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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 30, 2004 17 years ago

Lightning Master (Tampa edition)

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Jay Feaster spends most of his time near the ice rink, not in the courtroom. In Feaster's first full season as general manager of Tampa Bay Lightning, the National Hockey League team won its first division title.

Lightning Master (Tampa edition)

Jay Feaster spends most of his time near the ice rink, not in the courtroom. In Feaster's first full season as general manager of Tampa Bay Lightning, the National Hockey League team won its first division title.

By Bob Andelman

Contributing Writer

Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster is nothing like the men who trained and preceded him in the job.

For one thing, he's a lawyer.

Jacques Demers, the former coach turned GM who hired Feaster in 1998 as his assistant, was a hockey guy through and through. So was Demers' successor, Rick Dudley, a man who lived and breathed the game, awake or asleep. Both relied on Feaster's acumen for contracts and other fine print business details.

"At the end of the day, it's a business," Feaster says of Tampa Bay's National Hockey League franchise. "It's managing a business and a company. People say, 'Do you regret spending the three years in law school?' No! I use all that. From labor law to immigration, it's something we do everyday. I think the biggest thing my training did is that I learned to think about (hockey) from an analytical perspective."

The career hockey GMs he worked under tended to make decisions based on emotion and instinct. Feaster says his is a more fact-based approach, applying structure as he would any legal issue.

How do the two approaches compare on the ice?

Last season, in his first full season as GM, Feaster's team, coached by John Tortorella, posted a 24-point improvement, won the franchise's first division title and went further into the playoffs than ever before in the Lightning's 10-year history. This year, the team picked up right where it left off and started the season on a 7-0-1-0 tear. After a mid-season slump, the Lightning regained its groove and is once more atop the Southeast Division.

Of course, it's not a surprise a lawyer could lead a professional sports franchise to glory. Recently departed Buccaneers GM Rich McKay, who put together the 2003 Super Bowl champions roster, also started his career in the practice of law. As for Devil Rays GM Chuck Lamar? He's a lifelong baseball guy.

"When you're somebody who played the game, that's all you ever did," Feaster says. By comparison, "I found that law degree to be incredibly liberating. I don't have to be a 'yes' man. If this job or others went away, I will be able to provide for my family because of my law degree."

Feaster, 41, hired 30-year NHL veteran and Hall of Fame inductee Bill Barber as his right hand man to provide the hockey expertise that offsets his business know-how. Barber tends to player personnel issues; Feaster applies his legal training to the constant negotiating called for in his job.

"I'm negotiating for and with minor league affiliates, workers comp at the minor league level and collective bargaining at the NHL level," he says. "The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) covers everything we do from travel to recalling players from the minors. If they have a house here, what does the CBA say about that? I have guys who have been out of hockey for two years making claims for medical or something else they're owed under the CBA."

The international nature of the sport creates all kinds of legal opportunity - and jeopardy.

Wearing the Lightning uniform this year are players from Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Canada - and they have all the same issues as American athletes, plus immigration. "Those are the things you don't think about outside," Feaster says.

Feaster maintains his license in Pennsylvania, is inactive in the District of Columbia and doesn't have a license in Florida. He does, however, make the rounds of seminars to stay on top of changes in the field.

After earning a degree in political science at Susquehanna University (1984) and his law degree - cum laude - from Georgetown ('87), Feaster spent two years in the 65-attorney Harrisburg, Pa., firm of McNees, Wallace & Nurick. He worked almost exclusively for the managing partner, Rod Pera, for whom most of his time was spent on the business of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. (HERCO), a sister company to Hershey Foods.

"I was doing all their slip and fall insurance litigation," he says. "I would analyze what we would go to court with and what we would settle."

HERCO's business lines include HersheyPark, hotels, the Hershey Bears minor league hockey franchise, the Hershey Wildcats pro soccer team, and the 7,256-seat indoor HersheyPark Arena and 16,000-seat outdoor HersheyPark Stadium. Feaster, who wrestled, played football and baseball in high school and briefly in college, was a long-time hockey fan; in law school, he had the 10-game plan at the old Capital Center in Landover, Md.

