Jay Feaster has been with the Tampa Bay Lightning since 1998 and became the team’s GM in 2002. The Lightning won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2004. In Feaster’s first blog for thehockeynews.com, below, he recalls the club’s early lean years and how he became GM.
When I first started with the Tampa Bay Lightning – I was hired by Jacques Demers to be his assistant GM in November of 1998 – I thought it was going to be a tremendous opportunity for someone who had been in the minor leagues for eight or nine years, which is what I had been doing in the AHL with the Hershey Bears. I had been either the GM or GM-president or president in Hershey and I wanted an opportunity in the NHL. And I was fortunate: When Art Williams bought the Lightning, he fired Phil and Tony Esposito as GM and assistant GM, respectively, and promoted Jacques to GM as well as the head coach. Jacques then placed a phone call to Pierre Lacroix, the GM in Colorado, and asked him who he’d hire if he lost his assistant GM – at the time it was Francois Giguere (now the Avs GM) – and Pierre said, “I’d go to Hershey and hire Jay Feaster.”
I looked at the Lightning franchise as a great opportunity. Art Williams was an excited buyer. He’d just purchased the franchise, he wanted to win, he was committed and it was all brand new for him. And, in coming in with Demers, I recognized that he had never been a GM. He had been a very successful coach, obviously, but had never been a GM. I thought it was going to be a tremendous opportunity to get more responsibility early on, that Jacques would lean on me and look to me to do more things because he would be coaching the team at the same time.
It was shocking to me that I started in November of ’98 and, by December of that year, Art Williams was already so disappointed with things that he was looking to sell the team. There was more than one occasion when I asked myself, “What have I gotten myself into?” I was fortunate in that when (current owner Bill) Davidson’s group came in, (Lightning board of governors) Ron Campbell and Tom Wilson both made it very clear to me right from the beginning that I would be staying. And then they brought in Rick Dudley, so I was the assistant GM under Rick.
The interesting thing about what we went through back then was how many players we had coming through the organization. One season, we had 51 players who drew a paycheck from playing for the Lightning. We had a training camp with 60-70 guys and it was just an amazing process. Rick was trying to upgrade a talent base, and over waiver-wire transactions we would claim a guy one week and, after a couple of games, decide that he wasn’t the answer and we’d put him back on waivers.
So there was that kind of roster turmoil taking place, and we were losing upwards of 50 games a year if you count overtime losses and that sort of thing. The franchise was losing money, it certainly was not what Mr. Davidson had bargained for by way of his investment, so there were some real tough times and some real lean years.
And then came the franchise’s turning point. The thing that was the big issue – the reason, in the end, that I became the GM – is that Rick wanted to trade Vincent Lecavalier, who had held out of training camp that summer. And I don’t care who you are, when you hold out and miss training camp you’re going to be behind the eight ball a little bit. And, certainly, Vinny was. He wasn’t ready to go, and that was when the team captaincy was taken away from him. He wanted to play in the first two games at home, but the decision already had been made that we weren’t going to start him at home. Rather, we wanted to start him on the road because that would give him some time to train and practise with us.
And all those things were left to John Tortorella, who was the new coach, and already Vinny didn’t know where he stood with this coach or didn’t like where he stood with this coach. So, all those messages were communicated and it didn’t take long for Vinny’s agent to call and say, “I don’t think this is ever going to work…I think you need to move him.”
But I didn’t believe we had done much to manage the situation between Vinny and John, and so we had a meeting with ownership. Mr. Davidson came in and sat down with Rick Dudley, John Tortorella, Ron Campbell, our team president, Tom Wilson and myself. Mr. Davidson laid out a series of criteria, basically saying, “If you’re going to think about trading Vinny, you need to think about these issues.”
And, literally, that Friday night we got to Ottawa and I had a message to get in touch with the NHL because Rick wanted to trade Vinny. It was happening so fast and Ron Campbell stepped in and said, “You know, we have to slow down here.” I was asked, “Were the criteria met?” I said, “No”, and that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with Rick. He felt I hadn’t supported him and became more frustrated as time wore on; ultimately there was a decision made that he was going to resign, and that’s when I was named GM (in February of 2002). I thought the most important thing coming in was to try and manage the situation between John and Vinny, because I didn’t want to be known as the GM who had traded away Vincent Lecavalier and I also felt Torts was the right guy to coach the team.
And so that was really my very first meeting. I was named GM, we played one game, and then we went on the Olympic break, so I had a chance to meet with Mr. Davidson and, during the break, also met with Vinny. And I told Vinny I didn’t know where this ship, known as the S.S. Tampa Bay Lightning was going, but wherever it was headed, the three of us – Vinny and John and I – were going to be sitting on the deck chairs looking at each other. My next meeting was with Torts and I told him the same thing – that trading Lecavalier wasn’t going to be my legacy. “I won’t be the GM who trades the guy who may be the best player in the game at some point,” I said. To their credit, those were the two guys who decided they were going to find a way to try and make it work, and they did.
Next week Jay Feaster talks about the process of building a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup.