passion for hockey 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 11:27pm]
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