Previous first-hires by new Tampa Bay Lightning owners

Yesterday's announcement of Steve Yzerman as the Lightning's new general manager sent shockwaves through the NHL as well as the Tampa Bay sports world. Yzerman is the cream of the crop of class acts. You cannot go much higher regarding hiring someone as highly thought of as Yzerman.

Of course, there is the side plot of how Jeff Vinik operates as an owner.  We've learned his modus operandi well since the conclusion of the NHL season:  The deliberation, the perseverance, the methodology, and ultimately the silence and stealth of the action.  His dedication to his cause trumped the populist panic that was setting in among Lightning faithful regarding the absent GM post.

The Vinik ownership is the Lightning's fourth regime change in its history, and the three preceding owners told us quite a bit when they made their first hires of public positions for the team (GM's or coaches).

Here's a brief retrospect of the Lightning owner "first hires" from 1998 onward.

Art Williams (1998) - A dark time for the Lightning franchise.  Not for Williams purchase of the team but the disarray that had preceded it.  Kokusai Green and it's mystery owner, Takashi Okubo, had been attempting to offload the club for more than a year.  The Maloof family had kicked the tires of the team and run the 1997 draft before ultimately saying "thanks but no thanks" and walking away.

Williams swooped in and trumped an offer from future-owner Palace Sports and Entertainment to purchase the Lightning. Though he's ridiculed in history for the "Michael Jordan of Hockey" label for Vincent Lecavalier (and his I Am A Stud T-shirt), Williams brought financial stability and solvency to the Lightning that the team sorely lacked. He erased the team debt and...

...Fired Phil Esposito after Esposito overstepped the player budget that Williams had laid out for him during the 1998 offseason. This was ultimately the highest profile move he made with the club.  Then head-coach Jacques Demers was promoted to the role of General Manager on top of his coaching duties.  At best, the hiring told us that Demers was a steward for the club until someone better came along.  That would be the ultimate truth.

It also told us that Williams was in a bit deeper than he expected to be, and needed to change direction STAT, and didn't know the way forward..

Palace Sports and Entertainment (1999) - Williams sold the Lightning for a heavy loss mere months after his purchase.  Palace Sports and Entertainment, owned by Bill Davidson with CEO Tom Wilson running the show, had a winning track record of franchise and venue operation, as well as confidence in their own people.

Demers was relieved of his duties by former Ottawa Senators GM Rick Dudley. Dudley, who had previously been GM of the Palace Sports-owned Detroit Vipers of the IHL, was brought on board at a price: A second round draft choice in 1999 and fan favorite Rob Zamuner. This really stressed the fact that Palace Sports believed in the people they had worked with previously. It could be looked at as cronyism as well, but with their intentions to rebuild the team in a five year plan (and not institute a quick-fix spending spree), paying a price for executive service was a sacrifice they were willing to make. It was a safe move, and a sound move in the minds of Wilson and company.

In year five of their five-year-plan, Lord Stanley's Cup was secured.  Take that for what you will.

OK Hockey (2008) - In more recent history that hasn't faded from the psyche of Lightning fans, Palace Sports sold the Lightning to Oren Koules, Len Barrie and partners during the 2007-08 season. As the nightmare of a season concluded, rumors about head coach John Tortorella's dismissal and who would replace him had been festering for weeks already. Rumors from the Canadian press told us that Barry Melrose, ESPN commentator and former head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, was to be hired to replace Tortorella.

The earliest date I can reference to a public post of the news/rumor April 27th, 2008, yet it had begun circulating much longer.  Tortorella himself wouldn't be dismissed until June 3rd, with Melrose ultimate hiring on June 25th.

This - Lightning internal news playing out in the Canadian press before happening - would be repeated time and again under the stewardship of OK Hockey. Dan Boyle being traded was denied - then it happened. Internal strife between ownership was also denied. Then it exploded in the press weeks later, stealing the limelight from the NHL Draft.


Ultimately, the first hires by each owner have told a grander tale of what we should expect from the owners in general.  For Williams - it was simply the fact he needed someone to hold things steady.   For Palace Sports, it was making a sound hiring of what they already knew and had confidence in.  For OK Hockey, it was the general memo that they'd confide in Canadian press and let rumors out.

As for Jeffrey VInik, the attitude and character of Steve Yzerman as well as the ultimate GM search told us many things.  Compare it directly to the hiring of Melrose and while the splash is comparable, the gentlemen are not comparable at all.

The other ultimate truth to take from Vinik's first hire is that, indeed, his aim for the organization is to be world class.  Where it goes from here is a story that fans can look forward to seeing written as it happens.