HERCO hired Feaster away from the law firm as assistant to the president of HERCO. He became the oversight person on HERCO insurance defense work and also was the corporate spokesperson - for bad news.

"If we were putting in a new ride, that went to someone else," he says. "But if we had a problem with a ride, or with the government, or if we were closing down a ride, that came to me."

After a year, Feaster took over the arena and stadium. The Hershey Bears were a minor league affiliate for the Philadelphia Flyers. The parent franchise provided the players and coaching staff; Feaster ran the Bears' business affairs.

Dave Mishkin - the Lightning's play-by-play man on the radio - owes some of his success to Feaster, who hired him to call the Bears games back in '94 and to be the director of hockey operations.

"He's just an understanding boss and manager, incredibly articulate and intelligent," Mishkin says. "I think his greatest strength is that he has enough confidence in his own abilities as a manager to recognize his own weaknesses. He understands there are parts of his job in which he may be doesn't have the same expertise as other people do. So he will bring people into the fold who are experts. He's not an NHL Hall of Famer like Bill Barber. But he knows Bill will help him do his job better. He recognizes that the best way to do his job is to surround himself with good people."

By the 1993-94 season, the Flyers' plans had changed. They didn't want the burden of carrying the Bears' entire roster of 50 players. Instead, they'd supply 40 young prospects; Feaster could fill out the team with anyone else he chose. It was another door opening, another opportunity. He knew that fans in Hershey craved veteran players to whom they could become attached.

Feaster spent the next three years working with scout Bill Barber, building the team. In 1996, the Bears affiliation switched from Philadelphia to the Colorado Avalanche, and the team that Feaster and Barber built won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup Championship. In 1997, Feaster was named the AHL's Executive of the Year.

A year later, the Flyers knocked the Avalanche out of the playoffs. Looking for a change, the Avalanche promoted the Bears coach, Bob Hartley, to run the NHL parent team. (Hartley took the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup in 2001. That same year, Barber, another former Bears coach under Feaster, was named NHL Coach of the Year while with the Flyers.)

Meanwhile, in Tampa, Lightning Coach Jacques Demers added the general manager's responsibilities to his job. He had coached more than 1,000 games and been named NHL Coach of the Year twice, but running the business side was more than he could handle alone. Looking for an experienced assistant, he asked Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix for advice.

"The only guy I would hire," Lacroix said, "is Jay Feaster. I won't give you any other names."

Feaster joined the team for the 1998-99 season, full of hope and excitement under new Lightning owner Art Williams. But by December, Williams was looking for a buyer. Six months in the game, he wanted out.

Feaster was responsible for the day-to-day business of dealing with players, contracts and the CBA. There was a mountain of details to climb, but he says he had an excellent and willing guide in Demers.

The ground in Tampa continued quaking when Williams sold the team to Bill Davidson. New Lightning CEO and Governor Tom Wilson and President Ron Campbell assured Feaster that his job was secure, but Demers was fired and Rick Dudley was hired.

"Going from Demers to working for Dudley was diametrically opposed," Feaster says. "Rick is hockey 24/7, 365 days a year, any hour of the day or night. I used to say to Rick that he's the kind of guy who hates to take two hours out of his hockey day on Dec. 25 to open his presents. It was a real adjustment."

Feaster, who has been married for 15 years and is a father of four, says that Dudley called him at home at all hours. He would call at 10:30 p.m. and tell his assistant, "Remind me tomorrow to talk to you about¦" One night, Feaster's cell phone rang at 8:30 at night. His son Bobby, then 5, answered without asking who was calling. "Dad," he cried out, "it's Mr. Dudley!" Dudley was amazed. " 'Was that Bobby?' " he asked Feaster. " 'How did he know it was me?' I didn't have the heart to tell Rick he was the only one to ever call at those hours."

