- Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik opens up about turning around a once declining franchise, how hockey was always his first love, and his strategy to make sure the team remains successful.
BOSTON — The owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning took a car service on this muggy Friday evening for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals—he is a billionaire, after all—but if the weather were nicer Jeff Vinik could’ve easily walked to TD Garden from home. He and his wife Penny still own property here, a luxury condo left over after spending nearly two decades based in the city, before they relocated south and reinvigorated a struggling NHL franchise.
(According to The Athletic, the couple met at a Cambridge restaurant called The Hong Kong, most famous for serving flower pot-sized scorpion bowls of mystery punch. As a graduate of a local college and occasional visitor to the establishment, I can attest that these knockout vessels are boozy enough to make anyone think twice about moving anywhere for at least the next, oh, several dozen moon cycles.)
From the stock market to the ice rink, Vinik has thrived at every turn. The Lightning were hemorrhaging money and losing fans when he took over the franchise from Len Barrie and Oren Koules in 2010, but the turnaround has since been both remarkable and swift. Season ticket sales skyrocketed. Sellouts became standard. Blue bolt flags fly on seemingly every sun-splashed porch, the NHL All-Star Game came to town last January, and the players just reached their third conference finals in four years, reeling off four straight victories to eliminate Boston after posting the best regular season in team history.
An hour before the puck dropped on Game 4—an overtime triumph on defenseman Dan Girardi’s one-handed redirection that gave the Lightning last licks, to say nothing of the actual tongue bath that Boston’s Brad Marchand bestowed upon winger Ryan Callahan in the second period—Vinik spoke with SI.com about taking over Tampa Bay, hiring a Hall of Famer as general manager, watching one of his sons almost come to blows with some angry opposing fans, and more.
SI: How did you come to own this team?
JV: I was with a friend at the Jingle Ball in Danvers, Mass., about a half hour north of Boston. My daughter was down on the floor with friends, enjoying it. We were having a glass of wine in the concourse. I said, “What am I going to do for fun the rest of my life? Don’t love playing golf.” I said, “I’m going to buy a hockey team.” I was a small owner of the Red Sox at the time. Never occurred to me more.
SI: So why did your Jingle Balled brain go to hockey then?
JV: I love hockey. It’s my favorite sport. My Red Sox partners did not know that at the time. Ever since I was a kid, I loved the game. When I was 5, I used to go to bed at night with a tiny TV and I used to watch New York Rangers games. I was a Rangers fan for about 25 years.
SI: Were you looking at other teams besides the Lightning?
JV: The Boston Bruins weren’t for sale, weren’t going to become for sale. I looked at Dallas, Phoenix, Florida, Atlanta before they moved to Winnipeg, Nashville, New Jersey, the Islanders, Columbus, Carolina ... just evaluating them all. One of the big factors was, where do you want to live? And Florida is a great place to live.
Beside the great demographics of Tampa — 2% population increase per year, which is an incredible compounding effect — I just thought the whole community had so much potential that wasn’t realized. On top of a great hockey team, really welcoming people, successful sports in the past, lots to do. All of these factors. It just seemed like a place that my family would fit in really well.
SI: Was buying the Bruins your pipe dream?
JV: I don’t know. Even though I was a Bruins fan when my kids were young, for 15 or 20 years, I’m not sure they were in my heart. We kind of adopted them. Probably because we lived there, yes, that would’ve been the best thing to do. I don’t know if I’d call it a pipe dream. It’s not like I wanted my entire life to own the Rangers or the Bruins. I never thought about it. Maybe potentially.
SI: Your employees haven’t been shy about saying what poor shape the franchise was in when you arrived. What were you walking into?
JV: It was in tough shape. The brand was really hurting in the Tampa Bay Area. The team had several years in a row of not making the playoffs. The building really wasn’t kept up well enough. And the organization wasn’t run particularly well at the time, and losing tens of millions of dollars. So on the one hand, things were in tough shape.
On the other hand, plenty of opportunity. Still a good building with good bones. Still a good sports market in Tampa Bay, if you give them something to root for. Still had just drafted [captain Steven] Stamkos and [Norris Trophy finalist Victor] Hedman, so you had two franchise players starting out.
There were still a lot of good things at the time. But in retrospect, the team was in really tough shape and if I weren’t so fortunate to bring in Tod Leiweke as CEO and Steve [Yzerman] as GM, I don’t know if the team would’ve made it in Tampa, frankly.
SI: Why did you hire Steve?
JV: Because he was fantastic. I’m not talking Steve Yzerman the hockey player, I’m talking Steve Yzerman at that time, the potential GM. He’d never done that before. He’d gone through Red Wing University under Ken Holland. Just the time I spent with Steve, how thoughtful he is, how smart he is, how much common sense, how much he knows about hockey, personality, respectfulness, just everything about him … and you talk to references, everyone had tremendous respect for Steve Yzerman. He was my first choice from the moment I met him.
SI: Do you ever get intimidated by him?
JV: I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the nature of our relationship, but we’re not on the ice together. He’s a great, I’d call him a partner, to have as we try to create sustained excellence with our hockey program and our franchise. Our visions are aligned. We see eye to eye. I told him on day one, “I’m going to give you all the resources you need. You’re going to make all the decisions. I’m not going to interfere.”
