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Is the Lightning's Jeff Vinik the best owner in professional sports?

Jeff Vinik, listening as plans are unveiled for the Channel District during a news conference in 2014, has spearheaded growth in downtown Tampa with his investments and his vision. [JAY CONNER]
Jeff Vinik, listening as plans are unveiled for the Channel District during a news conference in 2014, has spearheaded growth in downtown Tampa with his investments and his vision. [JAY CONNER]
Published May 25, 2018

Hope of another Stanley Cup has dissolved, and soon the ice will follow. Yet even if sorrow is the price of devotion, the true hockey fans will still buy in when the next season comes around.

That concept may not be unique to Tampa Bay, but it does seem to be growing around here. Some of that is simply the passage of time, and much of it is clearly tied to the Lightning's current run of success.

But as pockets of fans stuck around Amalie Arena for a final farewell after a dismal Game 7 blowout Wednesday night, I wondered if there wasn't another, less conspicuous, factor for this devotion.

Has Jeff Vinik become the best owner in professional sports?

It's a bold thought, and clearly impossible to validate. Baseball fans in St. Louis would say William DeWitt has been a model owner, and NFL fans in Pittsburgh are deservedly partial to the Rooney family.

So, no, I won't insist that Vinik sits at the head of that group.

But he should have a seat at the table.

He has taken a franchise in disarray, in a market with historically questionable support, and turned it into one of hockey's greatest success stories. He has spent tens of millions on upgrades at Amalie Arena, and made charitable donations a centerpiece of every home game.

He has invested money in downtown's growth and recruited others to do the same. In a marketplace that has long lacked an identity, Vinik has helped create a new kind of buzz.

"What Jeff has done is a model for every owner in the country,'' said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "Not just what he's done with the team on the ice, but the fan experience and the community involvement. Not that we've had many hard times lately, but he's made it easy to cheer for this team at all times.''

The mayor is not exaggerating. It wasn't so long ago that people were whispering about relocation.

Now, eight years after Vinik bought the team, it is considered a blueprint for successful ownership. Enough so, that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sends prospective owners to Tampa for a tutorial.

"When things weren't working in Tampa, I knew it was just a question of finding the right owner, and Jeff has since proven how successful the market can be,'' Bettman said. "I tell (prospective owners) to go down there and spend a few hours with him and listen to what he has to say, and how he's done it.''

Clearly, Vinik is a skilled businessman and benefits from the team's, and the market's, success.

But there has always been a sense of partnership in his plans. A feeling that everyone might have a taste of the pie if they were willing to participate.

"When he talks about Tampa as an undervalued stock, it makes everyone sit up and pay attention,'' Buckhorn said. "This is someone with real money who knows what he's talking about.''

We have seen cheap owners (Hugh Culverhouse), cutthroat owners (Vince Naimoli) and bickering owners (Oren Koules/Len Barrie) around here. We've had an owner who meddled too much (Art Williams) and an owner who was never here (Kokusai Green).

We know the difference between owners who see us as a community and owners who see us as a commodity.

That's what makes the Lightning Community Hero program so unique. It's not just a rich guy handing millions to a university (which Vinik has done at USF and Duke), supporting a local industry with a loan (which Vinik did for the Tampa Bay Times) or giving $1 million to the Red Cross for disaster relief (which Vinik did after Hurricane Harvey).

The Community Hero program spotlights different nonprofits, often upstart and small, with $50,000 donations. The stories of the charities, told during intermission at every home game, are as inspiring as they are deserving. The program, started in 2011, has now given away $16.25 million to more than 400 non-profits in the area.

"Jeff has fulfilled every possible dream I ever had for what this franchise could be in the community,'' said Phil Esposito, who put together the original Lightning ownership group in the early 1990s. "To me, he is the best owner in any professional sport that I've ever seen.''

Exaggeration? Maybe.

Over-the-top? Possibly.

But let me ask you this:

Would you trade Vinik for anyone else?