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A conversation with former GM and current Executive Director of Community Hockey Development Jay Feaster

The former Lightning GM recently returned to the organization where he built a Stanley Cup winning team, albeit in a brand new role. We sat down and talked to him about the state of amateur hockey in Florida, a dark time in Lightning history and a certain former head coach.

Former Lightning GM has returned to the organization in a new role, designed to promote participation in and awareness of the game of hockey.
Former Lightning GM has returned to the organization in a new role, designed to promote participation in and awareness of the game of hockey.
Bruce Bennett

Jay Feaster secured his place in Tampa Bay Lightning history as the general manager of the Bolts when the team rose from below mediocrity to the very top of the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup in 2004. Prior to that, he earned a law degree and was the general manager of the AHL's Hershey Bears, where he also managed the arena they played in.

After being asked to resign in 2008 by then-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, Feaster served as general manager for the Calgary Flames before being relieved of his duties by team president Brian Burke last winter. He recently returned to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the newly-created role of Executive Director, Community Hockey Development. We sat down recently and talked to him about his new role with the organization and some fond and not-so-fond memories from his previous tenure.

Raw Charge (RC):You have a law degree, a background in facility management and have built a Stanley Cup winner as a GM. How did the Lightning manage to find a job for you that you haven't already done?

Jay Feaster (JF):(laughs) Well, I don't coach and I don't play. I have been very, very fortunate in that when I started off in the minors in Hershey in the American League, I was also responsible for facility management; I ran an arena, I ran a stadium, we brought in a professional soccer team that played in the old A league, so I have some experience there. I think ultimately what it comes down to is management. That's what I've done. With my background as an attorney, I think I'm a  pretty quick study and certainly know where to go to find the answers to things. I think I'm pretty good at managing people, so this is just a great opportunity. To be able to try and grow the game, to be able to proselytize about the game, preach how great hockey is here, because I believe we have the best owner in the game. That's what was attractive to me, and I've been in hockey management for almost 25 years now. To step away from the management side of it and step into the community aspect of it is what was attractive to me. Coming back here... we consider this home, my wife and kids and I... but it's the fact that Jeff Vinik is committed. Mr. Vinik puts the resources into it, he created this position in order to put an executive level of focus on growing the game. And you know when he commits, its going to be world class.

RC: In the past, the team's involvement in local amateur hockey might have been seen as a community outreach, public relations gesture, a nice thing for the team to do for kids. But now, it seems that the strength or weakness of a community's hockey program can be a factor in a player deciding where he wants to play. Players are looking at their kids' futures and their development as hockey players.

JF: Certainly one of the things we feel very strongly about is the need to continue to develop youth hockey and certainly in this area and that's a two-fold thing. Not just in the issue of players making decisions based on the strength of the youth hockey program here, if I choose to come to the lightning as opposed to going to another team. But also for the bigger picture, which is growing the game itself here in the state of Florida.

RC: The word is that Jarome Iginla ultimately chose to sign with the Colorado Avalanche instead of the Lightning largely due to the caliber of the Denver area's youth hockey programs.

JF: Yeah, I don't know. I've heard that rumor as well. I haven't spoken to Jarome. I know Jarome well, but I haven't spoken to him as to whether or not that's true. It isn't just in terms of having it be strong and vibrant in terms of a recruiting tool. But it's also a case where we don't want young people to have to feel that they need to leave the state when they get to be really good players at the age of 14, 15, 16. If they want to try to go on and make it as a pro player or even just get a Division-One scholarship. That is the reason the Lightning organization created this position. We want to continue to be able to build and grow youth hockey so it is a strong program and it is something that becomes one of the many recruiting tools we have, although it certainly shouldn't be a mitigating factor. And at the same time, have it be something where kids don't feel they have to leave the state.

RC: At this point, what part of the area's youth hockey programs needs the most attention?

JF: The Mites. The young kids. In an ideal world, it’s getting the four to eight-year-old kids in the Mite and Mini-Mite age range and then being able to show them and provide them with a clear path that "here are the opportunities you're going to have along the way", including having a very strong and vibrant high school program. And even as a subset of that, a development program, a junior varsity program if you will. To be able to show kids, "here’s the ladder you can climb" and again make it strong, make it vibrant.

RC: How would you assess the current state of local high school hockey?

