Cox: Lightning owner quickly gaining influence

Tampa Bay Lightning's president and general manager Steve Yzerman shakes hands with team owner Jeff Vinik during a hockey news conference, Tuesday, May 25, 2010. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

It’s fair to say the Tampa Bay Lightning have never been a model NHL franchise.

Yes, the Bolts have a Stanley Cup banner hanging from the rafters of Amalie Arena, certainly something to brag about.

But ever since Phil Esposito convinced John Ziegler and the NHL to give him a franchise in central Florida despite the fact he had no money, no arena, and no owners, the Bolts have had more erratic times than successful ones. The team has consistently lost money and always been a franchise of some concern to the league headquarters.

Well, until now.

The Lightning still lose money, upwards of $10 million a season, and they’re ranked 26th in Forbes Magazine’s latest ranking of NHL franchise values.

But you sure get the feeling Jeff Vinik is in the process of changing all that, while also gradually becoming one of the league’s most influential owners.

“Nobody pre-ordained that the Green Bay Packers would be one of the leading franchises in the NFL, so why can’t the Tampa Bay Lightning be one of the best franchises in the NHL?,” said the Tampa Bay owner in an exclusive interview with Sportsnet at the NHL board of governors meetings in Boca Raton earlier this week.

“I’ve always operated under the belief that you have to question the status quo. Just because something is thought of in a particular way doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Our mission is to be one of the top franchises in the NHL, and perhaps we will change perception about the non-traditional markets and how they’re viewed.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman bet on Vinik to rescue the Lightning five years ago, and based on what’s happened so far, you’d be an idiot to bet against Vinik turning the Lightning into an NHL franchise that truly matters.

With the NHL powered financially by it’s Canadian teams, none of the so-called Sun Belt teams have been able to have that kind of presence, although the Los Angeles Kings, in their 47th year of existence, are reigning Stanley Cup champions and seem to have finally become a stable and valuable franchise.

San Jose does well but has to be a budget team. Dallas is trying to get back to where it was. Florida is in wretched shape.

Tampa, really, is the one team down South with all kinds of upside. Even more so as the 55-year-old Vinik tries to engineer a massive, game-changing real estate development in downtown Tampa around the team and the rink out of which it plays.

The New Jersey born moneyman, who is also a part owner of the Boston Red Sox, is putting the final touches on a plan that he believes will result in a “central gathering place” in downtown Tampa, transforming empty parking lots into a vibrant, exciting place to live and work.

“We have a blank canvas,” he said.

Needless to say, we’ve heard of such plans before. Ottawa, which came into the league at the same time as Tampa, had grandiose thoughts when they built their arena way outside the city in Kanata, and now the Senators are looking to move downtown.

The city of Glendale, Arizona, believed it could draw and support major league franchises outside of downtown Phoenix with an ambitious commercial and real estate development, and the NHL Coyotes have been on life support for years.

At a time when baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays may be in the early stages of moving out of the area entirely, Vinik is betting that by luring some corporate headquarters to downtown Tampa, convincing the University of South Florida to move its medical school to his new urban paradise, and by buying up local hotels, he can build an exciting new world around his hockey team.

“(The team) is certainly in considerably stronger condition right now compared to when I bought it (in 2010),” said Vinik. “Most importantly, our brand is very strong within the Tampa Bay area. It’s gained a lot of strength throughout North America and in the National Hockey League.

“Financially, we’re on a much more solid base. The team had been losing a considerable amount of money. Now those losses are down to a much smaller amount.

“We’re not yet profitable. My personal goal is if we can operate the Tampa Bay Lightning near break even, and have a very competitive team every year and compete for the Stanley Cup every year, giving our fans a great experience in our building and being a big part of the community, that’s my formula for success long term.”

He bought the team, the arena lease, and 5.5 acres of land adjacent to the rink for only $93 million from the debt-ridden partnership of Oren Koules and Len Barrie, and right now Forbes values the Lightning at $230 million at a time when some NHL teams are worth more than four times that amount.

“I thought Tampa was a hidden gem,” he said. “I love hockey, I love being an owner, and the past few years have been the best years of my life.

“I’m not driven by profit motive. I’m driven by bringing the Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay as soon as we can, giving the fans a great experience, and doing a major real estate development in downtown Tampa and hopefully having a real positive effect on the Tampa Bay area.”

Vinik matters as an owner more these days beyond just the Bolts. As the league contemplates new opportunities in Las Vegas, Seattle, and Quebec City, he’s now a member of Bettman’s executive committee, and was brought in during the NHL labour dispute two years ago to try and broker a deal with the players when the talks were going nowhere.

“I don’t understand why (hockey) doesn’t have a bigger following. I understand some of the reasons behind it, but we have the greatest sport, and it’s the greatest sport to watch in person, without a doubt,” he said. “Anything I can do to make this sport successful, and anything I can do to make this league successful, I’m going to put all my effort into it.

“It is becoming bigger. We are definitely in an upward trajectory versus some other leagues that aren’t, both U.S. and internationally. I tell Gary (Bettman) and (Boston owner) Jeremy Jacobs all the time, ‘I’m here to help.’ We’re on two missions. One to make the NHL bigger and better. Two, to make the Tampa Bay Lightning a really well respected and top-notch franchise.”

Since buying the team, Vinik has seen long-time stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis leave the city; one as a very expensive compliance buyout and the other in a controversial trade. Still, the team is a contender, although the future of star forward Steven Stamkos, set to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016, is a major concern.

Vinik knows other teams, notably the Toronto Maple Leafs, are eying Stamkos from afar, and Tampa is almost certain to offer him a massive extension as soon as it can next summer.

“I love Steven as a person and as a player, and I hope to keep him as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning for very long time,” he said.

Hiring Steve Yzerman, completely inexperienced as a NHL general manager at the time, has proven to be a masterstroke.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Vinik. “Clearly, it’s been well worth it.”

Yzerman has had the extraordinary benefit of working for only two men during his 31 years in pro hockey, Detroit’s Mike Ilitch and now Vinik.

“Both are big hockey fans who enjoy the game and know the game,” said Yzerman. “Jeff takes the same approach as Mr. Ilitch. They are present and on top of things, and have great expectations. But they stay out of the way and let people do their jobs.”

Vinik prefers not to do many interviews, and he’s one of the least known NHL owners. But increasingly his views matter in NHL circles at a time when the league has become a $4 billion business, has expansion on the horizon, and is contemplating it’s future in international hockey with the Olympics and another World Cup.

Tampa may not yet be a model franchise. But Vinik, at least on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, could be the model owner south of the Mason-Dixon line the league has long needed, and one planning to stay in the game for a long, long time.

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