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If it makes you feel better, Jeff Vinik’s hands are shaking as much as yours

The Lightning owner talks about his competitive drive, playoff close calls and faith in GM Julien BriseBois.
Lightning players and owner Jeff Vinik, center, pose for a group photo while celebrating a 1-0 victory over the Canadiens to clinch the Stanley Cup last year.
Lightning players and owner Jeff Vinik, center, pose for a group photo while celebrating a 1-0 victory over the Canadiens to clinch the Stanley Cup last year. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 19

DENVER — The man in charge is calm. That is his nature.

He watches his hockey team in silence, he stays out of the locker room until the end of each postseason series, and he keeps a low profile around town, even as his development plans transform Tampa.

So how competitive is Lightning owner Jeff Vinik?

“I don’t like to lose,” Vinik said. “I think you can be a low-key guy and still be a high-key competitor.”

Vinik agreed to talk about hockey-only topics before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday. What follows is a sample of his responses. (Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.)

Let’s go back to opening night. The Lightning are two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, but the roster had taken some hits. Did you begin the season thinking Stanley Cup or bust?

Lightning players look on as the Stanley Cup champions banner is raised on the ice before the season opener on Oct. 12, 2021, at Amalie Arena.
Lightning players look on as the Stanley Cup champions banner is raised on the ice before the season opener on Oct. 12, 2021, at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

You know, 82 games of the hockey season is a grind. On opening night, we had only one objective: make the playoffs. If we accomplished that objective, then who knows what can happen from there? We knew we lost a number of really strong players for cap reasons but we thought we brought in a number of really good hockey players.

Was there one player you lost — Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson — that made you sadder than any other?

All the players are like my kids: I love them all equally. I could single out a name, but if you look at four or five players we lost, every one of them was important to our previous success.

Okay, so let’s move to the final night of the regular season. The team was in a bit of a lull. Did you have any doubt they could flip the switch for the postseason?

Hard to call this season unsuccessful when we had 110 points. But I think the last couple of months we weren’t playing to our potential. While we have a high level of confidence in our guys, you’re never quite sure whether any team is going to be able to get back to playing top-notch hockey on the spur of the moment. So there are always going to be those questions.

General manager Julien BriseBois has had phenomenal success with deadline trades and acquisitions. In the past, he’s brought in Goodrow, Coleman, Zach Bogosian and David Savard at midseason. This year, he brought in Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel. Give me one quality you admire in Julien.

Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois has had great success adding pieces to the roster midseason.
Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois has had great success adding pieces to the roster midseason. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Hard-working. Extremely smart. Extremely thoughtful. This is more than one quality. Extremely reputable and the highest integrity. And he’s a really good guy. I kind of call that the whole package.

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Game 6 of the first round against Toronto. The Lightning are facing elimination and the game goes to overtime. You’ve had teams facing elimination before, but never when a season could end in a split second. Describe that moment.

I’m trying to think back if there were any other games like that and I can’t think of one, either. Yeah, that was quite a situation. Down 3-2 going into the third period. I had a discussion with my youngest son, saying, “Well, we’re going to find out what our guys are made of.” I’m a very calm guy when I watch games (but) it doesn’t take much to get my stomach queasy or to get a little nervous or my hands shaking. The third period and overtime of that game were definitely nerve-wracking.

While this team’s core has remained the same, every team has its unique qualities. How would you describe this year’s team?

I’m not sure the previous two years didn’t have these qualities (too), but right now I would describe the will to win and the will to fight for one another, to block shots for one another. (Coach Jon Cooper) is no doubt doing a great job, but the best teams coach themselves and hold each other accountable. And we have that going in spades. We have a great dressing room.

At the commissioner’s news conference Wednesday, someone brought up Tampa Bay’s use of long term injured reserve on the way to the Cup in 2021. There are also people who suggest the 2020 Cup was somehow tainted because of the shortened regular season. Does that stuff ever bother you?

Nikita Kucherov returning in time for last year's playoffs, after missing the season with injury, still rankles opposing fans who think the Lightning pulled salary cap shenanigans.
Nikita Kucherov returning in time for last year's playoffs, after missing the season with injury, still rankles opposing fans who think the Lightning pulled salary cap shenanigans. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

I try not to let things bother me. I’ve been in the press myself for 30 or 40 years. People can say whatever they want, but I know what an accomplishment it was in 2020 for our team to win that Stanley Cup, both on the ice and mentally in the bubble for 60 days. I would argue that winning in the bubble was harder than winning any other Stanley Cup because of the mental aspect. And as the commissioner said we operated fully within the rules (in 2021) and didn’t do anything many other teams have done in the same situation.

What goes through your mind when you look at Thunder Alley filled with fans during a game?

I’ve been very proud of our fans and the whole Tampa Bay area for a number of years. The support we’ve gotten, the number of sellouts in a row now pushing 300, the excitement level in our building. It’s just been wonderful to be a part of that. I couldn’t be more thankful for the whole area.

The Sports Business Journal named the Lightning its team of the year earlier this season. That had to be very satisfying for the organization.

That was a big deal to us. We’re proud not only of the product we put on the ice and the success we’ve had, but we’re proud of the way we run our business. In the community, the way we treat our employees, all aspects and all stakeholders we’re involved with.

You appear to be a very low-key guy, but how competitive are you? There has to be some fire burning to have had the success you’ve had. Are you a sore loser?

No, I actually don’t think I’m a sore loser. I don’t like to lose. I think you can be a low-key guy and still be a high-key competitor. Julien BriseBois is as calm as they come and I can guarantee you he is as much of a competitor as you’ll ever find. I’ve invested in the stock market my whole life. I get a scorecard every day. And I want to perform well every day and I want to beat my competition every day and every year, especially over the long term. I don’t think I’d be in the business of investing or in the business of winning hockey games if I weren’t ultra-competitive.

Is success in the NHL different than success in the stock market? Is one more thrilling than the other?

There are aspects that are enjoyable in both. It’s different. Stock market investing is mainly an individual sport, where it’s me with the help of only a couple of people running the portfolio to have the best results I can. Having success in hockey is the ultimate team sport. Not just on the ice but in the entire community. Much bigger group enjoying and participating in that success. I don’t equate the two, except that I like to win at both.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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