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Owner Jeff Vinik guides revival of Tampa Bay Lightning

“Players play, coaches coach, managers manage and owners own,” Lightning owner Jeff Vinik says of not meddling.

DIRK SHADD | Times

“Players play, coaches coach, managers manage and owners own,” Lightning owner Jeff Vinik says of not meddling.

TAMPA

There are times, he says, he still gets lost as he walks through the building. There are months that pass without him trying to find his way to the locker room.

Wednesday night, Jeff Vinik found his way.

Given what he had seen, given the realization of his vision, how could he have stayed away?

Vinik stood at the end of the locker room, as close to out of the way as possible, beaming and watching players who had just swept aside the top seed in the Eastern Conference of the NHL. There was satisfaction on Vinik's face, and joy, but still he kept his distance, his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his tan pants. He did not glad-hand, and he did not slap shoulders, and he did not high-five.

Vinik, the owner of the Lightning, the man who allowed the rebirth of a franchise, merely watched.

Oh, and he grinned a lot.

Who knew this team could win so much so soon? Even now, even when the Lightning has kicked the door open to the Eastern Conference final, you can debate whether the more impressive part of its run is the height it has reached or the speed with which it has done it.

Either way, it was Vinik who manufactured it. It was Vinik who rescued the team from Cowboy Oren and Cowboy Len, and it was Vinik who chased Steve Yzerman until he got him as general manager and Vinik who chased Tod Leiweke until he got him as CEO. And then Vinik did something every Lightning fan will appreciate: He stepped out of the way.

Which begs the question:

Can a team owner be rookie of the year?

For this team, for this town, Vinik has been the perfect owner. He has been interested without being intrusive. He has been supportive without getting in the way. He has hired smart people, and he has let them work.

Three times, maybe four, he has made his way to the locker room. Yet he watched all 82 regular-season games, including 55 in person. He has made it to every playoff game. He's enough of a hockey junkie that he stays up late, every night, to watch other teams play.

"What's more fun?'' asks Vinik.

With that kind of passion, you might think — fear — that an owner would proclaim himself one of the boys and his team one of his toys. Not Vinik.

"Players play, coaches coach, managers manage and owners own," Vinik said. "I keep my distance, because they don't need to see me every day. They know how much I care.

"I meet with Steve Yzerman every now and then for entertainment value and to find out what's going on. But I let these guys do their jobs. I have full confidence they can do it. They don't need me screwing it up. My job isn't to teach hockey players how to play hockey."

In professional sports, bless the team owner who gets it. If any group of fans knows the value of that, it is Lightning fans, who have seen owners who didn't know hockey (Takashi Okubo), who didn't like hockey (Art Williams), who didn't watch hockey (Bill Davidson) and who seemed to think they were playing fantasy hockey (Oren Koules and Len Barrie). Most of them did nothing. Koules and Barrie did too much.

Here's a dagger to the heart: Take a minute to think of where this team would be if Koules and Barrie still owned it?

It's enough to make you bolt upright in the middle of the night screaming, isn't it?

Now the Lightning is in hockey's final four, it's easy to remember how far a solid plan can take a team. And how fast. Think of Vinik, Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher as a highly effective line.

"I don't know if I imagined being in this position so quickly," Vinik said, "but we want to bring a Stanley Cup here to Tampa Bay. We want to compete at the highest level every year. This is great, but I know we're in terrific hands for the next five, 10 years, if not longer."

So, Jeff, do you plan to lift a Stanley Cup eventually?

"Absolutely," he said. "Hopefully, it will be sooner than eventually."

And are you in shape to manage if it's in a few weeks?

"I'll find a way," he said, grinning.

The season is not over, of course, but it has lasted long enough to consider it a success. That was important for this team and for this community. With each of the past few years, it has been harder to believe in this team. Now that's possible again.

"It's not my team," Vinik said. "It's our team. It's Tampa Bay's team. I'm just one of 20,500 fans in the building and maybe 100,000 more watching on TV.

"I knew when I bought the team that this is a great sports town and these are great hockey fans. They have a history of success, and (the Lightning has) a history of being supported. I think the fans had gone on sabbatical. Hopefully, they're off sabbatical now."

In other words, it is a great time to be Vinik, even with the sore knuckles on his right hand, of course. During the third period of the Game 2 win over Washington, Vinik leapt to his feet and thrust his fists into the air. His right hand struck a low-hanging soffit above him.

Later, when Vinny Lecavalier scored the winner in overtime, Vinik leapt again.

This time, he kept his hands open.

"You always have to learn," he said.

So far, Vinik seems to have every answer. For the only time since Davidson, the team has an owner of whom it can be proud. Put it this way: If owning a sports team was an elected position, wouldn't you vote for Vinik? Wouldn't you think he would win by a landslide?

The present is a thrill ride, and the future is a grand promise, and the Lightning has a heartbeat again. Vinik peeks into the future and sees packed houses and packed trophy cases.

Not a bad campaign promise, is it?

Owner Jeff Vinik guides revival of Tampa Bay Lightning 05/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 6, 2011 6:04am]

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