Profile: Tampa Bay
Lightning GM Jay Feaster
By Bob Andelman
(Originally published in the Gulf Coast Business
Review, February 2004)
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, waking or sleeping. 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, no one should be surprised that 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
"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, continue making 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.
It was the best thing that could have ever happened to his career.
"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. If it went to litigation, I parceled
HERCO is an exciting company. Its 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 fan of hockey; in law school, he
had 10-game plan at the old Capital Center in DC.
"After two years, I went to the HERCO CEO and said,
'I would love to work for HERCO,'" Feaster says. "I
liked the people, the business lines, the resorts, the park,
the hockey, the arena."
And they liked Feaster; he was hired away from the law firm
as assistant to the president of HERCO. He became the company's
internal oversight person on HERCO insurance defense work and
also was the corporate spokesperson for bad news. "I
had crisis communications responsibilities," he says. "If
we were putting in a new ride, that went to someone else. 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 was asked to run the arena and stadium.
"You'll report to the VP of the HersheyPark group,"
his boss said. "And I want you to be the next GM of the
hockey club. Spend the next year with the team president, then
he will retire and you will take over.'"
The Hershey Bears were a minor league affiliate for the Philadelphia
Flyers. The parent franchise provided the players and coaching
staff; Feaster's job was running the Bears' business affairs.
Dave Mishkin may be the Lightning's play-by-play man on the
radio now, but he owes some of his success to Feaster, who hired
him to call the Bears games back in '94 as well as 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 maybe 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 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 and who wouldn't necessarily
leave any time soon.
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 Bay, Lightning Coach Jacques Demers added
the general manager's responsibilities to his job. He knew hockey,
of course, having coached more than 1,000 NHL 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. "I
thought, 'This is a great opportunity. It's a new owner, he'll
spend money, it's long-term. Jacques will use me more.' I could
see that at some point Jacques would retire and there was an
opportunity to advance."
But by December, Williams was looking for a buyer. Six months
in the game, he wanted out.
That wasn't Feaster's concern, however. He 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
found that in Demers he once more had an excellent and willing
"My time was Jacques was tremendous," Feaster says.
"He was wonderful to me and my family. It was tough leaving
that tight-knit family of Hershey. My family is still there;
my wife's is in Rockville, MD. We came here knowing no one."
The ground in Tampa Bay 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 December 25 to open his presents. It was a real adjustment."
At any given time while he worked for Dudley, if HERCO called
and said, "We want you to be the rollercoaster operator
at HersheyPark," Feaster would have been on the first plane
out of town.
Feaster, who has been married for 15 years and is a father
of four, says that Dudley called him at home at all hours of
the day and night. 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 having the final approval on 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 assistant GM under Demers, Feaster didn't
travel. But Dudley didn't like to travel with his team. The team
had a first year coach in Steve Ludzik, so Dudley decided someone
on the road in case issues arose and Feaster drew the short straw.
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
"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 also felt that the constant roster churning under Dudley
needed 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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