Tampa Bay Lightning
Owner Vinik basking in Bolts' quick turnaround
RALEIGH, N.C. - Not quite a full year into his ownership tenure, Jeff Vinik's impact on the Lightning has been dramatic. After sitting in the cellar the past three seasons, two of which were played under tumultuous times from the previous regime, Tampa Bay sits on top of the Southeast Division and holds the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Though Vinik doesn't control the team's fortunes on the ice, his two key hires - General Manager Steve Yzerman and CEO Tod Leiweke - have gone a long way toward the team's rapid turnaround. "I have 100 percent confidence in the people that I have hired,'' Vinik said after attending Saturday's NHL Board of Governors meeting. "These are such talented, high-character, good-natured people. And with Steve and Tod, I was 100 percent confident in them when they came on nine months ago. Everything since then has reinforced that and I think the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and the Tampa Bay community have the right people running this.''The rapid ascension into the league's top teams has made for an unexpected turnaround, but it hasn't changed the long-term outlook Vinik has for the organization. Many of those plans will be unveiled in the next few days during three successive scheduled news conferences starting Monday. "All of our actions over the next few years will be to reinforce that emotional bond between the Lightning and its fans,'' Vinik said. "We are going to try to have a big impact on the community. I think that's an obligation for our organization to touch a lot of lives and inspire other people. We are going to make our venue world class both for hockey and other events. And we are going to try to have a great team on the ice. So everything we are doing is to try to make it a great environment in the St. Pete Times Forum.'' Vinik has been in attendance for most home games this season while taking in about a half-dozen road games. The owner's box has been filled with plenty of cheers to this point, allowing Vinik to enjoy being a fan of a successful team. "I love hockey. It's fun to watch hockey. It's fun to watch hockey when they are winning more than they are losing,'' Vinik said. "It's fun to be with people you like and the people in the organization are enjoyable people who I love spending time with, and I have family here sometimes, so it has just been a lot of fun.'' While Vinik has been in attendance most nights, fans have yet to flock to see the team play. Of the 22 home dates, seven have had attendance under 14,000, while only three have been official sellouts. But average attendance is up 11 percent through 22 home dates, up to 16,532 compared to 14,918 from last season, team spokesman Bill Wickett said. "Our attendance is running up nicely over last year, so we are very encouraged by that,'' Vinik said. "I root hard every game just like all of our fans and I'm very pleased with the way we have performed. Again, we are trying to put the right people in place to create the right culture to give us the long-term success. Fortunately we've had a little bit of short-term success right now.''