Jeff Vinik sees a Lightning team that’s evolved from glamour to grit

·4 min read

TAMPA — Come playoff time, everyone sacrifices. It’s just part of the NHL culture.

So defensemen turn their heads and put their bodies in front of wicked shots on goal. Forwards stand their ground in front of the net while opponents attempt to shove, elbow and whack them out of the way.

And owners?

Well, if necessary, they miss a potential Stanley Cup-clinching game because it’s more important to be a dad. At least that’s the plan for Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, whose son Danny is getting married the day after Game 6 is scheduled to be played in Montreal.

Normally, the NHL playoffs would be completed by July 10, but the 2021 season was extended an extra month due to pandemic scheduling. And that means the wedding in Rhode Island ended up falling between what could be the two most important games of the year.

“Two years ago, when they picked the date, we all assumed hockey would be over in the middle of June if we were fortunate to get that far,” Vinik said. “I’m thankful there’s no game on July 10, but Game 6, if it goes that far, is on that Friday night, the 9th, in Montreal.

“So I will not be going to that game, none of my family will either. We will be at the rehearsal and welcome dinner in Newport. I guess it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if, two years in a row, I wouldn’t be there when we lifted the Cup.”

Vinik missed the Stanley Cup celebration in 2020 because he chose to stay home with his family rather than remain quarantined in Canada for Tampa Bay’s two-month playoff run. He doesn’t regret missing out on the fun with the players, but acknowledged it was a far different experience to watch the Lightning clinch Game 7 of the Islanders series at Amalie Arena on Friday night.

“It was incredible to be in the building. It was incredible to be able to share that with 15,000 screaming fans,” Vinik said. “That’s what it’s all about, in my opinion, in terms of owning a hockey team: winning meaningful games in front of our community. It was fantastic.”

Vinik, 62, talked about what he liked best about this Lightning team and a handful of other topics in a 20-minute interview with the Tampa Bay Times on the eve of the Stanley Cup final beginning Monday night in Tampa. Some answers were edited for brevity.

Since buying this team in 2010, the Lightning have reached the Stanley Cup final three times and the conference final three other times. What is the secret to this success?

“I always go back to hiring the right people. In anything you do, it’s all about the people. It’s not just Julien (BriseBois) and Steve (Yzerman) and (Jon Cooper). It’s Tod Leiweke. It’s Steve Griggs and dozens and dozens of more. Everyone in the organization, having the common goal of being world class-plus.”

You were a financial guy in your previous life. How much more fun is it being a hockey owner?

“I still have my previous life, even though it’s more of a hobby than anything else now. But it’s extremely fulfilling to have developed with all these great people a really strong hockey franchise and also to be developing all this real estate.”

Speaking of which, downtown Tampa has become a different place since you bought the franchise. What goes through your mind when you drive to work and see some of these plans come to fruition?

“Eight years after starting to design Water Street Tampa, which wasn’t called anything back then, I almost get tingles seeing all of these buildings that are starting to be occupied, and all of the public spaces that are going to be amazing. It’s a source of great pride. I can’t wait as we keep getting bigger and better.”

You have always been more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes guy. Are you still shy after 11 years in the spotlight?

“I’m still a shy guy, that hasn’t changed. But I think I’ve just had practice. Whether it’s being behind a microphone or talking with fans, I’ve gotten more comfortable in the role. But honestly, it’s just 11 years of practice for this introvert who is trying to be an extrovert.”

So what do you like best about this group of players?

“It’s how we raise our game and our grittiness at the most difficult times. We play like a championship team … We were (known as) the Greatest Show on Ice, etcetera, for a time, (but) our guys have learned how to win and how to play big in big games. It’s really impressive from where we were and how many years it took us to learn that. Hockey is a tough sport, but it’s every bit as much about their hearts and heads as it is about their hockey ability.”

So, if it comes down to it, will you really miss Game 6 to be at the rehearsal dinner?

“You know what? Family comes first. Hockey is a very close second, but family comes first.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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