May 26 (Bloomberg) -- Jeff Vinik sat inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver three weeks after buying the Tampa Bay Lightning, sipping a beer with Tod Leiweke, then the chief executive of the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks.
It was less than 24 hours before the 2010 Winter Olympic gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada, and Leiweke was in town with his wife, Tara, for the event.
Vinik, 52, who managed Fidelity’s Magellan Fund from July 1992 to May 1996 when it was the world’s largest mutual fund with more than $56 billion in assets, eventually convinced Leiweke to leave the NFL and run his new National Hockey League team in Tampa, Florida. With the Lightning advancing to the Eastern Conference finals in Vinik’s rookie season as an owner, his judge of talent among sports executives may prove to be as shrewd as his investing abilities, league and team personnel said.
“The attitude that he brought here changed this franchise,” Phil Esposito, one of the team’s founders and current radio analyst, said in an interview before Game 3 of the series in Tampa on May 19. “Frankly, I think he saved it. It was starting to become doomed.”
Now under the guidance of Leiweke, 51, and General Manager Steve Yzerman, the former Detroit Red Wings captain who also was recruited to the team by Vinik, the Lightning are in the NHL’s semifinals. Last night, Tampa Bay beat the Boston Bruins 5-4 to force a Game 7 decider tomorrow to determine who will play the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals.
Before Vinik, who is also a minority owner of baseball’s Boston Red Sox, bought the team and the St. Pete Times Forum for about $110 million, the club had been owned by OK Hockey LLC, a group headed by movie producer Oren Koules and former NHL player Len Barrie. Koules and Barrie were the team’s fourth owners since 1992, when it joined the NHL as an expansion franchise.
Koules and Barrie bought the team from Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson, who had purchased it from Palm Beach, Florida, insurance executive Art Williams.
After almost two decades of unstable ownership, Vinik’s purchase has drawn support from the team’s locker room and around the league, especially in the office of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
“If you were computer-generating what we needed for an owner in Tampa Bay at the time, he was it,” Bettman said in a May 19 interview. “He hires great people and he turns them loose to do the things that need to be done. It’s evident by the quick turnaround here.”
That’s a talent Vinik used successfully in the markets, said John Boyd, 59, an editor of Fidelity Insight, an independent newsletter for Fidelity investors.
“The ability to judge people and talent is not a small skill to have as an investment manager,” Boyd said in a telephone interview. “And a lot of questions he would be asking about hockey players and management would be the same as those he would ask about his investments.”
Vinik, the manager of JNV Partners LP, held stocks with a market value of $4.66 billion as of March 31, according to a Form 13F filed May 17 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Vinik tripled his stake in Apple Inc. to 443,500 shares, acquired 800,000 shares of Deere & Co. and bought 1.25 million shares of FedEx Corp. with a stock-market value of $116.9 million at the end of the first quarter.
He also is chairman of Vinik Asset Management, a Boston-based hedge fund.
Unlike some sports owners, such as Jerry Jones of football’s Dallas Cowboys or Mark Cuban of basketball’s Dallas Mavericks, Vinik shuns the spotlight.
Before he considers an interview request, Vinik’s legal team issues a set of guidelines that it says must be followed to avoid any potential conflicts with the SEC, including that the article is only about the Lightning and only mentions that he is chairman of the hedge fund.
Bloomberg News declined to follow the guidelines, and Vinik refused to be interviewed.
Vinik spoke with Bettman on NHL Radio on May 19, comparing his ownership of the team to the stock market.
“I buy a stock because obviously I think it’s going to go up over time,” Vinik told Bettman. “I re-evaluate it every day. If you look at this hockey team, I thought we had a good team coming into the season. I couldn’t be more pleased. I didn’t expect to be here, but let’s keep going.”
Leiweke, who is also a minority owner of the team, decided to join Vinik in part because of his plan to hire Yzerman, whose two-decades as captain of the Red Wings was the longest in U.S. sports history.
As a player, Yzerman, 46, wasn’t flashy and was known for leading by his actions, not words.
“I just believe you do the job,” Yzerman said. “I’m not into a lot of hype or self-promoting.”
Neither is Vinik, Yzerman said.
“He’s very low-key, but he’s extremely observant of everything that is going on,” the general manager said. “He’s very understated but it’s very clear what he wants. He notices everything, but he lets everybody do their job. I like the way he operates.”
So does Leiweke, who said Vinik was “politely persistent” while recruiting him.
“He’s not a guy who wears a plaid jacket or has the traditional trademarks of a salesman,” Leiweke said. “But in his own way, he’s quite an extraordinary salesman. He has such conviction of his vision.”
Fifteen months after meeting in Vancouver, Vinik and Leiweke have set their sights on sharing some victory champagne, possibly as soon as next month.
“With the exception of family, this is the love of his life,” Leiweke said. “You can see it in his eyes.”
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