After the conclusion of the 2007-08 season, everything related to hockey in Tampa Bay seemed glum. The Lightning finished with a league-worst 71 points, tied with the Los Angeles Kings. Head coach John Tortorella was fired after having his worst season behind the Tampa bench. And the ownership group Palace Sports & Entertainment, under Bill Davidson, had agreed to sell the team.
It was a dark and dreary time. There were even rumblings that the NHL was looking to relocate the franchise.
In stepped Oren Koules and Len Barrie, an interesting combination to say the least. Koules, a Hollywood producer, and Barrie, an ex-NHLer, butted heads from the beginning. Their tenure running the organization was just as turbulent as the season leading up to their eventual purchase of the club.
In fact, things got so bad that the NHL had to step in to rectify the situation and put an end to the revolving door that was the Tampa Bay Lightning. This move singlehandedly saved not only hockey in Tampa Bay but the growth of the hockey market in the southern United States.
In early 2010, during yet another rough campaign for the Bolts, Jeff Vinik purchased the team and immediately got to work. He fired head coach Rick Tocchet and general manager Brian Lawton immediately after the 2009-10 season.
In the following months he made arguably his most important contribution to the team—the hiring of a new general manager, Steve Yzerman.
The history of Yzerman as the Tampa Bay general manager is well documented. In seven seasons under his watch, the Lightning have made the playoffs four times, including a run to two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals (2015 and 2016) and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance (2015).
But, it was Vinik who saved hockey in Tampa Bay.
What he has done not only for the Lightning organization but the Tampa Bay community as a whole is nothing short of a miracle.
Vinik completely overhauled the Lightning, inside and out. He rebranded the team with a new, simplified logo and poured millions of dollars for renovations into Amalie Arena, to keep fans happy and to keep the destination on the map.
Towards the tail end of 2016, Vinik publicly stated that the organization was on the verge of breaking even for the first time since he took on this mammoth task of resurrecting what surely looked like a dead hockey franchise.
But, Vinik wasn’t done there. He decided to spruce up the downtown Tampa scene near by Amalie and purchase a portion of the Channelside district that nearly went dormant. His plans to demolish and reconstruct the district are in the works, and his mission for a hockey-vibrant city within the next decade remain firmly intact.
After he purchased the club for pennies (in comparison to other professional sports teams) at $170 million in 2010, Vinik’s efforts have given the Lightning organization a value of $305 million today.
He continues to give back to the community as well, donating $25,000 of his own money to one "Community Hero" at each home game for the entire season. This program alone has touched hundreds of philanthropies in the Tampa Bay area, while recently surpassing the $10 million mark in total donations.
Vinik has become a household name in Tampa Bay. He has put the Lightning franchise back on the map and in a big, big way. The notoriety that the team has for so long deserved has now arrived, and ESPN The Magazine named the Lightning the best professional sports franchise in 2016.
It goes without saying that without Vinik, none of this would be possible.
The Lightning continue to push for the Stanley Cup, and although the 2016-17 campaign may have been a disappointment for some, expect good things from this franchise in the coming years under Vinik’s watchful eye. And his most recent letter to fans was a firm reminder that he won't settle for anything less than the best.
It seems as if everything the man touches turns to gold. However, I’m sure that the Lightning and the Tampa Bay community alike are both itching for his magic touch to gleam silver once more.
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