Wealth has its privileges. Getting across the Canadian border is apparently not one of them.
You think it stinks to watch the Lightning play in the Stanley Cup final from afar? Just imagine how Jeff Vinik feels. The NHL might have been able to expedite Vinik’s entry into Canada during the pandemic, but the league could not guarantee his family would get fast-tracked too.
So, Saturday night, the Lightning owner will turn on the TV just like you and settle in to watch Game 1 against Dallas in Edmonton. If the choice was being close to his team, or sitting next to his family, Vinik said it was no choice at all.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the rules have been loosened for Lightning viewing parties. Just like in the owner’s suite at Amalie Arena, it’s all business while the puck is in play. No chit-chat, no off-topic remarks. Heckling might be allowable on a case-to-case basis.
“If anything, we’ve intensified that rule,” Vinik said, laughing. "For anybody who joins us — one of my sons has brought a friend over — we’re very clear about the no-talking rule. We’ve been doing this together as a family long enough to know.
“I wish I could tell you I was in Edmonton, and I wish I could tell you I was going to Edmonton. But it would have been hard to get my wife and kids in, and we’ve been in this together for 10 years now. So, I would just rather watch the games with them.”
It is the inverse reality of the sacrifice made by Lightning players. While they had to say goodbye to their families two months ago to begin their quarantined quest, Vinik has instead passed up the chance to see Lord Stanley’s Cup won in person in order to remain home.
In a way, it fits Vinik’s celebrity-shy style. Typically, the only time he heads into the team’s dressing room is after they’ve won a playoff series. So to compensate, he’s been talking to general manager Julien BriseBois by phone every other day, and he’s done a FaceTime call with coach Jon Cooper after the clinching game in each of the first three rounds.
Mostly, he has sat back and admired all of the qualities the rest of the world is only now seeing in his Lightning team. Vinik, 61, understood the calls for changes after last season’s first-round disappointment against Columbus. He also understood they were misguided.
Changes had to be made, but an overhaul was never considered. The Lightning lacked some complementary players and they needed to adjust their offense-first mentality, but Vinik said Cooper’s job was never in jeopardy for a moment.
“When I talk with people about Columbus last year, I tell them s--t happens in hockey,” Vinik said. “It’s tight out there, even between a No. 1 seed and a No. 8 seed," Vinik said. "Columbus beating us was not the biggest upset in the history of sports. It was a major disappointment we did not perform well, but it’s very hard to get to where we are now, and that’s why we’re so thrilled to be there.”
The Lightning have been here before, and that only underscores how difficult the journey can be. In Vinik’s 10 seasons as owner, Tampa Bay has lost Game 7 of the conference final three times and has reached the Stanley Cup final twice.
The only team with more postseason victories than the Lightning during the Vinik era are the Bruins. Tampa Bay has won more playoff games than Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago and St. Louis, but all of those teams have won Stanley Cups.
The vagaries of the sport are not lost on Vinik.
“You can’t suffer too many injuries, your goalie has to be hot. You’re going to be in an overtime game where the puck hits the post and either goes in or doesn’t go in. That’s hockey. It’s what’s great about the game,” he said. “There are so many talented teams and so many kinds of random events that happen in a low-scoring game that, yeah, it makes it really hard to get back to the final.”
There is some kismet to Tampa Bay’s place in the final against Dallas. A dozen years ago, when Vinik was first exploring the idea of buying a hockey team, the Stars were on the market. Vinik looked at the possibility of buying in Dallas, as well as several other teams, but eventually decided he was a better lifestyle fit for Tampa Bay.
“I did think Texas was a great opportunity. Great demographics, great growth market, very similar to Florida,” he said. “But In terms of personality fit and where we wanted to live, I just didn’t see myself fitting in with (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones and (Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban.”
Vinik has watched most of the postseason from the family’s summer home in Cape Cod but plans on returning to Tampa in the next few days, as soon as he can work out travel schedules for his four kids.
If the idea of being 2,800 miles away from a potential celebration with his team is bothering him, Vinik hides it well.
“The way I look at it is 2020 has been a really challenging year for almost everybody,” he said. “Hopefully, we can bring a little joy to the Tampa Bay area by winning the Stanley Cup and having this deep playoff run. If we can do that, you know, we’ve really moved the needle to help people out. That’s the attitude I try to have. I don’t want to think of not being there as heartbreaking. I focus on the positive side of things.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.