Why would I, Jeff Vinik, tell Steve Yzerman who to draft or trade? We’ll talk budget. We’ll talk strategy, salary cap, things like that. Steve has put together a great organization on the hockey side-—I’m not talking the players, but head of amateur scouting Al Murray, assistant GM Julien Brisebois ... The last thing I want to do is interfere. They do their job pretty well.
SI: As a money guy, what impresses you about the way he’s handled the salary cap world, especially when that cap has stayed relatively flat over the past couple seasons?
JV: The best word I could use is thoughtful. He’s methodical, detail oriented, relentless. A lot of this is like he was as a hockey player. He’s well respected and has contacts throughout the world of hockey. He makes informed decisions. It’s hard, as you know, drafting players, making trades. Nobody’s perfect. But he puts so much hard work into it, so much thought into it, that I like his shot and It think he’s going to have as good a batting average as anybody.
SI: What constitutes a model franchise in your mind?
JV: I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. I’m a very competitive guy. This 5-foot-6 inch body isn’t going to be playing a lot of pro sports and never was.
SI: Tyler Johnson gets by.
JV: [laughs] That’s true. This unathletic 5-foot-6 inch guy isn’t going to be playing a lot of pro sports and never did. But I’m competitive. In the money management business, I always wanted to be the best over a long period of time. We want our franchise to be one of the best also. That’s on the ice and off the ice.
SI: Is there a stylistic carryover between stocks and owning a pro sports team?
JV: Hire great people. I’ve definitely adopted a model of business dealings, which is hire great people, treat them as partners, not employees. Let them do their job, don’t meddle, and hold them accountable. Over the last 15 years, as I shut down my money management organization, gotten involved in more different businesses and obviously owning the Lightning, I think I’ve adopted that methodology of doing things.
SI: Does it strike you that Steve operates in a similar way? He’s not going to [coach Jon Cooper] with lineup changes.
JV: That’s one of the areas we’re aligned. I’m a big chain of command guy, within reason. The players report to the coach, the coach reports to the GM, the GM reports to me. Steve doesn’t tell the coach who to play, who to sit out, who should be on which line. He lets Coop do his job. I know philosophically Steve and I are aligned.
SI: Did you meet with Steven Stamkos when he was about to enter free agency and deciding whether or not to return?
JV: Versus other owners, I don’t spend much time with the players. I’ve gotten to know him over time. In his last year there, before he signed the contract before he would’ve been a free agent, I think we were on a plane together at one point. We had a nice conversation.
Then the night before he signed, we talked on the phone. It was a pretty simple conversation: “We want you, Stammer for the next eight years. You’re a great person, a great hockey player. You’re everything that Tampa Bay wants to have as the core of the franchise.” He pretty much said, “I want to be here too.” I certainly had a good feeling about it.
SI: What impresses you about how he handles himself as a captain?
JV: He’s really grown into the role. My first year would’ve been his second year. I got to know him a little bit. I’ve seen him grow as a person, grow as a captain over time, grow as a leader over time to where he is now. He’s in a great place. He’s just been a good kid the whole time. A really good person. Was then, and he is now.
SI: How do you think he’s grown into it?
JV: His leadership on the team, his command of the room, his leadership on the ice with he way he treats other guys on the team, the way he works hard, tries to show leadership. Across the board he’s embraced the role. He got to see Vinny, and Marty, other great leaders and learn from them.
SI: Have you noticed more players from the ’04 Stanley Cup team coming back?
JV: A lot of Lighting alumni end up settling in Florida after they retire ...
SI: Can’t imagine why.
JV: ...Right? Hockey players love to play golf, and they’re good at it. It’s amazing how often we have alumni around us, going to games. It’s a good deal.
SI: As a fan, have you enjoyed talking to them about what it was like to win?
JV: It’s fun to hear the stories. We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, so we got the Stanley Cup winning team together. Those guys have a great time telling stories. They have a special bond. Hopefully sooner rather than later the group of guys we have now can experience that bond.
SI: Do you feel set up for the long haul?
JV: We’d like to think so. But this is sports, this is hockey. There’s a salary cap. It’s not easy to keep everybody. Steve’s done a really good job up until this point. We have plenty of challenges ahead. A bunch of guys need to get signed over the next couple years and it’s going to be hard to fit them all under the cap.
We’d like to think we’re set up. Our plan is to have sustained success. There is inherent cyclicality to sports, but we hope that we can be one of the top teams here year in and year out.
SI: What was your favorite moment from the All-Star Game, pirate or not pirate-related?
JV: The whole thing was a great weekend. Maybe when Kuch scored the goal where he does the fake shot on Holtby. Second time he’s done it. To him.
SI: I have to ask you about the story where your son almost got into a fight with an Islanders fan. What happened?
JV: This was two years ago. Playoffs. We’re playing the Islanders. There was a fan there, a few rows in front of our suite in Brooklyn who was just yelling at him. Jared, we tell him just let them be, don’t bug them. He decides to tell back. Got a little bit heated. Nothing bad broke out.
SI: You watch games in the stands sometimes, right?
JV: In the sand?
SI: The stands. Well, maybe in the sand given where you live.
JV: Not during the playoffs. But I can go to opposing arenas and get a couple tickets. No one knows who I am. It’s better views than the suites sometimes. I’ve done that a lot of places. If I go to a game and I’m with one person or my kids, we’ll get two tickets in the stands rather than getting a suite. My first year, I didn’t know the process or the procedure for getting tickets to away games, so I scalped tickets for the Montreal game. Waited in line and got in. It’s a live building. It’s great.