Why the Lightning's Jeff Vinik is the best owner in North American pro sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning's Jeff Vinik is the best owner in all of North American pro sports, Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune writes. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
The Tampa Bay Lightning's Jeff Vinik is the best owner in all of North American pro sports, Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune writes. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published March 6, 2019

TAMPA— The Tampa Bay Lightning opened play in the fall of 1992 and had four owners between then and February 2010. The original Japanese group was the ultimate in absentee ownership. Art Williams followed in 1998 and was underfinanced and overmatched. Oren Koules and Len Barrie had grand plans but not the required millions when buying the team in 2008.

Palace Sports and Entertainment owned the Lightning from 1998 to 2008 and provided a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. That was the company created by Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson when he moved the NBA team into The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 1988. The Pistons also won the NBA title in 2004, creating what became known as the "Davidson Double."

Davidson was 75 when he bought the Lightning and was an infrequent visitor to Tampa, as was Tom Wilson, his CEO.

It was easy for the sports consumers of the Tampa area to feel as if the owners of the Lightning had been either distant or overwhelmed in building the franchise in this pioneer southern market — second in arrival in Dixie only to the failed Atlanta Flames.

And then a strange event occurred on Feb. 5, 2010, when it was revealed that hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik was purchasing the debt-ridden Lightning from Koules and Barrie for $170 million.

The reaction in Tampa was, "Who's this Vinik?" but nine years later, Lightning fans can make this claim: They have the best owner in the four major professional sports.\

Vinik made his reputation in the financial world as the manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund from 1992 to 1996. He was 50 when he bought the Lightning. He offered the usual platitude about becoming a member of the community, but he was the owner from the East Coast who actually meant it.

Vinik ensconced himself in Tampa, brought in Steve Yzerman to run his hockey operation in May 2010, and has started rebuilding the dilapidated area that surrounds the Lightning's Amalie Arena with a $3 billion-plus Water Street development. It's so big that a Bill Gates company is in on it.

The owner also started an all-time great community outreach program in October 2011:

A check for $50,000 is presented at every home game to a grassroots person doing good works in the area. They are billed as "Community Heroes" and the check goes to their favored charity.

"When we had the lockout in 2012-13, Jeffrey still had a $50,000 check presented to a community hero on the nights the Lightning would have had a game," Jay Feaster said.

Feaster was the Lightning general manager from 2002 to 2008, and thus when Tampa Bay won its Stanley Cup. He clashed with Barrie and Koules and resigned (they brought in Brian Lawton), interviewed for the Wild's GM job a year later but lost out to Chuck Fletcher, and was Calgary's GM from 2010 to 2013.

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The Flames fired him and Feaster came back to Tampa to serve as Vinik's director of community hockey development. There's a high school program with 17 varsity and nine junior varsity teams, playing out of various rinks — including a five-rink ice center in the suburb of Wesley Chapel.

It's called the Florida Scholastics High School League and runs independently from the Florida High School Athletic Association. The NHL's Panthers have a similar program in south Florida and there's a state tournament.

"We had a player drafted in the third round by Winnipeg last year — a center, Nathan Smith," Feaster said. "He played in our program at (J.W.) Mitchell High School. He's signed with Mankato (Minnesota State). We're rooting for him."

Vinik was able to hire Tod Leiweke away from the Seattle Seahawks to become his team president in 2010. Leiweke and Steve Griggs were together at the formation of the Wild. Griggs joined Leiweke in Tampa and has been the Lightning president since Leiweke's departure in 2015 (first for the NFL, now Seattle's NHL expansion team).

"When we first got here and would play Chicago, for instance, the arena would be 60 percent Blackhawks fans," Griggs said. "Jeff Vinik told us, 'We want the Lightning to become the Green Bay Packers.' Not community-owned, but an integral a part of the city.

"When Leiweke and I got here, we were selling 3,000 season tickets. We're now selling 15,500 season tickets. The Blackhawk fans have a much tougher time taking over the arena."

Another part of the Lightning's community outreach is this: terrific teams.

Since 2015, the Lightning has been in the Stanley Cup Final, in the conference finals in two other seasons, and currently is the runaway leader as the NHL's most dominant team.

"Jeffrey Vinik hired the right person to put together an outstanding hockey operation," Griggs said. "Steve Yzerman."