Inside the NHL
Tod Leiweke hoped the Tampa Bay Lightning would win the Stanley Cup after he left his Seahawks executive role in 2010 to become CEO and a minority owner of the hockey club.
Leiweke, now the Kraken’s CEO, just never realized it would take a decade for the Lightning’s Cup to materialize, five years and two jobs after he’d moved on. Indeed, that a Lightning franchise among the most dominant of the past decade has but one title to its name in that span — courtesy of a Game 6 clinching 2-0 win over the Dallas Stars on Monday night — speaks to the difficulty of building a sustained NHL champion.
“You can ask any number of teams how hard it is, and some might say, ‘Hey, it only took 10 years,’ ” Leiweke said Tuesday. “But when you’re blood, sweat and tears, it was not an easy road. You know, in 2015, we played 27 playoff games — three Game 7 series and then a Game 6 — and didn’t get there.
“And my friend Ed Viesturs, who climbs mountains, he’s like, ‘Hey, it only counts if you get to the top.’ Well, they then hung in there and they made it (Tampa) a place that players wanted to come, they made great decisions, and lo and behold … dreams do come true.’’
So, there’s closure now for Leiweke, who left the Lightning for a top NFL executive role about a month after Tampa Bay’s six-game finals loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. Leiweke initially seemed destined to join a group seeking to build an arena in Bellevue — an effort spearheaded by his good friend and longtime colleague Jac Sperling — but then, within days of that venture collapsing, went the football route before joining the Kraken in April 2018.
In the five years since, Leiweke kept close tabs on the Lightning and rooted for its core to finish what he’d helped start.
The core includes captain Steven Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Spokane’s own Tyler Johnson, who were all on the ice Monday in Edmonton to accept and parade the Cup around in an empty arena. It capped an amazing run for the NHL as well, which managed two months of playoffs without a single positive coronavirus test.
Leiweke deflects praise for what the Lightning accomplished, saying owner Jeff Vinik and current CEO Steve Griggs deserve far more credit for their title. But he plans to incorporate some of what went into shaping the Lightning on and off the ice within his current Kraken organization.
“It just fuels our idea that maybe we can do that same thing here,’’ he said. “Maybe we can build a championship organization that wins long term. And I would submit we’ve got some important fundamental pieces that are falling into place.’’
Two years ago this week, the NHL’s executive committee in New York unanimously approved a formal vote to award a Seattle franchise. The ensuing full NHL board of governors approval in Sea Island, Georgia, two months later became little more than a rubber stamp.
Since then, Leiweke has tried to emulate what he believes a championship organization needs. One was building a first-class training facility at Northgate Mall, where he took visiting Kraken owner David Bonderman for a construction tour Tuesday.
There’s a misconception among some fans of modern pro sports that the end goal of teams is to build a perpetual champion. It’s partly what spurs cries for teams to “tank” entire seasons in favor of earning high-round draft picks that are supposed to eventually result in titles.
But that’s a risky gambit. Mostly because, if yearly championships is really the goal, most teams fail at it.
Other than in the NBA, where small rosters fuel competitive imbalances tilted by one or two superstars, the idea of championship dynasties among the top four North American men’s pro sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) has all but vanished. The Blackhawks won their third title in six seasons by beating the Lightning five years ago, but that’s about as good as NHL dynasties get anymore.
“There are 32 teams trying to do the same thing,” Leiweke said. “There are some incredibly smart people running things, and the parity within the league is just amazing.”
Nowadays, the goal of most pro sports teams — whether they’ll say it for public consumption — is to win often, put on a quality show and consistently reach the playoffs. Planning for that perfect season rather than a bunch of consistently strong ones can be futile, given the random playoff luck that plays in to titles.
After all, what would the Lightning’s fate have been had it dropped its first-round opener against Columbus? Instead, Brayden Point’s goal midway through the fifth overtime period gave the Lightning a huge mental edge in that series.
And what might have happened this round had Johnson — now the third Washington native to win a Cup after Wayne Hicks and T.J. Oshie — not drawn a critical penalty by Jamie Benn in overtime of Game 4? That blown call on a phantom trip led to the winning goal and a 3-1 series stranglehold for the Lightning.
Only one regular season NHL champion has also won the Cup the last 12 years. The Lightning made the conference finals Leiweke’s first season in 2010-11 before a short rebuilding phase.
Within two years, the winning resumed and hasn’t stopped. From 2013-14 through last year, the Lightning averaged a stunning 50 wins and 107 points per season — somehow, without winning it all.
This season, they were again on pace for 50 wins and 108 points before the schedule was shortened from 82 games to 70. That type of consistency was bound to eventually produce a champion and — once some luck bounced Tampa Bay’s way — finally did.
“I think if people believe they’re joining an organization that’s committed to championships, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,’’ Leiweke said. “So, just winning isn’t enough. You’ve got to want to bring that Cup home.’’
It took the Lightning longer than most imagined — which means the Kraken can’t let up on the building blocks if they hope to get there sooner.