Jay Feaster has been around and has the accomplishments to prove it.
Ten years since putting together Tampa Bay’s only Cup-winning squad in 2004, Feaster, who served as g.m. of the Lightning from 2002-2008, has returned to Florida's Bay Area in his new role as Executive Director of Community Hockey Development.
In an exclusive interview with our own Jake Becker, Feaster addressed the new job, his relationship with John Tortorella and other fascinating topics. This interview has been condensed and edited.
* HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE BACK WORKING WITH THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING?
It feels great to be here. I really believe in Jeff Vinik as an owner and I believe in the management team here, from [Lightning CEO] Tod Leiweke to [President] Steve Griggs on the business side of things, as well as Steve Yzerman and his group on the hockey side.
I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped bleeding Lightning blue. I felt like I was there through teenage years into young adulthood, whatever you want to call, but this has always felt like home to us as a family.
* WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO BE WORKING ON?
The purpose of the position is to grow participation in hockey in the Tampa Bay region, primarily at the youth hockey level but also at the adult level. To try to raise the level of awareness and consciousness of the game; to make the game itself something that is more natural and more inherent in the region. The next step in that process is to try to get it recognized and certified by the Florida High School Athletic Association as a high school sport. It’s about getting sticks in the hands of youngsters.
One of the things we don’t have is an over-abundance of ice and ice-time, but we do have beautiful weather. It’s not just ice hockey, but also ball hockey, street hockey, dek hockey, trying to get hockey programs into the inner-city. It’s a broad outreach to try to reach as many people as we can, young people in particular.
* WHAT’S YOUR EXPERIENCE IN THIS ROLE?
What they were looking for was someone who has a business background as well as experience in hockey – how things have worked in other places and what has worked elsewhere. And more importantly, looking for someone from a management perspective who can bring a vision and a direction and can oversee things.
There’s a great deal of consternation whenever you look at different programs you want to start: if you started at Rink X, Rink Y is going to say, “well, why not me?” I think that there are some political things that we’re going to have to deal with, and that’s one of the reasons why management here felt like I was the right person for this job. In previous stops, not necessarily in the NHL but certainly in my time in Hershey, I was involved with a lot of political things from a corporate perspective.
* HOW DID THE DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE NEW POST COME ABOUT?
I had looked at an opportunity not with the Lightning but in Tampa. In the course of that I had a conversation with Tod Leiweke and talked to him about what I was thinking about doing; he would be a good reference for me. From the time he came on board here, he was someone who had embraced what we had accomplished in ’03-’04. He knew that I wanted to get back here. My wife really wanted to get back here; her mother lives a five-minute drive from our place in Brandon, Florida.
When we were here in mid-March for the 10th anniversary celebration, he actually had Bill Wickett, who was here in the PR department when we won. He asked Bill to talk to me if I wanted to maybe do something here in a non-hockey operations capacity, and I told Bill that I would be thrilled to do something. It didn’t have to be hockey-ops. Tod and Steve Griggs – those were the guys that contacted me and said, “We really feel it’s something that needs executive level attention.” That’s when things really started moving.
We’ve been doing community hockey outreach for a long time. The gentleman who has the responsibility of day-to-day and implementing all the programs is Tom Garavaglia. And Tom, as a one-person department, has done a tremendous things. This isn’t about having to start from scratch or invent something whole cloth; there are a lot of good programs already in place. He said that he wanted executive level-focus on it.
* WHAT’S THE POTENTIAL ON TAMPA BAY AS A HOCKEY TOWN?
I think the potential is great, and I think it had become a hockey town in a way we don’t get a lot of credit. By the time I started in 1998 when the team was losing 50 games a year, no one talked about the team. By the time I left here by the end of the ’07-’08 season, you could go to the grocery store and have somebody say, “Hey, what happened last night?”
Winning makes everything better. That’s the best way to drive the numbers. I’m confident that participation at the youth level spiked in a dramatic way in ’04-’05 after we had won. This building is selling out at a regular basis. The more success the team has, the easier our job is in terms of getting people excited.
Our goal is to get sticks in kids’ hands. We have some things we’re working on in terms of getting into the school districts in the area. Focusing on using hockey to be able to teach science lessons, and technology, mathematics. To have a phys ed component where playing ball hockey is part of the curriculum.
The organization provides the equipment, so that the 5- or 6-year-old who wants to play, mom and dad don’t have to spend a lot on the equipment. Let your son or daughter decide if they like it and then go from there. We have a very strong high school club program – the next step is to have it be a sanctioned high school sport here in the region.
We want to expand our camp programs. We believe we have the ability to really offer everything from the beginner level all the way through to elite. We have a camp going on in Ellenton, Florida, just south of here, and we have three 2004 Stanley Cup champions on the ice instructing young people. We have 50 kids there ranging from 8-14 and it’s a lot more one-on-one attention.
* WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES YOU WERE MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR TIME IN CALGARY?
