He said the things everyone in his place has throughout the history of the NHL. When he bought the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2010, Jeff Vinik wasn’t different than any other owner.
In the press release from the team that day Vinik said one thing that caught my attention: “I’ve been an avid hockey fan my whole life and I pledge to our fans that I will work my hardest to build the Lightning into a world class organization both on and off the ice.”
I’m sure if I go back to the press releases or sound bites of any sports owner, they probably said something similar. Maybe the words were different but the takeaway was the same. Basically, they all say I’m not the same as previous ownership. Or they say we’ll do better. Most never follow through. But Vinik is different.
Keeping His Word
Some don’t even try. Some may give it the old college effort but fall short. Others, fall way short. But not Vinik. From his first big decision to last night’s drubbing of Buffalo. Mr. Vinik (respect given) has lived up to those words the day he bought the team. He hired the right people, created the proper mission for the organization. He somehow got buy-in from every employee in the organization. From the Zamboni driver to the marketing department to the guest services team. Then we as fans responded and haven’t stopped. Before Covid affected attendance, the Lightning had over five seasons of consecutive sellouts at Amalie Arena.
Picking up where they left off, they’ve sold out every home game played so far this season. Ultimately Vinik kept his word. This organization is world class. Today, this franchise is the envy of just about every sports team around the globe. That doesn’t happen by accident. It is the result of every cog in the wheel moving in the same, right direction.
What Was Inherited
Sure it’s easy to rattle off the obvious about the Lightning in the Vinik era. Six Conference Finals appearances in 11 seasons. Three Stanley Cup Final appearances and two consecutive Cup victories. This team tied the record for most wins in the regular season in the 2018-19 season.
No doubt this is impressive. Knowing the state of the franchise he bought from Oren Koules and Len Barrie makes it more extraordinary. The cowboys seemingly drove this organization into the ground. They bought the team in 2008 for $200 million and sold it two years later to Vinik for $150 million. That sums up their ineptitude.
It could be said that Vinik had nowhere to go but up. On the ice, the cupboards were bare. Only Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman remain from the pre-Vinik time. On top of that, there was little talent down on the farm. With no reputable front office types, Vinik did what smart managers do. He hired a top flight guy to run the operations. Then he let this hire do the job.
Hire The Best and Move Out of The Way
Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman was one of the first hires in the Vinik era. At that time, you couldn’t find a better hockey guy to be the General Manager. Then Yzerman did the same. Hiring Al Murray to direct the scouting department and Julien Brisebois to run the AHL affiliate then located in Norfolk.
Murray hired his scouts and found gems in Andrei Vasilevskiy late in the first round. Nikita Kucherov was drafted in the second and Brayden Point in the third. One of the best players over the last half decade was found late in the seventh and final round – Ondrej Palat. Don’t overlook the undrafted gems Murray and his staff found. Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde come to mind.
Brisebois hired Jon Cooper to coach the Norfolk Admirals. Cooper not only won the Calder Cup (AHL Championship) but led the team to a record 28 consecutive wins. World class. After Yzerman’s first coach, Guy Boucher, was fired, Brisebois convinced his boss to replace Boucher with Cooper.
World Class Jeff Vinik Era
If you ever had the good fortune to go to a home game, you know why the in game experience is one of the best. From the concessions to the fine dining to the overall guest services, it’s all top notch. When you look at what happens on the ice, it all spells out an incredible experience.
That’s why we are All In, to quote an early marketing plan. We saw Vinik’s commitment by the team investing over $100 million into the renovations at Amalie Arena. There are many sports owners faced with renovation who look first to the taxpayers. Vinik’s CEO, Steve Griggs has led the franchise through these renovations that continue to be the envy of the sports world.
Another example of the world class classiness of this entire organization is the Community Hero program. The Jeff and Penny Vinik Foundation has donated $50,000 to a local community hero at every home game.
Fifty large to a person or charity that does noble work in our community. In today’s vernacular, hella impressive. They’ve been doing this since 2011. Overall, the Vinik Foundation has donated over $23 million to our community. The epitome of world class.
Supporting The Organization
We fans have the easy part. All we need to do is support the team. From all fronts, we appear to be doing just that. Sure, there’s some chuckleheads who go ballistic when the team loses. But check the sales on Tampa Bay Lightning gear. We buy their merchandise in droves.
Yes, there is a portion of the fanbase who get pissed when the salary cap means a fan favorite has to be jettisoned to another team. Still, we are on board with this team. Through the ups and downs of the NHL seasons, we’re all in. We love this team. The players, the coaches, the front office and even the Zamboni drivers.
We may be a relatively new hockey market but we recognize world class when we see it. Jeff Vinik is a man of his word. He said it and he acted upon it by making the right decisions and taking the proper actions. All which has made the World Class Jeff Vinik era for the Tampa Bay Lightning possible, just as he promised.
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