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At the Lightning, Stanley Cup rings aren’t just for players

Working behind the scenes for a championship NHL team brings long hours, but plenty of unexpected perks.
 
Susan Danielik, the Tampa Bay Lightning's director of training and experience, receives assistance from ThunderBug during a learn-to-skate session at Amalie Arena on Feb. 22. Skating classes are one of the many perks available to employees of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the Tampa Bay Times' Top Workplaces of 2022.
Susan Danielik, the Tampa Bay Lightning's director of training and experience, receives assistance from ThunderBug during a learn-to-skate session at Amalie Arena on Feb. 22. Skating classes are one of the many perks available to employees of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the Tampa Bay Times' Top Workplaces of 2022. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published March 24, 2023|Updated March 27, 2023

Nicole Parente was always a hockey fan. So when she was ready for a change from her corporate human resources consulting job, she figured she’d apply for a post with the Tampa Bay Lightning. She thought there was no way she’d be hired.

A decade later, she found herself floating up the Hillsborough River in a championship boat parade, about to be fitted for her second Stanley Cup ring.

“It doesn’t feel real at first,” said Parente, the organization’s vice president of people operations. “It takes a little bit to sink in. At first, you’re like, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s a memory you can never take away.”

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For many, working for a professional sports team is a lifelong dream. Others end up there just like they would at any other office, sending in a resume because they’re qualified and the job sounds interesting.

But when that organization is the Tampa Bay Lightning — a team that’s reached the Stanley Cup finals four times in eight years, winning twice — the ride this past decade, even for workers well behind the scenes, has been wild.

“It’s a lot of dedication, which it takes a certain type of person to have that mentality,” said Stephen Frey, who studied theater in college and is now the director of game presentation. “But it’s extremely rewarding. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, but we like to celebrate just as much as we like to work.”

Tampa Bay Lightning employees put on their skates during a skating class at Amalie Arena on Feb. 22.
Tampa Bay Lightning employees put on their skates during a skating class at Amalie Arena on Feb. 22. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Case in point: After the Lightning’s most recent cup win in 2021, employees gathered in a lounge at Amalie Arena to celebrate. Who should come up to join them but head coach Jon Cooper and defenseman Victor Hedman, Stanley Cup in tow.

“It’s more about the people, and being able to celebrate with these people that kind of become your family, because you’re here so many hours, so many days,” said Justin Bechtold, a former part-time security guard who is now director of guest experience. “That’s the part that’s the most fun about it.”

In a lot of ways, working for the Lightning is like working in hospitality or customer service — everything employees do is designed to enhance the fan experience, which ultimately puts the team in a better position for a championship.

“Having a full building helps drive the team a little bit more,” CEO Steve Griggs said. “To me, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that if we have an amazing culture and amazing business that’s running on all cylinders, they’re going to make sure we’re taking care of our fans.”

One big challenge is the day-and-night workload during the season, and especially during the playoffs, when a 40-hour work week is a pipe dream for most employees. The organization gets creative looking for ways to reduce stress and help workers avoid burnout, hosting things like ice cream trucks, pop-up plant shops, skating lessons or puppy cuddle sessions. Departments give employees mandatory “rest-up weeks” during quieter stretches on the schedule.

And there are other perks, from gym memberships to discounted concert tickets to Topgolf sessions with Lightning players. Last year, owner Jeff Vinik’s family foundation gave each full-time employee $5,000 to donate to the nonprofit of their choice.

Elizabeth Frazier, the Tampa Bay Lightning's executive vice president of community development and social impact, uses a training device to help her skate during an employee skating session at Amalie Arena on Feb. 22.
Elizabeth Frazier, the Tampa Bay Lightning's executive vice president of community development and social impact, uses a training device to help her skate during an employee skating session at Amalie Arena on Feb. 22. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

And, of course, there are the rings. While the team won’t say exactly how many employees got Stanley Cup championship rings in 2020 and 2021, it was a lot. Some wear theirs on occasion; others keep them locked away at home. Miriam King, who works in people operations, had her first ring sized to fit her husband.

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“It’s going to be an heirloom in my family,” Bechtold said. “It’s really big. You put it on, and you’re just constantly thinking about it -- you don’t want to bang the table or hit the wall. It kind of means too much to wear. But there’s people that definitely wear them and show them off.”

Sports is cyclical, and the Lightning won’t be Stanley Cup contenders forever. But by building what Griggs calls “a culture of continuously getting better, creating accountability and having fun,” the organization believes it’ll never have a problem attracting new faces.

“I make the joke now, because I came from corporate America, and I did it for quite some time, that if I ever had to go back, I’d probably be challenged,” Parente said. “I would have a hard time. This is my only sports team that I’ve worked for, so I can’t compare it to others, but the culture is just different. It draws you in, and there’s something about it that really is special.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Lightning

National Hockey League team and, with Vinik Sports Group, presenter of concerts and other events at Amalie Arena and the Yuengling Center.

Location: Tampa

Employees: 225

Website: lightning.nhl.com

Employee comments: “The people we work with are fantastic. Every day is different. We get to make other people happy by providing entertainment and an escape for them.”

“I love being able to connect with youth hockey families and building relationships out in the community.”

“I work for the best owner in all of sports. Every day I am thankful that I am still employed by this organization.”