Leading up to and following the official announcement of the new affiliation between the Lightning and Crunch organizations, it was Howard Dolgon, Steve Yzerman and Julien Brisebois who were subjected to the media’s intense spotlight. Little (if any) attention was paid to Jeff Vinik, whom you may or may not be familiar with, which probably suited the Lightning’s owner just fine.
It’s not that Vinik, who made his fortune on Wall Street, is a mysterious recluse like the Lightning’s first owner, Tokashi Okubo (the head of Japanese company Kokusai Green) was; his recent birthday gala, an apparently lavish affair, made the Boston Herald’s gossip column and he’s already drawn local comparisons to the late George Steinbrenner for his philanthropic efforts. But unlike “The Boss”, whose strong personality and assertive nature made him as legendary as he was controversial, Vinik decided from the get-go to be hands-off, content instead to let those he has hand-picked to manage his growing sports and entertainment empire do so while he focuses on overseeing his own hedge fund company.
Dolgon, of course, is much more Steinbrenner than Vinik in perception. He’s certainly vocal–recklessly or refreshingly so, depending on who you ask–as the advocate-in-chief for the Crunch; for better or worse, his social-media presence will stand in stark contrast that of Vinik and other Lightning brass. It will be interesting to see how this newly-forged relationship progresses as the Lightning, much like the Crunch’s previous affiliate, run a tight ship and prefer to keep things in-house. So, perhaps the difference in style will lead to some friction. There are good indicators, though. But he shares Dolgon’s passion for the game and likewise conscientiously has made himself accessible and accountable to the fans. I have no doubt, having witnessed Vinik wander the concourse greeting and conversing with fans (this is how I met him), that the Lightning owner would have nodded approvingly at the leadership ethos the Crunch boss expressed during a Q&A at the tail-end of a disappointing 2011 season had he been there.
Furthermore, Howard Dolgon’s desire to win is at least matched by Vinik’s determination to build, from top to bottom as well as on and off the ice, his vision of a “world class” organization. Yeah, it helps that affiliating with the Lightning means the Crunch are inheriting much of last season’s Calder Cup-winning squad and the prodigy that is Jon Cooper as head coach. Surely that alone is justification and worth getting giddy over, but as Dolgon expounded on during an interview with Brent Axe, he admires the Lightning’s emphasis on winning at all levels. Beyond the change in talent and in culture, of course, are planned improvements to the War Memorial that, in conjunction with the Crunch’s extended commitment to Onondaga County, led Vinik to give Dolgon a surprise, congratulatory phone call which, apparently, was the first time both had actually spoken directly to each other.
If there’s anything Vinik can relate to, it is improving what needs updating to a high standard. The Lightning’s transformation began with the front-office and roster but Vinik’s plans for an organizational were much more grandiose. In the midst of the 2010-2011 season, the Lightning unveiled new uniforms and announced plans for a massive $35 million renovation of the county-owned Tampa Bay Times Forum that would begin at season’s end and be completed in time for the next opening night. In just over five months, the project was, in fact, finished on time because multiple construction crews worked around the clock to meet the deadline. Here are a few videos highlighting some of the work that was done:
The final tab? $40+ million, all of which was privately funded by Vinik, the leaseholder, out of pocket. Let me repeat that: the owner of a major sports team paid for improvements to a publicly-owned structure. In doing so, he not only wowed the paying customers but also earned the respect of local taxpayers and probably a political favor or two that can be called in down the road. In short, Lightning fans have witnessed this man put a considerable fortune where his mouth is.
Vinik has also made an indelible impression with the creative means he frequently goes about giving away his money, from his pledge to donate $10 million over five years to charitable causes (with part of the funding going to the Lightning’s ‘Community Heroes’ program), his gift of $5 million to the Meadowbrook School in Weston, MA, $10 million to Duke University and funding for the next four years for a Sports Management MBA program at the University of South Florida. As if that weren’t enough, Vinik has also committed to relocating his investment firm from Boston to Tampa, has already acquired property across the street from the downtown arena and is a key part of a group that is poised to buy a retail complex adjacent to the arena known as Channelside Bay Plaza with the intent of revitalizing the space presumably to emmulate LA Live. His real estate dealings have fueled rumors, too, that Vinik, a Boston Red Sox minority owner, has his eyes real estate dealings are a precursor to an eventual deal to acquire and relocate the Tampa Bay Rays from St. Petersburg to a site in Hillsborough County, presumably in downtown Tampa. It’s the latest twist on long-standing speculation and reported scheming by interested parties. Of course, such a move would require Vinik divest himself of his stake in the Red Sox, the construction of a stadium that does not yet exist and St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster to change tack, but if there’s anybody who has the assets and clout to actually make it happen, it’s Vinik.
If it seems like I’ve been laying it on thick here, but in the collective ownership history of the local professional sports teams the most notable are the less-admired, if outright despised, figures or groups; Tampa sports fans have had almost no practical experience with an owner like Vinik. For the Lightning in particular, he brings the long-sought stability and credibility the organization has rarely enjoyed during the course of its existence. There was the bizarre and disastrously inept saga under the aforementioned Japanese outfit and then Art Williams, the affable billionaire whose brash talk (i.e. introducing Vincent Lecavalier as the “Michael Jordan of Hockey”) and outsider status, as a Southerner with admittedly little hockey knowledge, overshadowed the fact that he had cured the team of its financial woes. Then there was Bill Davidson, the billionaire glass magnate who should hold a special place in every fan’s heart for bankrolling the club for the better part of a decade and to the club’s sole league championship but for whom the Lightning were always the red-headed step-child within his Palace Sports and Entertainment empire. The ensuing nightmare that was the OK Hockey era (here’s a fairly thorough, concisely-worded summary) takes the cake, though; as if bungling the hockey operations wasn’t bad enough, the vicious bickering and finger-pointing between the dual head of the ownership group, movie producer Orek Koules and former NHLer Len Barrie, necessitated mediation to sort out the mess they created. The Lightning were, once again, a laughingstock before Vinik swooped in out of nowhere to rescue the club from the malaise of an uncertain future.
It’s this context that makes the Lightning’s resurgence under Vinik so much sweeter, why (in addition to quickly being reacquainted with the thrill of success) the club managed to win back so many disillusioned fans. So, yeah, I’m here bragging about Vinik but moreso to point out he’s yet another reason, needed or not, for Crunch fans to be excited these days. Just as the actions of Howard Dolgon and the Crunch will reflect upon the Lightning organization, so do the actions and achievements of Jeff Vinik and the Lightning reflect upon the Crunch. At the very least, comrades, Jeff Vinik has made The Chairman a very happy man and I have it on good authority that a happy Chairman makes for happy Crunch fans.