By Craig Davis, Sun Sentinel
The new Florida Panthers owner is determined to have an impact on the South Florida landscape that goes well beyond hockey.
After purchasing the team in late September, Vinnie Viola now also aims to work with Broward County to expand the economic and cultural impact of the BB&T Center, mainly through development of the surrounding area, and expand his philanthropic efforts to South Florida. The former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange, Viola has interests ranging from undersea exploration to thoroughbred racing to fishing. And of course, hockey, where he has already shaken things up a bit with the Panthers.
As Viola, 57, and his wife, Teresa, work on relocating the family's base from New York to South Florida, he sat down with the Sun-Sentinel to talk about his plans and new life as a NHL team owner.
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Q. What is your assessment of your first few months as owner?
A. We have been learning an awful lot. It's kind of like drinking out of a fire hose. If I had to sum it up in a couple of sentences: We're more committed now to the principles that we believe in that produce long-term excellence in organizations. The team is, I think, starting to understand that everyone must work and everyone has to be absolutely committed to excellence. We're not going to tolerate anything but 100 percent dedication to the culture of the team first.
Q. Was the Panthers' poor start rougher than you expected?
A. I didn't know what to expect ... We won our opening night, and I was like, 'all right.' … Was I surprised at the patch of losing we kind of took on? Yes, absolutely, after a decent start.
Q. What prompted the coaching change?
A. The coaching change was a natural result of the team's performance. Being new to the organization, I couldn't explain exactly what went into the GM's decision. But I can tell you that it was right for the team and right for [former coach] Kevin [Dineen] that the decision was made.
I think that it was probably a matter of losing the connection to the team. When teams, like any other organizations or units, get disconnected from their leaders' ethos and spirit of intention, you just don't get the execution of the plan the way it should be executed."
Q. How do you feel new coach Peter Horachek has done so far?
A. It's a process. We're doing things now that I think are going to sow the seeds of cohesion and camaraderie to create this culture of excellence. On practice days, the team has breakfast together now. I think that's important for guys to get to know each other outside of the confines of the ice and outside the confines of the normal to and fro of a hockey life.
Q. Do you find it more challenging, maybe at times frustrating, to get the results you want with a sports franchise as opposed to other businesses you have run?
A. It's a real-time business. You cannot take time to deeply re-evaluate in the middle of a season. So you've got to get it right, and you basically earn the validation of your strategy on a nightly basis in hockey. Although, having come from the trading side of Wall Street, that is also a real-time business. So I'm comfortable with that. There are a lot of similarities. So I'm sort of emotionally prepared for that kind of dynamic.
Q. You started watching hockey at an early age at New York Rangers games in Madison Square Garden. What is it about hockey that appeals to you?
A. Besides being the most exciting spectator sport live that you can imagine, it's the most kinetic and interactive connection between the fan base and the team of any sport by far. … There's a real sort of gladiator dynamic to this sport.
I remember my second game was the last game that the Rangers played at [the old] Madison Square Garden. I was still young. Some older kids took us. I didn't appreciate the context of the last game in the building. I remember at the end of the game people taking artifacts of the old Garden off the wall and seats. I kind of processed it and said, these fans just want a piece of that team. That really has formed my love of the sport of hockey.
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