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With Lightning stable, Vinik eyes the future

With his family relocated to Tampa, charitable contributions, willingness to spend to the salary cap and plans to develop 20 acres around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Jeff Vinik has brought stability to a franchise whose future, as he said, "was in doubt" after two unhealthy seasons under the previous owners.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

With his family relocated to Tampa, charitable contributions, willingness to spend to the salary cap and plans to develop 20 acres around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Jeff Vinik has brought stability to a franchise whose future, as he said, "was in doubt" after two unhealthy seasons under the previous owners.

Not long after Marty St. Louis was left off Canada's initial Olympic roster, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik met with Tampa Bay's captain to help soften hard feelings.

"I wouldn't say I was worried," Vinik said about friction between St. Louis and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who also is Team Canada's executive director. "But Marty was disappointed. He was very disappointed, obviously."

Vinik's message?

"I just reminded him how pleased I am to have him as part of the Lightning, that he's been a great player for us, a great leader. I told him how important he was to the franchise."

Reminded a fellow owner reportedly said Vinik also should send the St. Louis family on an expenses-paid trip, Vinik laughed. "I think I'd be breaking the rules of the (collective bargaining agreement) if I did that."

Vinik, 54, is in his fourth season as Tampa Bay's owner. With his family relocated to Tampa, charitable contributions, willingness to spend to the salary cap and plans to develop 20 acres around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, he has brought stability to a franchise whose future, as he said, "was in doubt" after two unhealthy seasons under the previous owners.

"I love it down here," Vinik said. "I love owning the team and it seems like I'm buying more real estate than I'm selling, so I guess I'm committed."

He even got to enjoy St. Louis being added to Canada's roster as a replacement for injured teammate Steven Stamkos.

"I couldn't be happier that he's over there," Vinik said.

Because of the St. Louis situation, do you have concerns about your general manager being part of the Olympic process?

I am so proud we have Steve Yzerman as executive director of Team Canada. It's great for Steve and our franchise that we have somebody who is so respected in the world of hockey. I can tell you one thing, there is nobody with more integrity. Tough decisions had to be made. He's the guy I'd want making those decisions when times get tough.

So you wouldn't mind him doing it again?

We'll see what happens in the future and we'll talk about it. But in general he's worked so hard and is such a big part of the game. He's getting to represent his country. How awesome is that?

Rate him as a GM.

A-plus. Day 1 we had a plan, Steve had a plan and knew it wasn't a quick fix here to get our team to be one of the tops in the league; draft well, develop our own talent and have great people in the organization. I believe Steve has built the best organization in the NHL. He has been consistent with his message and he's a man of very high integrity and one of the most respected people in the NHL, so he deserves that A-plus.

He has another year on his contract. Have you started talking about a new deal?

I don't think it's appropriate to talk about that, but from Day 1 I said I hope Steve's here as long as he was a player for the Red Wings, which was 20 years plus or minus. He's doing a great job and I'm 100 percent behind him.

Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn has said the team has lost as much as $30 million a season. Is that accurate?

I'm not going into specifics but we were losing money when we bought the team. Those losses have come down dramatically. I'm comfortable where things are at now and we've not been constrained by funds. We're spending at or near the cap because we want to have one of the best teams in the NHL year-in and year-out. We're definitely headed in the right direction.

So, you won't say how much the team is losing?

(laughing) Go ask Bob.

Does the team have to make money for you to be comfortable with the business model?

When I bought the team, this franchise was losing a lot of money. Its future was in doubt. I don't think there is any question about it. I want the Tampa Bay Lightning to be here for decades to come. That's my focus, to have a sustainable franchise and compete at the highest level and be major factors for good in the community, and maybe help develop Tampa a little bit."

Define sustainable.

Financially operating at or around break-even. If we operate at or around break-even, have one of the best hockey teams in the NHL year-in, year-out, provide our fans a great experience and be able to give back to the community in a meaningful way, I'd say that's a terrific scenario from my perspective.

What has been your biggest challenge?

In my previous career as a financial investment manager the stock market grades you every day. You get immediate results. Owning a hockey team, owning a business, employing 150 full-time people and hundreds of part-time people, to develop a culture takes time. To get the systems right takes time. To build the brand takes time. I have a new appreciation for how long it takes to build something world class.

What is the vision for your 20 acres around the Times Forum?

The most difficult thing about this process of master planning is the greatest opportunity. With a little imagination there are a number of options and opportunities here, whether it be residential and retail and entertainment and hotel. The other thing I would say is just because we haven't been public doesn't mean we aren't working very hard on this. I wouldn't confuse our deliberateness and quietness as not being very excited about the opportunity in front of us.

Does a new ballpark for the Rays fit in?

I stay out of (Rays owner Stu Sternberg's) business. There are a lot of moving parts there, so I'll let Stu Sternberg, who I greatly admire and respect, work that one out.

Still monitoring Channelside?

Oh, yeah. We think this whole area can be a great district and that includes Channelside mall. If it's us (as owner) we want to do a great job developing it. If it isn't we are hopeful whoever else is doing it does a great job.

How does real estate development compare to investing?

Investing in the stock market and analyzing and researching companies and world economic trends is very different than investing in real estate and developing real estate. I don't have much background in it or history in it. Much like when I bought the hockey team, try to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. I spend a lot of time just reading and, like in hockey, hiring great people who have knowledge, who have experience who are A-plus character. That's the only formula I know for creating something that's, hopefully, really good.

With Lightning stable, Vinik eyes the future 02/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 1:50pm]
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