Feaster handled CBA issues and contract negotiations, with Dudley approving all deals. "I'd say, 'Here's what I project it will take to sign these guys.' Our relationship should have worked better than it did because Rick didn't want to be an administrator. He wanted to be out scouting. In my situation, with a young family, I was happy to be the guy in the office, being the administrator."

In his first year as an assistant to Demers, Feaster didn't travel. In his second year, Feaster, much to his chagrin, was put on the road with first-year coach Steve Ludzik.

Dudley's lack of sensitivity to Feaster's personal life came to haunt him in the 2001-02 season when one of the Lightning's biggest stars, Vincent Lecavalier, asked to be traded.

"Rick laid out a trade. But Mr. Davidson said, 'Here are my conditions before you do that,' " Feaster says. "The deal Rick had on the table didn't accomplish those conditions. It was a deal I didn't support. One of the things Mr. Davidson said was that we had to condition the marketplace as to why we would do that. We had to lay a foundation. This (Lecavalier) was the franchise. It was something that didn't make sense. There was a conference call and I was questioned by Tom and Ron. 'Does this trade satisfy Mr. Davidson's needs?' I said, 'No.' Rick saw that I didn't support him. I wasn't on his team. That's when our relationship started falling apart."

Dudley resigned in February 2002, in the middle of the season. His job went to Feaster, who hired Bill Barber as his director of player personnel.

"It had been a drain," Feaster says of the Dudley era. "I was at the point where I was prepared to just leave. I had talked to the East Coast Hockey League. Their president was going to become an owner and had to step aside. I also talked to the HERCO folks. I was not going to stay.

"I uprooted my family to come here because I felt that I could become a successful GM in the NHL. And I thought that would happen under Jacques Demers and Art Williams. Finally getting the job vindicated why we made that move."

Feaster brings his own philosophy to the construction of the team, although he relies heavily on Barber for specific player personnel recommendations.

"We needed to become a tougher hockey team. That's a work in progress," Feaster says. "We were too easy to play against. I grew up in Central Pennsylvania when the Broad Street Bullies were winning. And I was a fan of the Boston Bruins, one of the toughest teams to play the game."

He knew that the constant roster churning under Dudley had to stop. Dudley believed if he had a player who was a 4 and a 4.5 became available, the team should make a move. Feaster, on the other hand, believes that any guy he is moving into the locker room must fit in, while also taking care that the player who is leaving wasn't an important part of the team's chemistry.

"Last year, our guys talked about there being stability on the franchise. They got to know their teammates and build trust. It helped us get off to the start we did and it will pull us out of the spin we're in. I didn't do that; John Tortorella did that. But I allowed the environment to continue developing."

Another difference between Feaster and his predecessor is what qualities they look for in personnel.

"Rick's mantra used to be a size/speed ratio," Feaster says. "We looked at a player two years ago. When I read the reports, they talked about 'Vision like (Wayne) Gretzky.' 'Playmaking reminds of Gretzky.' 'Looks like Gretzky.' 'Worships Gretzky.' But the reports all ended, 'Not for us. Not a Tampa Bay Lightning player.' Because, according to Dudley, a player had to be 6'2" and fast. I said to the scouts, 'We want to pass on the guy you said will be the next Gretzky because he doesn't fit the matrix you created?' We had guys in the organization that were 6'8" who skated real well but had the heart of a pea. Then we had a guy 5-foot nothing with the heart of a lion who carried us in the playoffs last year, Marty St. Louis."

Feaster knows that today's team philosophy is tomorrow's old news. Just a week ago, ESPN The Magazine predicted that Feaster would soon fire Tortorella. But Tortorella just guided his team to three straight wins and a return to first place.

"You grow old very quickly in this job," he says. "There are so many things that have to happen. I think you can (have longevity) if you have ownership that believes in you and takes a long-term perspective on the club. At the end of the day, you have to look in the mirror and say, 'I did what I believed in, what I believed was right.' "

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