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Jeff Vinik sees economic pain, but also a complete recovery. And hockey games, too.

John Romano | The Lightning owner and wife Penny have been donating to coronavirus-related projects all around Tampa Bay the past month.
Jeff and Penny Vinik, shown last year after donating $2.5 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, want to provide a bridge for those who are awaiting government assistance during the coronavirus shutdown.
Jeff and Penny Vinik, shown last year after donating $2.5 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, want to provide a bridge for those who are awaiting government assistance during the coronavirus shutdown. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 14, 2020
Updated Apr. 14, 2020

The phone conversation is beginning to wind down. For 20 minutes, Jeff Vinik has talked about the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, the Lightning and philanthropy. Before hanging up, he has one concern.

A few minutes earlier, when speaking of economic recovery, he said something he now worries will sound insensitive to those affected by the pandemic. In truth, his words were more optimistic than insensitive.

Yet looking back, his angst may be the most telling moment of the entire conversation. This is who Vinik is. Not the hedge fund guy. Not the Lightning owner. Not the downtown Tampa developer. He is the guy who recognizes, and empathizes, with the world around him.

Which explains the $100,000 donation, announced Tuesday by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, to help individuals and small businesses hurt by the shutdown. Which follows the $100,000 donation the week before for a fund started by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman to help small business owners. Which follows the $50,000 donation to USF students in an economic bind due to the virus. Which follows the $300,000 donation to Metropolitan Ministries to provide food for families in need. Which follows an estimated $200,000 spent on public service announcements at the onset of coronavirus in March.

Which, of course, follows the $20 million given the past decade as part of the Lightning’s Community Hero program.

Related: How sports are helping in the coronavirus fight

“As this has evolved with so many people getting laid off, furloughed, becoming unemployed overnight, my wife (Penny) and I have had discussions about where do we think we can help," Vinik said. “There are good federal and state programs out there to get people help for unemployment and for small businesses, but it’s just the logistics of all this. It takes time for the government to get checks to people to help.

“So what we hoped to do as a family is to try to bridge the next month or so between when people lost their income and when they will really start to get support from the government. We’ve tried to address basic human needs like food, like shelter, like utilities."

Vinik, who is part of a local group of investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., is certainly not the only sports entrepreneur who has opened his wallet during this world-wide crisis. He is not even the most generous. Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo and wife Candy donated $2.65 million to Tampa General Hospital last week to help treat coronavirus patients. The Rays, and owner Stu Sternberg, made a matching donation of up to $250,000 for Feeding Tampa Bay earlier this month and also donated $100,000 to Castor’s fund. The Buccaneers did, as well.

But Vinik’s role as a partner in Tampa’s downtown development has made him, arguably, the highest-profile businessman in the community. And that means his words and deeds carry a certain weight during this time of crisis.

So he talks about being sequestered in the house the past three weeks, although it’s not all that unusual since he often works from home anyway. He talks about his three oldest children coming home from Nashville, Washington D.C. and New York to make for an impromptu family reunion. He talks about how his claim to fame over the years has been seeing trends and investments ahead of the pack, but being slow to recognize the worldwide disruption of the pandemic.

And he makes it clear that he believes social distancing has been a critical — and still necessary — component of fighting coronavirus.

“There are things we could have done better, but I think a lot of the programs that the government has created are a step in the right direction," he said. “I’m confident that we will, as a country, be back to being a really solid economy maybe in a year, maybe in two years.

“But I don’t think there is any push-pull here with (the economy). The fact of the matter is, if we didn’t do social distancing, hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of people, would have died. So there is not a doubt in my mind that we have done the right thing."

Related: Redemption is still possible, but Lightning players are running out of time

If he has faith in the economy’s gradual recovery, he is even more optimistic about the possibility of finishing the NHL season. The first week of the playoffs have already been wiped out, but the NHL is making plans for expanding a potential postseason into August.

That’s the hopeful vision. The less-thrilling version includes TV-only games played in empty arenas.

“I am optimistic that we will be able to have some hockey games this summer, or many hockey games this summer," Vinik said. “I don’t know about having fans attend. Frankly that’s a bit hard, at least right now, to envision, although things can change."

Has it been hard to see his hockey team sidelined while knowing the Lightning are among a handful of Stanley Cup favorites?

“I try not to think that way. A lot of people would love to have my problems," he said. “This is a really tough time for everybody … people can’t put food on the table, so I’m focusing on health and focusing on meeting people’s needs right now. Hockey pales in comparison to that."