Jeff Vinik on Super Bowl, NHL season, reopening Amalie Arena to fans

The Lightning owner hopes to welcome back fans in the coming weeks but implored residents, “if the Bucs win, celebrate with your masks on.”
Lightning owner Jeff Vinik pictured during a Stanley Cup celebration in September, said Friday that fans could be welcomed back to Amalie Arena in the coming weeks.
Lightning owner Jeff Vinik pictured during a Stanley Cup celebration in September, said Friday that fans could be welcomed back to Amalie Arena in the coming weeks. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 7, 2021

TAMPA — Lightning owner Jeff Vinik spent Friday morning conducting interviews to promote the Tampa Bay area in advance of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“I’m talking a lot these days,” Vinik deadpanned while adjusting his mask.

Normally during a Super Bowl week in Tampa, media would fill the Convention Center. But in the middle of a pandemic, that wasn’t the case.

“If we weren’t in COVID, we’d have three times as much media, but we can’t control that,” Vinik said. “But what we can control is telling our story really well.”

A few steps away, Vinik’s Water Street Tampa project was beginning to transform the downtown area around Amalie Arena. Last month’s opening of the J.W. Marriott hotel in time for the Super Bowl was part of Phase 1 of the project, $2 billion of mixed-use development that will be completed over the next 12-15 months.

Vinik spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about a variety of topics, including the Super Bowl, the NHL season, the Lightning’s fast start and reopening the arena to fans in coming weeks. With respect to the latter, Vinik offered an important message to fans: If the Bucs win, celebrate with your masks on.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, you can sense the excitement in the city this week. You love the Tampa Bay area, you’ve invested in its future. How exciting is it to see Tampa Bay in the spotlight this week?

“It’s especially gratifying. We know how to produce these events. We know how to put on a great show. Nobody’s happy that it’s COVID and a lot of people are suffering a lot during this time. But if you’re going to have a Super Bowl anywhere, have it here, because we’re going to do a wonderful job. And this is a great opportunity for the Tampa Bay area to tell the world our story about what an amazing place to live this is and how much growth — economic growth, quality of life growth, there is. What this region will do over the next 10 to 20 years can be incredible, and we get to tell that story. ... This place is exploding, and there are going to be opportunities here whether there are development opportunities or job opportunities, quality-of-life opportunities for people. I don’t think we’re on the ground floor anymore. We were 10, 20 years ago. We’re now on the third floor, but this ride from floor three to the penthouse over the next 10 to 20 years, people are going to want to be on this ride.”

How did the pandemic affect the timetable for the Water Street Tampa project?

“Surprisingly, we were little affected by the pandemic. The governor deemed construction to be an essential activity. So we’ve fortunately been able to continue construction throughout, tried to have the highest safety standards in mind for all those people who are working on the project. Believe it or not, we actually picked up a couple of months because there was very little traffic on the streets, and that helped in terms of our timeline. And the other reason we’re not hurt too bad by the pandemic is that our buildings are still under construction. If we had finished two years ago and we’re trying to lease up office or lease up residential during this time or hotel, that would have been really difficult, but we’re not. We’re pretty much opening exactly as the economy is going to be taking off again.”

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Switching to hockey, there’s been so much different about this NHL season. And we’ve seen some hurdles with teams getting shut down because of coronavirus outbreaks and games being rescheduled. As you’ve watched, what have you thought about the way this season has progressed so far and the new challenge of completing a season outside the bubble?

“We’ve not felt sorry for ourselves. We’ve tried to understand the situation and figure out how to solve it to the best of our ability. There are a lot of uncontrollables out there, including the virus and how it spreads. We don’t have all the answers, nobody has all the answers here. So we tried to make our arena as safe as possible for our players, for our staff, our workers, for the fans when they come back. Hopefully we get them back in a couple of weeks, we’ll start out. So we’re doing everything we can in terms of that. But from a league level there have been some ups and downs, some bumps. I’m actually encouraged by what’s going on in the NBA, because they had difficulties when they started up in late December, and now they figured out their game and they haven’t had many positive tests the last couple of weeks. I think we’re figuring it out as a league right now, and we’re only a couple weeks behind them, so I’m optimistic.”

The Lightning have gotten off to a strong start. What do you think of how they’ve played so far?

“I’m happy with the way they’ve played. We’ve got a veteran group and talented group. For good or for bad, we got a lot of extra practice at the beginning of the season. We’re going to have a lot of games and not too many days (off). There’s going to be payback for that. It’ll be a grind at some point, but it’s the hockey season, so it’s a fun grind. It’s a grind. But I’m certainly very pleased with the start we’ve had. We’ve been playing really good hockey. This year it’s a 56-game season. It is never easy in the National Hockey League to make the playoffs, so we have to compete our best night in and night out to make the playoffs, because it’s close and it’s competitive in (that) the best team in the league is only 3 percent better than the worst team in the league, especially on a nightly basis. So our only goal at this point is to, what do they say? Munch as many points as we can to get to the playoffs and be in the playoffs and, at that point, I like our chances.”

You mentioned the eventual return of fans to Lightning games in a couple of weeks. Take us through the decision-making process to close the arena to fans to open the season, and now re-opening it.

“We rely on the experts, whether it’s the guys at TGH or USF Health, etc. We get a really good intel and they help us — they tell us — what they think is going to happen when they look out. But really, it’s all about flexibility. We were uncomfortable a month ago when we decided not to have fans at the beginning of the year. That hurt to make that decision. But we had safety in mind, and our cases were skyrocketing at the time. They’ve come down and they’re almost down about 50 percent now, so we really feel good about that. But we didn’t know that back then. So now that’s where we’re at, and we think we’re getting to an environment with all the safety things we’ve done in the building that it can be a safe environment for everybody. So we’re hopeful a week or two from now. We’ll start slow and ramp up and hopefully this whole region, hopefully people during this celebratory weekend both before and after the Bucs win, hopefully they can continue to wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as they can so we can keep these case numbers moving down. That’s really important.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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