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Tampa Bay Lightning names Tod Leiweke its chief executive officer

Tod Leiweke said one of the first things on his to-do list Wednesday is buy four Lightning season tickets.

That might seem odd considering Leiweke on Monday was named the team's chief executive officer and a minority owner, the latter a carrot dangled by principal owner Jeff Vinik to lure him from the NFL's Seahawks.

But Leiweke, coming to town for an introductory news conference, will be running the St. Pete Times Forum and the team's business operations. The best way to start, he said, is to understand what fans experience at games.

"I want to understand what it's like to be a Tampa Bay Lightning season ticket holder," Leiweke said, "because, ultimately, that's who we're going to serve."

Hiring Leiweke (pronounced LIGH-wih-kee) is considered a huge victory for Tampa Bay, which needs to rebuild a brand battered by three years without a postseason appearance and two years of mismanagement by the previous owners.

With the Seahawks since 2003, and CEO of Vulcan Sports since 2007, running owner Paul Allen's holdings, which also include the NBA's Trail Blazers and Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders, Leiweke solidified a reputation as a fixer and builder.

The Seahawks were believed losing money when Leiweke, 50, came on board. They now have sold out 56 straight games. The Trail Blazers have sold out 120 straight, and the Sounders, in their second year, average an MLS-best attendance of 36,159.

"The leader of our sports teams," Allen, in a statement, called Leiweke.

The Wild, for which Leiweke was president from 1999-2003, was ranked No. 1 for stadium experience at the Xcel Energy Center and No. 2 for fan relations in a 2003 ESPN survey of 123 sports franchises.

Leiweke also held executive positions with the Canucks and NBA's Warriors, and was executive director of First Tee, a partnership of the PGA and LPGA tours and PGA America to help bring golf to young people. But Leiweke's first love is hockey.

"A life-long fan," he said.

A St. Louis native, Leiweke, whose older brother, Tim, is a governor for the Kings, said he hid a radio in bed as a child and listened to Blues games. He plays wing in a Seattle beer league.

Even so, Leiweke said he rebuffed Vinik's initial entreaties in April because he was so entrenched in Seattle, and Tampa Bay, without a general manager at the time, seemed at loose ends.

But Leiweke said Vinik was "politely persistent in circling back to me the way he did."

And with Steve Yzerman as GM, Leiweke said his perspective changed in the past few weeks.

Part of that was Yzerman — "He's a guy I have admired for so many years, the thought of getting a chance to work with the guy was pretty cool" — but getting a minority share of the team didn't hurt, either.

Leiweke declined to say how big a share but added Vinik "is clearly the majority owner."

Still, he said, "To think I could have a rooting interest in an ownership play in a team is a dream come true. … Was it a factor? Yes, but there were other really compelling factors about this. If that had been the only thing it wouldn't have done it for me."

Bottom line, Leiweke said, "There's a chance to dream about building something truly extraordinary here."

In a statement, Vinik said Leiweke has "the passion and experience to lead the franchise towards my goal of being world class on and off the ice."

Those who know Leiweke said he also has the tools.

Bill Robertson, the Wild's vice president of communications, said Leiweke is a "relationship builder" who "brings out the best in people to work as a team."

Jac Sperling, a Wild vice president and minority owner when Leiweke was with Minnesota, said Leiweke "understands the business. He knows how to create relationships."

But most important, said Sperling, now a corporate adviser who helped Vinik with the CEO search, "He knows how to create a brand and execute it."

On micro and macro levels.

"Our job is going to be to take (the Times Forum) and make it the best arena in all of the NHL," said Leiweke, who will have no input into hockey operations and report to Vinik. "Our game presentation is going to be as good as any in the NHL.

"I'm going to make sure the hot dogs are hot. We're going to make sure every aspect of being a fan is a wonderful, fulfilling experience. If I do that and Steve Yzerman does what I think he's going to do, we're going to get to the promised land."

But first, Leiweke must buy his season tickets, two in the nose bleeds, two down low, just like he did in Seattle.

"We had a brand that needed a lot of work and it was important for me to understand what it was like to be a season ticket holder, to see what kind of mailings came, what kind of e-mails came, how it felt," Leiweke said. "It was also important for me when I went around town to tell people, I'm a Seahawks season ticket holder, too. I pay for my tickets like you do. I understand the plight of what this feels like."

Union files grievance on Kovalchuk deal

TORONTO — The NHL Players' Association filed a grievance over the league's rejection of the landmark $102 million contract between Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils.

The league rejected the 17-year deal last week, saying the longest contract in league history violated its salary cap.

The union disputed that belief in its grievance Monday. It said that under the collective bargaining agreement, the union and Kovalchuk are entitled to an expedited resolution.

The NHL acknowledged that it has received a copy of the grievance.

SIGNINGS: Canucks forward Mason Raymond (two years, $5.1 million) avoided arbitration. … The Coyotes re-signed left wing Alexandre Picard (one year). … The Predators kept defenseman Ryan Parent (two years, $1.85 million.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com. Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Lightning hierarchy

Principal owner: Jeff Vinik.

CEO/minority owner: Tod Leiweke.

General manager: Steve Yzerman

Assistant general managers: Julien BriseBois, Tom Kurvers.

Coach: Guy Boucher.

Assistant coaches: Wayne Fleming, Daniel Lacroix, Martin Raymond.

Tampa Bay Lightning names Tod Leiweke its chief executive officer 07/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 7:57am]
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