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Tampa Bay Sportsman of 2011: Jeff Vinik, Owner, Tampa Bay Lightning

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As we come to a close of 2011, let's reflect back on the year that was. For the Tampa Bay Rays, it was another playoff first round exit and more discussion about their lack of support. The Buccaneers went on the cheap once again and have put together one of the most putrid seasons in over two decades.

Then there's the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Lightning who thrilled fans with a simply amazing run to the Eastern Conference Finals after missing the playoffs three straight years.

To build upon the success on the ice, new Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik had the St. Pete Times Forum, the hockey team's home arena, gutted and completely redesigned. Enhancements like a new video board, a true classic hockey organ, a party deck, new seats and the amazing tesla coils all were added to enhance the game experience for fans.

He's perhaps the only owner in the region who "gets it".

He's also our sportsman of 2011.

Of course, Vinik doesn't play the games and this award is usually reserved for those on the ice or playing field. Yet when you look at the stark contrasts between owners in this community - it's clear the impact that Vinik has made in the Tampa Bay sports scene this past year.

The Rays owner, Stu Sternberg, is an absentee owner who rarely attends games. His only public commentary is to bemoan the attendance at Tropicana Field and the current stadium situation. He's slashed payroll, feuded with the mayor of St. Petersburg and has issued a threat that the league may "vaporize" the franchise. All this while his team was fighting for a playoff berth in the highly competitive A.L. East.

Sternberg has an adversarial relationship with the fans but he does have an eye for front office talent. He's assembled a great staff that despite limited resources still has the baseball team contending every season.

Still, Sternberg's treatment of the fans and the community can't go unnoticed. He whines about attendance but rarely do you see billboards on the Tampa side. Rarely do you hear Rays players doing guest spots on local sports radio stations. Conspiracy theorists abound that Sternberg is doing the bare minimum to ensure attendance is low and he can get his shiny new stadium on the Tampa side of the bay.

Then you have the Glazers, owners of the Buccaneers. Since purchasing Manchester United in 2003, the legendary soccer club in England, the Glazers' Bucs have spent the least amount of money on payroll in the league. They fired high-priced "big name" coach Jon Gruden for a little known defensive backs coach, Raheem Morris. They then gutted the team of high priced veterans and closed their pocket book, telling Morris and GM Mark Dominik to build through the draft.

The plan seemed to work in 2010 when the team overachieved to a 10-6 record. A 4-2 start that included victories over New Orleans and Atlanta had fans thinking playoffs for the first time in four years. Then, the bottom fell out.

Nine consecutive losses, most by two or more touchdowns, has left the franchise in disarray. The team has quit on their coach on several occasions throughout the season.

The fanbase has dwindled from a 100,000 person waiting list for season tickets to selling out just two home games in the past two seasons. Those who remain are calling for the coaches' heads.

Yet silence from the ownership group.

Add to that the fiasco of concessions early in the season, the shipping of a home game to London for the second time in three seasons and the absence of any evidence that ownership cares about the fans' plight hasn't led just to anger among the remaining fanbase - but apathy. No franchise wants their fan base to have indifference. If they don't care whether you're winning or losing than everything in your franchise goes down the toilet.

The missteps of the ownership with the other two sports franchises crystallizes what Jeff Vinik means to this community.

From the very beginning, Vinik has sought to build a first class organization. His first move was to purge the front office from the lunacy of Frick and Frack (previous owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie) by jettisoning the comically bad combination of GM Brian Lawton and Head coach Rick Tocchet.

He took his time in finding a general manager and coach to replace them. Did he whine about the fans' attendance? Of course not. He realized that after all that had transpired the past few seasons, he needed to earn his fans' trust back. He knew one good season or a couple good seasons wouldn't suddenly erase the stench of the reign of Koules and Barrie.

He hired a man regarded as one of the best young executives available and the heir apparent in Detroit in Steve Yzerman. The legendary hockey player for the Detroit Red Wings had be groomed for the eventual GM position with that franchise when Vinik pried him away.

He put his trust in Yzerman, who hired the hottest young coaching prospect in Guy Boucher - beating out Columbus for his services.

With those two pieces in place, they convinced Martin St. Louis - the heart and soul of the Lightning - to re-sign with the club.

Did Vinik handcuff his new coach and GM, closing the purse strings? Not at all, in fact, Vinik did the opposite. He put complete trust into Yzerman, allowing him to make trades, add salary and shed it as he felt was necessary.

With the Lightning floundering as a bordeline playoff team, Vinik approved Yzerman's acquisition of Dwayne Roloson. Rollie the Goalie would be the catalyst to the Lightning's 103 point season, second only to the cup team of 2003-04's 106 points.

The Lightning would rally back in the first round of the playoffs to defeat Pittsburgh in seven games. They swept the hated Capitals in the second round and then took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to seven games, losing in Game 7, 1-0.

Following the end of the 2010-11 campaign, the Lightning faced a difficult decision on young superstar Steven Stamkos. Do they sign the young sniper for gazillion dollars or do they accept draft picks as compensation? The fanbase nervously waited as Yzerman allowed his exclusive rights to expire.

Did Vinik close the wallet on Stamkos? Absolutely not as Yzerman proclaimed from the mountain top the Lightning would match any offer for number 91. As it were, no offers came and Yzerman finally signed Stamkos to a deal that fit a bit better under the salary cap.

While Yzerman went to work rebuilding the Lightning in their new structure, Vinik set his CEO Todd Leiweke on the Lightning's arena - the St. Pete Times Forum.

Opened in 1996, the Forum had seen it's better days. Recognizing the need for an enhancement of the fan experience.

Rather than ask the county to foot the bill for enhancements to the arena, as the Glazers did with Raymond James Stadium, Vinik dipped into his own pocket to revitalize the fan experience.

First, they re-designed the Lightning's jersey to create a more classic original six look (similar to the Toronto Maple Leafs).

Vinik then provided all season ticket holders for the coming season with a brand new jersey that had a patch designating them as season ticket holders and a microchip inserted into the sleeve that gave them discounts at concessions and items at the arena shops.

The arena itself went through a $40 million dollar renovation that included:

  • A new gigantic high definition video board.
  • New, cushioned seats and cup holders throughout the arena (not just the club section).
  • A new lightning system that focused brightness on the ice, enhancing television broadcasts and allowing superslow motion technology to be used.
  • An 11,000 square foot "Party Deck" overlooking downtown Tampa.
  • The massive pipe organ that brings some classic hockey authenticity to the arena.
  • They hired the Florida Orchestra to develop a dramatic - movie style opening theme to introducing the hockey team.
  • And of course - the Tesla Coils (video courtesy of hockeybay.com) bringing a signature to the Lightning's arena by shooting bolts of Lightning 25 feet into the air.

Since Day One, Jeff Vinik has been the owner all fans in Tampa Bay respect and believe. In 2011, his hockey team won on and off the ice.

For me, he's my Tampa Bay Sportsman of 2011.

Photographs by cstreet.us, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.