JF: It's a situation where I think there has been some real consistency brought to it here over the last three or four years in terms of having 16 to 18 teams. As with any situation, in an ideal world we'd have all "pure" teams. We don't have that. There are four or five teams that are "pure" teams. They're not drawing from other schools, they're filling their roster from within their own student body. But again I think the attention of the board [the executive board of the Florida High School Hockey Association's Lightning Conference]... and I'm just getting it to it myself; I've only been on the job for little over a month or so here... I think there is consistency here that we have that sort of 16 to 18 teams. And again the idea is, let's grow it and get it recognized at a minimum as a club sport at the schools so we can make more people aware of it. One of the things that we still think is a challenge for us is that a lot of kids just don't know that they have that option because it's not something that's recognized by the school districts. You know, you don't hear announcements on the P.A. system, you don't have flyers on the bulletin boards. So at a minimum, let's get it up to club status so we can do those things. And then ultimately, down the road the goal is to have it be a fully sanctioned varsity sport.

RC: Without the presence of an NHL franchise, do you think hockey as a high school sport would even exist in the Tampa Bay area?

JF: I think that certainly the Lightning and the attention we've brought to it has helped. The high school program is the Lightning Conference, after all. Dave Andreychuk sits on that board with the Florida High School Hockey Association. At the same time, [former Lightning all-star forward] Brian Bradley is an elected member to that board. Brian sat in the Lightning chair prior to Dave going in. Tom Garavaglia [Lightning Community Hockey Coordinator] is very, very active in providing information. We provide practice ice here at the Tampa Bay Times Forum during the week, we also host an all-star game and then of course, the conference finals, the Lightning Cup, are held here at the building. It's a case where we as an organization are trying to do more. We want to do more, we want to be more in terms of our outreach into the youth community and grow the game. But at the same time, I'm impressed by the fact that in just a relatively short period of time that there are a lot of people here who are passionate about hockey . There are a lot of great volunteers out there and a lot of great coaches. Yes, clearly the Lightning is a driving force but there are a lot of people who would be trying to put together a high school program even if there weren't an NHL franchise here.

RC: Tampa Bay is frequently referred to as a "non-traditional" hockey market. To many, unfortunately, that translates as "inferior." Do you expect that "non-traditional" label to hinder your efforts in any way?

JF: I truly believe, and having been here for ten years before and then having spent the last four years in Calgary, I think that perception is fueled by media and people who are not from here and who have no idea. People who have no clue. It's a knee-jerk reaction, I really believe that. It's a reaction from people who haven't bothered to look at it and study it and see how strong and good it really is. I think this is a great hockey market. The people who fill this building, I think they're passionate. They're vocal and they're into it. It's an exciting atmosphere. As someone who was only focused on the team when I was here before, not that it was a case of blinders on necessarily, but I wasn't focused on the youth market or high school hockey or sled hockey. And that's what's been incredible since I've been back, that there's a lot of good stuff going on and there's still so much opportunity for growth. I mean, that's what's exciting; there are good things already happening but there are still opportunities to grow it even more. So personally, I don't believe it and I don't feel that in this position that i have to fight that perception within the region. Again, it's about making people aware of what we have. I just came back from a sponsorship summit that the organization held in Clearwater. We presented the different things that we have in our community hockey and various Lightning Made programs and during the break, there were people coming up and saying "I didn't know you did that. I didn't know that was an opportunity. We'd like to be involved in that." I think that's the challenge, to build awareness. but I love it as a hockey market.

RC: Speaking of non-traditional, a unique aspect that is a big part of this particular market is that Tampa has a sizable Hispanic or Latino population, people who are not generally associated with being hockey fans or involved with the game. Are there any plans to reach out to that community?

JF: You know, I attended a cigar social hosted by the sales department recently and I met someone there, we talked about that very topic and followed it up with a lunch meeting. And while I don't have specific programs in place right now, that is an area that we have talked about in terms of doing outreach.

RC: Are there other non-traditional markets that have done a particularly good job in establishing community hockey programs and if so, are you looking to work with them on ideas that might be effective here?

JF: Absolutely. One of them -- and again, until I got into this position, I had no idea -- one of the best practices, the bellwether, one of the best programs, and I'd be thrilled to emulate it here, is the Anaheim Ducks. It is unbelievable what Anaheim has done in terms of youth hockey, high school hockey, in-school programs, education-based programs in the schools out there. And actually, I'm talking to my counterpart out there this afternoon. There are other great programs out there. The Dallas Stars do a great job too. But Anaheim is the standard setter.

RC: Any plans to involve Lightning alumni in these efforts? We seem to have more and more former Bolts retiring here and sticking around the area.

