On May 2nd, 2016, a Blackhawks blog by the name of Hockee Night decided to call it quits. The blog was established back in 2008 when the Chicago Blackhawks were digging their way out of the black hole they had fallen into. The site was one of the first blogs to get on to the wagon and because of that built a large following. They were cheeky, they were irreverent, and most of all they had fun.
In their goodbye, one of the reasons given for why they were shutting down was that it was no longer fun. Why? Through all of the controversies that the Blackhawks have gone through this year, the organization has not exactly been a world class organization in the way they have handled their business. I won't go into everything that's transpired for Chicago. There's plenty that has been written on the subject and I'll leave you to find those articles if you so choose.
What this brought me to is how much I appreciate Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning. When he first bought the team in the late winter of 2010, there was a lot of skepticism from some national writers who believed that Vinik was only interested in buying the team as an investment that he could pump up and flip in a few years for a profit. They believed that Vinik's first priority would be dumping salary (most notably Vincent Lecavalier's contract) and cut costs immediately to try to recoup some of his cost of buying the team.
Instead, Vinik dedicated himself to the team, the franchise and to the Tampa Bay community. He started from the top with two world class executive talents: one to handle the hockey side and one to handle the business side. First was hiring one of the greatest hockey minds available in Steve Yzerman to be the general manager after his apprenticeship in the Detroit Red Wings front office. For the business side, Tod Leiweke was hired as the CEO. Prior to his hire, Leiweke had been a part of multiple major sports franchises across the NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLS along with time working with the PGA Tour. He left the Lightning organization last summer and was hired by the NFL as Chief Operating Officer of the league.
After Steve Yzerman's hiring as GM in May 2010, he immediately went to work bolstering and reshaping the roster he had. He hired Guy Boucher who was a hot commodity at the time (though he ultimately didn't work out) and the team went to the playoffs in 2010-11 in the first full season of Vinik's ownership, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, Yzerman has restocked the cupboard and built a team that can contend for Stanley Cup championships year after year with even more talent on the way. The club no longer skimps on scouting and development, instead turning it into an asset.
On the business side, one of the first major steps that Vinik took was investing $35 million into upgrading the then-St. Pete Times Forum (now known as Amalie Arena). The organization put the money out up-front and sought partial reimbursement through county tourist taxes with a promise to pay the entirety even if the county could not come up with the money. Those upgrades brought all new seats throughout the arena, new heating and cooling systems, locker room makeovers, the party deck, and two of the signature pieces of the arena: The pipe organ and the tesla coils. Vinik followed that up with an additional $25 million upgrade plan with half being paid for by the franchise and the other half by Hillsborough County that made upgrades to the club level and still has further upgrades to be done.
Under Vinik, the franchise has also been highly involved in charities through the Lightning Foundation and most prominently with the Community Heroes program. Every home game, the Lightning Foundation gives $50,000 to charity in recognition of people in the local community that are making a difference through their charitable works. Since initiating the program, the team has given over $5 million dollars and Vinik recently pledged another $5 million dollars to continue the program over the next five years.
Beyond the team and the arena, Vinik has also purchased the Tampa Marriott Waterside, the Chanelside entertainment plaza, and has slowly purchased lots and parcels in the Channelside district near Amalie Arena (earning it the nickname "Vinikville"). In the past year, development plans have been announced and includes investments from a Bill Gates owned investment fund. Vinik also donated an acre of land to USF for a new campus for the Morsani School of Medicine.
Granted, all of this real estate investment is an effort by Vinik to ultimately make more money. In doing so, by investing his time, money and himself into this area, Vinik strives to build up downtown Tampa into a destination and turn it into a thriving place to be.
In 2010, when Jeff Vinik said he wanted a world class organization, some people doubted it. While many teams, like the Blackhawks, profess themselves to be world class organizations, Vinik has done all the right things to truly turn the Tampa Bay Lightning into one. All Tampa Bay fans should be proud to be a part of what's going on.