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The quiet within the storm: How Jeff Vinik and his team prepare for and watch Lightning playoff games

Darryl Benge, general manager of Amalie Arena, watches a rehearsal of the pre-game routine.
Darryl Benge, general manager of Amalie Arena, watches a rehearsal of the pre-game routine.
Published May 22, 2016

TAMPA

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik doesn't have a pulse.

It's a joke his wife, Penny, makes, he said, because he's stone-faced no matter how tense the moment.

For the first 40 minutes of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final on Friday, there were few tense moments. The Lightning jumped out to a commanding 4-0 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was one period away from a 2-2 series.

Everything was going perfect. Until it wasn't.

The Penguins scored an early goal in the third period to cut the lead to 3. Halfway through the period, they scored again. 4-2.

The Lightning faithful groaned.

Vinik was motionless, other than a quick peek at the Jumbotron overhead.

Here's what he knows: When the puck drops, he controls nothing. He doesn't call the shots and he doesn't take them, either.

And here's what he believes: He's hired the best people to put together the best team and organization that gives them the best chance to succeed.

"After 30 years of being in the stock market and having ups and downs, you get used to taking good and bad news and seeing things go right and wrong," Vinik, a former fund manager, said before the game. "So I am pretty calm in general."

Less than two minutes after the Penguins cut the lead to two, they score again. 4-3.

• • •

Nine hours earlier, a group of Lightning directors are huddled in a dimly lit room at Amalie Arena. Their job is to look ahead.

Not to the night's game. But the next game. And the game after. And the series after.

After 30 minutes, they finally bring up what could come after that.

"We probably need to talk to our partners about integration into a possible parade piece," said Bill Abercrombie, the vice-president of partnership development. "We need to have those discussions early in the round. You all remember how quickly that came last year."

Hockey is a superstitious sport. Goalies won't skate over lines. Players won't touch the conference championship trophy for fear it will bring bad luck in the next round. Routine is a religion.

That ethos permeates the front office — including to the people in this meeting.

Mike Harrison, senior director of partnership development, has a playoff beard he isn't trimming no matter how much his wife hates it. And Abercrombie demands that where they eat in Pittsburgh for Game 5 must be different than where they went for Game 2, which the Lightning lost.

So when they talk about taking corporate partners wine tasting in Sonoma if the Lightning plays the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals or throwing a block party on South Howard Street outside MacDinton's for Game 1 of the next round, they insist it's out of necessity and not hubris.

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That tone is set by Vinik, Abercrombie said.

"We don't control what happens on the ice," he said. "But we can control the fan experience here."

• • •

"What's the ice at?"

The question came at 5:45 p.m. Friday from Steve Griggs, the Lightning's president and CEO. It's one to ask before playing hockey in Florida in the middle of May.

"Twenty-two," says Darryl Benge, an executive vice president and general manager of Amalie Arena. As in "degrees."

"What do we want to get to?"

"Eighteen."

Not perfect, but it isn't in danger of turning into a pool, either. The team installed a $200,000 auxiliary cooling system that would keep the entire arena at the ideal temperature despite the heat outside and all the bodies inside. It would drop the four degrees two hours later when the game started, Benge assures Griggs.

Bringing in the extra A/C was of the many lessons learned during last year's run to the Stanley Cup finals, the team's first since Vinik bought the team in 2010.

"We're a lot more experienced," Benge says. "Last year was a mad dash. A scramble."

Before the doors open at 6:30 p.m., there are already about 1,800 to 2,200 employees in the arena, Benge says, most of them part-time workers who man the concessions, run security and clean the building.

By now, they all know the routine. But as the team gets deeper in the playoffs, the expectation from on top is to add an extra flair. The buzzphrase from Vinik that everyone repeats is "world class."

"When I bring ideas to him, he asks, 'Is it world class? Is it something no one else is doing?' " Benge said. "He knows that for hockey to work in Tampa we have to do it different."

So the Firestick Grill, the arena's upscale buffet, trotted out Lightning-blue sushi, and ice sculptures line the hallways of the club level. And almost four hours before the game, the visuals department practices a brand-new on-ice projection that fans will see for the first time when the lights go out at 8. Everything is rehearsed over and over.

At 5:35 p.m., 7-year-old Gavin Hood skates onto the ice with a member of the Bolts Brigade to practice his entrance to AC/DC's Thunderstruck, a Lightning game mainstay. He's supposed to circle the rink, come to center, and hoist a stick over his head, giving it a double pump in sync as Brian Johnson screams "Thun-der" over the sound system.

Hood struggles to hoist the heavy stick over his head. For now, there's no one to see. The seats are empty, save for the 19,000 rally towels staff spent three and half hours on Thursday draping symmetrically over each chair.

Minutes later, Griggs stands in front of several dozen employees to pump up the troops before the doors open at 6:30 p.m. He rubs his hands, bites his fingernails, and shifts his weight left to right, front to back.

Griggs is the anti-Vinik. While the owner sits calmly in his suite, Griggs paces the entire stadium during the game. It's a trait he picked up when he was a vice president in the Minnesota Wild organization. Sometimes he can't even watch.

The former college hockey player says it's harder to be off the ice in these situations than on.

"That's the crazy part about this business. You don't control the product at the end of the day," Griggs says. "It's also the exhilarating part of it, too, that you get to watch and cheer on your team and your product and knowing that there's 19,000 other people in the building doing the same thing."

Griggs speaks to four groups of employees ranging from housekeeping to security.

"Let's go make it 2-2."

• • •

The game starts as well as the Lightning could hope.

The projections on the ice and the Jumbotron go off without a hitch.

Hood, the kid practicing earlier, hits his cues with a stick that lights up in the dark. Nineteen-thousand screaming Lightning fans (minus the Penguin faithful) chant "Thun-der" at his direction, waving the towels they snagged as soon as they reached their seats.

Not long after the lights go on, Ryan Callahan puts the Lightning up 1-0 with a goal 27 seconds into the game.

In the executive suite, the Lightning brass are surrounded by executives from Vinik's development team, Strategic Property Partners, as well as local celebrities like former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber and longtime and prospective corporate clients.

The guests are drinking and eating. Lightning management is schmoozing, trying to build new partnerships with local businesses.

As the seconds tick off the first period and the Lightning crowd gives the team a standing ovation, Bill Wickett, the Lightning's executive vice president of communications, points to the ice.

"This is our best commercial, right?"

• • •

After the Penguins score their second goal in two minutes to make it 4-3, Vinik looks up at the scoreboard again.

This time, he shakes his head faintly as he watches the replay. The Penguins have pulled within a goal of forcing overtime. Suddenly, it isn't unreasonable to think the Lightning will go to Pittsburgh down 3-1 in the series.

For the final minutes, with the entire arena on edge and his kids animated at every near miss and close call, Vinik watches silently from his seat. (Griggs, meanwhile, is holed up in his office, pacing alone.) Vinik has a rule for his suite, which has mostly just family: No talking while the puck is in play.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn "last year wouldn't join us for a game because he thought we wouldn't let him talk so he sat with somebody else," Vinik said.

But with about two minutes remaining, Vinik suddenly points out to his son that Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is sprinting back to the bench to bring on an extra attacker. Seconds later, with 1:18 left in the game, Vinik leaps to his feet.

There are mad scrambles in front of the net. Pittsburgh throws puck after puck in the direction of the goal, hoping one goes through. None do.

The Lightning wins.

Vinik watches the celebration, briefly, before turning his back to the ice and heading to the exit of his suite. His family quickly follows, his sons waving towels.

The series is tied, 2-2.

The Lightning has a pulse.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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