Unlike those before him, Jeffrey Vinik has provided stable ownership for a Tampa Bay franchise now on the rise. And it all started with a Google search.
With two days between Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup final and temperatures hovering in the 90s with the humidity, it’s difficult to escape that feeling of being sticky and fat. It can be tough to get a hockey vibe, but Tampa is getting there. Even though after 23 years and a Stanley Cup in the market the newspapers still feel compelled to run a ‘Hockey 101’ column in which they explain faceoffs, icing and changing on the fly, Tampa has come a long way. Game 1 of the final got a local TV rating of 18, compared to Game 7 of their 2004 Stanley Cup final triumph, which scored in the single digits. Jeffrey Vinik’s rather unpretentious office in Amalie Arena looks over a bar named Ferg’s, one of the places where fans congregate after games. But there is also a mother lode of undeveloped land, about 40 acres to be precise, and that’s where Vinik’s vision for transforming downtown Tampa is taking shape. And it all started five years ago with a hockey team nobody wanted, run by Oren Koules and Len Barrie whose ill-fated ownership flamed out spectacularly amid bickering and poor decisions.
When Vinik bought the Lightning in 2010, he paid $110 million for it and the lease to the arena, which is the equivalent of dollar store prices in this industry. Not long after, he paid $150 million for the hotel across the street. “(It) has a nice cash flow,” Vinik said, “and this franchise has been losing money.”
Six years ago, Vinik was out of sorts. He was about to turn 50, and he didn’t know what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He’d already made a fortune as a hedge fund manager, first with Magellan Investments in Boston, then on his own. He and a friend were talking over a couple glasses of wine one evening when he decided his future would be as an NHL owner. So the next day, he really did this: he got up, fired up his computer and Googled, ‘How to buy a professional sports team.’ “It was five steps, it was easy,” Vinik said. “No. 1 was ‘Be rich.’ ” Vinik said it gets kind of fuzzy at that point as to whether he pursued a team or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recruited him, but if Vinik hadn’t been introduced to Bettman by a mutual friend, there’s a good chance Bettman would have sought him out. At the time, there was any number of teams available to buy and Vinik looked into about 10 of them before settling on the Lightning. He wanted to be in a place where he could be part of the community, and that turned out to be the most important factor. From Phil Esposito to Bill Davidson to Koules and Barrie, the Lightning has lacked stability in ownership. The last thing they needed was another quick turnover at the top. That’s not a concern with Vinik. He has jumped into Tampa with both feet, using the Lightning as the initial conduit. Now he’s looking at a billion dollar development around the arena. He has put millions of his own money into the arena and has provided solid ownership. He’s in for the long haul. When he hired Steve Yzerman as GM, Yzerman pointed out to him that his player and executive tenure with Detroit lasted 26 years. He wasn’t coming there to be a temporary fixture. An up-and-coming executive of Yzerman’s pedigree wouldn’t have left his situation if he didn’t share Vinik’s vision. If the two are together for 26 years, Vinik will be 77. “I could still be doing this,” he said. Vinik hired Tod Leiweke to operate the business side, while he takes care of the grand vision. Vinik doesn’t know how to skate and has never played hockey. He still has a tough time determining whether one of his defensemen is having a good game or a bad one. So it’s best that, unlike Koules and Barrie, he stays out of hockey matters. From the beginning, though, he had two visions. One of them was to make the Lightning a world-class franchise on and off the ice. Check. The other was to engage and inspire the community. Check. At his first news conference, he told people to judge him by his actions, not his words. And since then, all Vinik has done is back up his words. The Lightning recently took over the local high school hockey league. It hopes to bring an ice and street hockey program to 100,000 kids in the area. For every home game, Vinik’s family donates $50,000 via the Lightning Foundation to local charities through a Community Heroes program. That amount was increased to $100,000 a game for the Stanley Cup final. And then there’s the development around the rink, one that will include everything from a medical school for the University of South Florida to a hotel, retail shopping and jazz clubs. He’s talked to enough people and read enough books to know the entire thing has to be built at once, not piecemeal. After all, there’s no sense in giving people places to shop if nobody lives there. And it all started with the Lightning. If the team didn’t exist, Vinik would have never chosen Tampa Bay. And if not for Vinik, the Lightning might even be playing somewhere else. Like most others, Vinik read the comments from Chicago owner Rocky Wirtz before Game 1 where he said the Blackhawks still aren’t turning a profit. “I was surprised by that,” Vinik said. There might not be a salt mine in the world big enough to accompany that comment, but the reality is the Lightning may never turn a profit. The best Vinik can hope for is to break even and make his money developing real estate, which is a pretty good deal. “The last five years,” he said, “is the most fun I’ve had doing anything.”
This feature appears in the 2014-15 Season Commerative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.