First-year owner Jeff Vinik had an analogy ready when asked on Thursday night's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman" about the meteoric rise of his Tampa Bay Lightning
from a non-playoff team each of the past three seasons to their current position tied at one win apiece in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Game 3 taking place later in the evening at St. Pete Times Forum.
"My day job is in the stock market, and I buy a stock because obviously I think it's going to go up over time," Vinik said. "And I never quite know how far it's going to go up or when … I re-evaluate it every day. So if you look at this hockey team, I go into the season thinking we can be a good or very good hockey team. I'm a fan, just like the other 20,000 people who are in this building tonight, and I let (General Manager) Steve (Yzerman) and (coach) Guy (Boucher) do their jobs. But I thought we had a good team coming into the season, and obviously I couldn't be more pleased about the regular season and certainly the playoffs. And just like the players say and Guy says, it's one day at a time and one game at a time. I didn't expect to be here, but let's keep going."
With the Lightning three wins away from making it back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since Tampa Bay won its only championship in 2004, Vinik credited the "world-class people" throughout the organization -- including, but not limited to CEO Tod Leiweke, Yzerman and Boucher -- for leading the rapid transformation of the franchise from one that had fallen on hard times to one of the model organizations in the League.
Not only does Vinik want to provide Lightning fans with a quality product on the ice, but he wants them to see their arena as top-of-the-line as well. As a result, the team is sinking what he estimated at $35 million to $40 million into renovating St. Pete Times Forum to become an even greater place to watch sports and other forms of entertainment.
What motivated Vinik to buy a pro sports franchise, and specifically an NHL team in what many considered a non-traditional market?
"In my case, there were several reasons. One is fun. I thought that this would be a fun activity to be involved in, fun to build a business that could have a big impact on a community and be something that people are proud of," Vinik said. "I love sports. I love the sport of hockey. I'm competitive and like to win, so it's just very fortunate that things worked out here and I was able to buy the team. But also we want to create, as I've said, a great organization, and it was very important for me, when I was looking to buy a sports team -- specifically a hockey team, hockey's my favorite sport -- that we could give back to the community and really make a difference in people's lives."
As to buying a team in a state more synonymous with sunshine and beaches than ice rinks, Vinik said: "The weather is beautiful here, and if that's the definition of non-traditional, I'll take non-traditional. There's not a day that I don't walk outside and say, 'Isn't it nice out.' … My premise coming in here was that Tampa Bay has great sports fans, the Lightning have great fans. They had a history of success. I believe they led the League in attendance two years in a row. And just because it was a Tampa Bay hockey team, there was no reason it couldn't be associated with Detroit or Toronto or Vancouver or any of the other teams that are thought of as powerhouses in the League."
Vinik was praised later in the show by NHL great and Lightning founder Phil Esposito
, a guest co-host along with Ed Olczyk. Esposito called him "the Lone Ranger" in the way he came in and restored stability to a franchise that had recently begun to flounder.
"From the very first meeting he had with the staff, everybody seemed to be smiling again and happy to come to work, where the last two or three years it was torture, it was really torture," Esposito said. "But things change and it changes quickly."
Esposito, who remains part of the organization as the color commentator on radio broadcasts, echoed Vinik's earlier sentiments that the turnaround came much sooner than he expected.
"I'm enjoying this. It's something I didn't think we'd see this quick," he said. "The turnaround that's happened down here in Tampa Bay -- all I can say is, as a player you don't realize how important ownership is. You really don't. Then when you get into the business side you know how important ownership is, because [when] you've got good ownership, it just seems to go right down to the Zamboni driver. Everything is just perfect around here."