Jeff Vinik has revived Tampa Bay's hockey franchise.
Now he wants to raise a new generation of Tampa Bay hockey fans.
The Lightning owner on Monday announced a new $6 million, five-year program to expand youth hockey in the bay area.
The Lightning will partner with the NHL and the NHLPA player's union in the "Build the Thunder" campaign. The goal: reach more than 100,000 kids across the Tampa Bay region through school outreach programs.
One highlight of the program: Past and present Lightning players and coaches will work with 100 at-risk youth, instructing them in hockey and in life.
"There's 100 kids we're going to work with to hopefully really make a difference in their lives," Vinik said.
About 350 kids were on hand for the announcement. They played street hockey outside the Amalie Arena with their new sticks and just about drowned out Vinik during the news conference.
The Lightning would not say how much each partner is contributing toward the $6 million venture. Vinik said all three "have significant skin" in the youth hockey program.
"It's all of us," he said. "It's the players, it's the league, it's the owners — all working together to create programs like this."
Lightning executive director of community hockey Jay Feaster, who was general manager of the team when it won the Stanley Cup in 2004, said the program will benefit the kids and the team.
"Hopefully, we're creating new fans and new experiences," Feaster said.
Another goal of the campaign is to register 1,000 more Tampa Bay kids with USA Hockey, the governing body of amateur youth hockey. The $40 membership is required for kids to play organized hockey.
Feaster estimated that there are already 920 registered players in the Tampa Bay area. So how realistic would it be to double the number of youth hockey players in five years? Particularly in a state where the ice rinks are few and far between?
"There's no question that we're going to need some more sheets of ice," Feaster said. "We're pretty confident that, over a five-year period, we can give 1,000 a run.
"There's a tremendous opportunity for growth."
The costs of playing ice hockey, even at the recreational level, add up quickly. Time on the ice, gear, jerseys, travel, skate sharpening, tape and training are all typical and recurring expenses.
That's where the 100 at-risk kids come in. The Lightning will assign them mentors from its ranks of players and coaches, Feaster said, pay for their fees, equipment and travel costs.
The program will also expand the Lightning High School Hockey League, which is made up of 18 high school club teams from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Feaster said up to 60 roster spots will be added to a league that already has about 400 players. The Lightning will coordinate their outreach efforts with schools in those counties, he said.
The team also plans to offer 10,000 hours of training for players and coaches alike.
Hillsborough County schools deputy superintendent Van Ayres came to the arena for the news conference but didn't know what to expect.
"We're going to be all on board with this," Ayres said. "The schools are the hub of our community. Anytime we can bring in the community partners and this after-school programming for our students, this is what keeps them motivated and gives them a purpose."
Vinik has donated millions to charity since buying the Lightning, the arena lease and some vacant property in 2010 for what is believed to be $110 million. Under his ownership, the Lightning returned to the Stanley Cup final this past summer. Vinik has also spent tens of millions more amassing real estate around the arena and is leading a $1 billion redevelopment along downtown Tampa's waterfront.
"We have a great partnership going with the community," Vinik said.
For the not-so-serious hockey fans out there, the team partnered with equipment manufacturer Bauer Hockey to hand out 100,000 street hockey sticks and balls to third, fourth and fifth graders across the bay area through November.
Jerome Baltimore, 10, stood in line outside the street hockey area as he waited for his turn to play. He already had his free hockey sick, T-shirt, hat and meal from Chick-fil-A.
"At my school we don't have positions," said Baltimore, a fourth grader at Lowry Elementary. The kids there, he said, play hockey for a very simple reason:
"You just get to have a great time and have fun with everybody."
Contact Michael Majchrowicz at (813) 226-3374 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mjmajchrowicz.