The sports world lost one of its greatest executives March 13 when Detroit Pistons and former Tampa Bay Lightning owner Bill Davidson died at the age of 86.
Mr. ‘D,’ as those who worked for him affectionately called him, was a true gentleman and a class act. In my opinion, he was the best owner a GM could ask for, as he firmly believed in hiring good people and giving them the freedom and autonomy to do their job. As I said of my tenure as GM of the Lightning, with Mr. D at the helm, I always sensed that it was my wedding or my funeral, but either way, it was mine.
During a luncheon meeting in Tampa in December 2001, I kept pressing him about his feelings on the modest turnaround we were starting to see in the hockey club at the time. Then-GM Rick Dudley and newly minted coach John Tortorella were also in attendance, along with team president Ron Campbell and Palace Sports CEO Tom Wilson. I was insistent in my questioning and hoping for a hint of praise from Mr. D for what we had been accomplishing.
After more badgering he finally looked at me and very matter-of-factly said: “Look, I bought this as an investment. And as an investment, it stinks!”
When I took over as GM in February 2002, I promised Mr. D I would run the team in such a manner as to maximize shareholder value both in the short- and long-terms. I also said the best way to maximize shareholder value was by winning.
In the summer of 2003, after we had won our first-ever Southeast Division title and playoff round, ‘Torts’ used the print media in Tampa to vociferously express his displeasure with the fact that I had not yet extended the contracts of he and his coaching staff; not to mention that I had failed to retain unrestricted free agent Vaclav Prospal, following what had been a successful season pairing him with Vincent Lecavalier. As always, Torts pulled no punches.
Mr. D saw his comments and phoned Ron Campbell to tell him to let me know I was free to fire Torts if I wanted, noting I didn’t have to put up with that kind of insubordination. Mr. D didn’t demand I fire Torts, he simply wanted me to know he would support me either way. That was how he operated.
The same was true in January 2004 when we wanted to acquire Darryl Sydor from Columbus in exchange for 2001 third overall pick, Alexander Svitov. In so doing, we would be exceeding our player payroll budget. Mr. D listened to our rationale and ultimately green-lighted the acquisition that enabled us to win the Stanley Cup.
My fondest memory of our time together took place on the ice following Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2004. As we embraced, I pulled back to look him in the eyes and said, “Thank you for allowing me to manage your hockey team.” He looked at me and said: “Never in my wildest dreams, Jay, did I ever imagine this!”
He had incredible success as an owner – three NBA titles, a Stanley Cup and a WNBA championship, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame – and he was an even greater success as a human being. In every respect, Mr. D was truly one of a kind.
Thanks, Mr. D, for letting us achieve greatness, and may you rest in peace.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.