Martin Fennelly Columns
Vinik's long-term Lightning plan runs far ahead of schedule
It's playoff time in hockey, when you play with and through pain. So we'd like you to know that the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jeff Vinik, has, to use the game's lingo, an upper-body injury. He bruised the knuckles on one of his hands in Washington while celebrating a Lightning goal during Game 2 of the now seriously concluded sweep of the Capitals. Thrusting a fist upward, he hit a low-hanging soffit."Rookie mistake." Vinik said with a smile. "Hey, I'm a fan. I'm allowed to be excited." He stood in the winning dressing room at the Forum on Wednesday night after the Bolts completed the sweep, off to one side, ultra unassuming as always. Jeff Vinik's team is going to the Eastern Conference Finals. He has owned the Lightning for 14 months -- so much for rookie mistakes. His hand-picked general manager, Steve Yzerman, stood nearby, answering questions. Yzerman's hand-picked coach, Guy Boucher, would talk, too. Lightning players were being interviewed all over the place. There is a lot to talk about right now. Jeff Vinik made his fortune in assets and venture capital management. He's one of the best at that in the country. He's about long-term plans and patience. That's the way it was going to be here. Who expected fast forward? Last March, when he took over, he talked about changing the culture at the Lightning. The culture is now halfway to the franchise winning the Stanley Cup a second time. Last March, Jeff Vinik talked about creating a world-class organization. Hello, world. The Glazers took a few years to get the Bucs on track. Same goes with Stu Sternberg at the Rays. The late Bill Davidson, whose Bolts eventually won the Cup, didn't do this much this fast. Yes, those were different situations, but this Lightning turnaround has been a bolt out of nowhere. "I didn't expect it to come together this quickly," Vinik said. "We've got the people for the long-term plan. That's still the case, on the hockey side and the business side. We're ahead of schedule here." Is he amazed? "You know, I don't look at it like that. We all had one goal, and that was to make the playoffs, and that's not easy to do over an 82-game season, with all the ups and downs," Vinik said. "It's kind of how I do my work. You can't always predict the outcomes, but if you work hard, keep level emotions, grind things out, you'll achieve your potential. And these guys are moving in that direction right now, and it's very exciting." You know, to the fans -- and that includes Vinik. Someone asked how many Lightning games he watched this regular season. "Eighty two," Vinik said. "55 in person out of 82 and all the playoff games." I think that slightly breaks Bill Davidson's record. "Career record?" Vinik asked with a grin. It's playoff time and he's a playoff nut. "What's more fun than that?" He hasn't just been watching Lightning playoff games -- he's been watching everyone. "I'm up at 1 in the morning watching games," he said. He has been hands-off. He lets Yzerman and Boucher do their jobs. It's a far cry from the paws-everywhere approach by Oren Koules and Len Barrie, which got this team nowhere. Vinik hates the limelight. He used to have to introduce himself to players, but now they know him, and so do some fans. He shakes a few hands. But he still gets lost in the Forum, and rarely ventures down to the dressing room. After Game 4 with the Caps, after the sweep, was a rare exception for this owner. But, hey, he's a fan, he's allowed to be excited. You know, as the soffits allow. "It's not going to stop me from jumping again if I need to," Vinik said. There's no ceiling on this Lightning season right now, none. And the man with the aching knuckles is just another reason why.