Tom Jones: It's good to be Lightning owner Jeff Vinik

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik: “I love being part of the community.’’
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik: “I love being part of the community.’’
Published June 3, 2015


He is believed to be worth more than half a billion dollars.

His education is top shelf: Duke undergrad, Harvard Business School.

He is responsible for the ambitious renovation and idealistic revitalization of downtown Tampa, his adopted home. He donates gobs of money to charity. He has poured millions into sprucing up Amalie Arena, which is home to the hockey team he bought at a bargain in 2011 for $110 million.

And that hockey team? It's now estimated to be worth more than he paid for it and, best of all, it is about to play for the Stanley Cup.

Man, it must be cool to be Jeff Vinik.

"I don't know," Vinik, 56, says with a laugh. "I'm enjoying myself. I've had a great time in Tampa for five years now and I love being part of the community."

Part of the community? That's not quite accurate. More like a leader.

Beloved by hockey fans, respected by business leaders, embraced by citizens. He could probably run for any public office (and win in a landslide) if he didn't already have a way better job being, well, Jeff Vinik.

"During the day, it's about real estate," Vinik said, "and at night I get to go watch the best sport in the world and that's playoff hockey."

For the past six weeks, Vinik has proudly, yet quietly, watched his team navigate its way through the bumper-car ride otherwise known as the Stanley Cup playoffs. How quietly? In Detroit, he was offered a private suite. But acting like a Regular Joe instead of a Mr. Big Shot, Vinik bought a ticket and sat in the seats right alongside rabid Red Wings fans.

That's Jeff Vinik. He does that sort of thing all the time and no one who knows him is surprised by such stories.

He has seen thrilling victories, as well as what he called "our share of clunkers." He has watched his team go from playoff novices to Eastern Conference champs, just four victories away from hockey's holy grail.

"It has been so much fun for me and my family," Vinik said. "To see our guys gain confidence and experience and step up in the big games has really been remarkable. I'm so proud of them and proud of the entire organization. Personally, for me and my family, we get to travel around. It has been a great two-month experience. It has been terrific."

Terrific, welcomed, although not necessarily anticipated. What can be predicted in something as unpredictable as sports?

Vinik, a former hedge fund manager, took over from an ownership comically nicknamed "Cowboys" because of their total lack of vision and planning. He put the right executives in place — CEO Tod Leiweke, president Steve Griggs, general manager Steve Yzerman — yet still figured it would take a while to turn the Lightning from laughingstock to contender.

"A lot of things have to go right; it's so competitive in the NHL," Vinik said. "I was hoping we would be on our way to long-term sustained success. Talking to Steve Yzerman five years ago, we thought in general it probably would take five years to get the organization to where both he and I wanted it to be. Did I know we would competing for the Stanley Cup? No, but obviously, I couldn't be more thrilled than to be in this position."

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Tampa Bay is just as thrilled.

"It's amazing," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, 24, said. "I've been here since I was 18 years old. To come all the way here to the Stanley Cup final means a lot to the whole city of Tampa. You can tell when you cruise down the streets that the people are ready for the Cup finals."

While his team has turned the hockey world upside down, Vinik and his real estate people are in the business of turning Tampa inside out. It's a $1 billion vision to develop 40 acres into a bustling waterfront destination.

Somehow, Vinik finds his mouth is big enough to chew all that he has going on.

"We've got the managerial talent to do more than one thing at a time," Vinik said. "And I tell you, when your hockey team is doing well, you wake up out of bed with a lot of energy."

What's amazing is how much Vinik is doing for Tampa. He's not from here. He was born in New Jersey and lived much of his adult life in Boston. No Tampa connections until he bought the team. Yet, from the moment he took over the Lightning, he jumped into Tampa with both feet. He moved here. He put his money here.

Aside from fixing up the arena and downtown, Vinik has become one of Tampa Bay's leading philanthropists. Each home game, he donates $50,000 to the charity of choice of a local resident doing good in the community. This season alone, that adds up to $2.5 million.

Now check out this latest surprise: During this Stanley Cup final, Vinik is expected to donate $100,000 each home game to his Lightning Community Hero.

How did Tampa get so lucky? Why does Vinik love it here so much?

"One, the people," Vinik said. "I've been to a lot of different places and I've never been anywhere where the people are so nice, so welcoming. You can feel like you're a real part of the community very quickly. And the overall quality of life — the weather, the commuting is tolerable and there's art and outdoor activities and sports and just a great place to live."

It has become an even better place to live because of Vinik.

That's pretty cool.