JF: Yes. We want to have a very active and very engaged alumni group. I just think that's such a great thing. My very first week here, we had one of our Lightning Made summer camps down in Ellenton. I look out there and instructing the kids, the ages are running 6 to 14, and you look out there and there are three 2004 Stanley Cup champions out there in Jassen Cullimore, Chris Dingman and Stan Neckar. And again with our recent Lightning Made Training Camp. The instructors on the ice were all alumni and/or current coaches with the organization. So there's no question we want to tap into that alumni group. We want to bring everything ultimately under the Lightning Made banner. Whether its private lessons with Stan Neckar or Vinny Prospal or Filip Kuba or Culli or Dingman or Pavel Kubina. Whether its private lessons or clinics, but we want to do it all under that Lightning Made umbrella . What we want is for this to be the one stop shop for parents, for kids, for fans. You come to the Lightning web site and you'll be able to know all about all of these things that are happening throughout the region. Because again, it's our goal to grow participation in the game and awareness of the game.

RC: Going back to Mr. Vinik and his ownership of the team, did you ever imagine that the franchise would survive the circumstances in play when you left and be where it is today?

JF: No, honestly I did not. When I left, I still had three years left on my contract as general manager, when I was asked to resign and Oren Koules and Len Barrie brought Brian Lawton in. We still lived in the market. Our oldest daughter had just finished grade ten at Tampa Catholic and we wanted her to finish high school here, so we stayed those next two years. And it was...bleak. It was dark. It was difficult to come to the building. Bill Wickett [Lightning Executive Vice President of Marketing & Communications] was good enough to get me a press credential because I was scouting on my own, just trying to stay current because I knew I wanted to get back into management at some point. It was tough coming to the building and it was tough seeing the people who were here at that time and what they were experiencing. And to see where it is now and to have an owner like this? It's just so exciting. I go back to Mr. Davidson who owned the team when we won the Cup and Mr. Davidson was a great owner who did a lot of great things. But of course, he didn't live here in the community. That's the great thing about Mr. Vinik. He's right here and he's making that commitment and he's giving back to the community. It really is a case where I think we're poised at the right time in terms of the talent and the players that are in this organization. I think Jon Cooper is just a fantastic coach. Steve Yzerman and his group are doing great work. I'm excited about what the team can do, but I'm even more excited about this ownership group. And not just Jeff Vinik. It's Tod Leiweke [CEO] and [President] Steve Griggs and Bill Wickett among others. It really is a great group of people here.

RC: Of course, we can't visit the past without talking about the good times as well. In particular, do you have a John Tortorella story you can share with us?

JF: Oh gosh (laughs), we could spend days on Torts stories! My favorite part of our run together, I always go back to '04 and the playoffs. It was just the way he had this ability in the playoffs, because he was such a hard-ass guy during the regular season and constantly grinding and pushing, to adapt. When the playoffs rolled around, he used to tell me, "Now I need to be with them. They need to know that I'm their guy." And I look back to the Philadelphia series and Nikolai Khabibulin got bombed here at home, gave up 7 goals or whatever it was, and the whole "Shut Your Yap" thing to [then-Flyers head coach Ken] Hitchcock and how that whole thing exploded. And it was all planned. That was the thing about John. I don't believe his trying to get into the Calgary locker room this past season was planned (laughs). I don't believe that was planned ahead of time. But everything he did back in '04 was all carefully orchestrated and designed to take pressure off the team. And it worked. By the time we got to Philadelphia after game two here, we got there and nobody asked about Khabibulin. Nobody asked "are you off your pins here? Things aren't looking good." It was all focused on John Tortorella and "Shut Your Yap."

When you back the bus down the ramp at the Flyers rink and get off the bus, there's a catwalk above where the fans congregate. They see the visiting team coming in and they're booing and yelling and cursing and they have signs and that was the normal environment. But when we backed the bus down and our players got off that bus, there wasn't a sound. Honest to goodness, not a sound. Nobody yelling. Silence. Torts always got off the bus last and the minute he stepped off, they just went nuts. They just exploded. And it was all planned. Even [Flyers GM] Bob Clarke. Clarkie called me and he told me, "hey, tell that Tortellini, I don't care what he says about Hitch but leave my name out of this stuff."

So it was that kind of thing. Like when we went to Calgary after losing game five here in overtime. So now we're down 3-2, on the road and the Cup is in the building and he was just masterful at painting the picture, in public, not just to our group, that all the pressure was on them. "Its hockey night in Canada. All their friends and family are coming in. Everybody. The entire country. The mayor of Canada is in their dressing room!" Of course, meaning the prime minister. He just did a great job. When I went to Calgary, Jarome Iginla told me, "you know, I think we bought into that, 'oh boy, it actually is on us'." It was all those things. He was master of knowing when to take the pressure off.