There were two challenges when I took over as interim general manager [in 2010] and then when I was named general manager [from 2011-2013]. One was, as I used to put it, we were in “salary cap jail.” We were a team that was spending to the upper limit of the cap. There had been times prior to my arrival where the team had to play short because we didn’t have space to recall a player. Even during the time when I was there we spent plenty of time in LTI (Long-Term Injury). The other was because the team historically had a “let’s go for it mentally” and was always trying to be a playoff team. As a result of that a lot of top-end draft picks had been traded away and the drafting hadn’t worked out in the past and so we had to re-stock the cupboards.
In terms of what I’m most proud of it would be those two things: in the last season I was there we had adequate cap space; there’s adequate cap space for the team going forward. And by all accounts, you look at the drafting record that my group put together and we believe we’ve drafted players that are going to play either in Calgary or for other teams in the National Hockey League going forward.
* HOW DOES A G.M. OPERATE DIFFERENTLY IN TAMPA BAY COMPARED TO IN CALGARY?
The biggest difference is the media attention and the scrutiny. When I was the g.m. in Tampa, even after we won the Cup in ’03-’04, you could still go out in the public – you go out for dinner, you go to church, the grocery store, and you didn’t have people who just wanted to talk hockey. You didn’t have that kind of attention. Whereas in Calgary, I don’t know if it’s bigger than a religion but it’s probably pretty close. You have the constant media attention; everyone is a fan.
* HOW DID YOU WORK WITH JOHN TORTORELLA?
There were never any secrets. If a player came to see me and complain about Torts, the guy would come in and say, “He hates me.” I would always tell him, “Don’t flatter yourself, he hates all of us.” But I would tell the player, “We’re going to sit down with him and talk things through.” And we always did that.
We always made the commitment that we would never make decisions right after a game. He could vent to me, I could vent to him. We would talk, we would be upset, but we never made decisions. We always waited. He would complain about a player, and the next day I’d come in and he would say, “I watched the tape last night and he wasn’t that bad.” Or conversely. I always admired that about him. He might have that strong opinion after the game, but then he’d watch it and it was more of an objective look.
Having said that, you never really control Torts. We were playing New Jersey in the playoffs one year and he had gotten into it with [Devils coach] John MacLean behind the bench. We lost the game and afterward I told him, “You know, the first thing the media’s going to ask you is what was going on.” [He said,] “I’m not going there.” I said, “I understand, but you also know they will goad you until they get what they want. You’ve already been told by the league that you have to stop the F-Bombs.” I told him, “You’re not going out there until you’re under control.”
We were literally nose to nose in each other’s faces. I was between he and the door. He said, “Jay, I’m telling you, I’m fine.” We go back and forth with this song and dance, so off he goes to do the media. It wasn’t three minutes later that somebody came walking by and said, “Guess what your head coach just told [NY Post reporter] Larry Brooks to do on live television?” Of course he dropped another F-bomb and he came back in and I looked at him and I said, “I thought you were fine!” He hanged his head and looked at me and said, “Did I put you in a bad spot?” If I had a dollar for every time I heard him say, “Did I put you in a bad spot?” We had a lot of fun together.
* DO YOU STILL KEEP IN TOUCH?
We’re good buddies. When the team was sold at the end of ’07-’08, the two guys that came in here [Oren Koules and Len Barrie] did basically anything they could to purge any reference to ’04; they took down the team pictures of the celebration. You look at [current owner] Jeff Vinik and it’s just the opposite. And he has done so much to embrace that group.
One of the things [Vinik] did this past March was invite the whole group back with spouses and gave us a tremendous weekend here in Tampa Bay, and on March 17, they coordinated when they held the celebration, they coordinated it so Vancouver was in town playing the Lightning and of course Torts was in town. Torts came to the dinner that Mr. Vinik hosted for us and had a chance to sit down with the whole crew that came back, and we had a wonderful visit as a group, and he went out on the ice for the ceremonies before the game. He and I have remained friends throughout all the years, and he’s a good man and a good coach, too.
When [Rangers g.m.] Glen Sather was considering hiring him, I was very honest with Slats. I was also honest with [former Canucks g.m.] Mike Gillis. I do miss working with a guy like Torts. That passion – it’s an exciting thing. And it’s why I also loved working with Bob Hartley. Bob has that same passion, that same drive, but he also has the political correctness gene, which they never put one in Torts.
* HOW SOON DO YOU THINK TORTS WILL RETURN TO THE NHL?
I think time heals all wounds. I don’t think for a minute that Torts was anything other than what people knew he was. I think Mike Gillis knew the issues, the positives and the negatives. In my mind the issue really came down to that infamous day when he decided to try to get in the locker room when [Calgary head coach] Bob Hartley was antagonizing.
Bob is the godfather to my son Ryan, and I consider Torts to be one of my best friends, too. It was ironic, but I believe that John will get back. General managers in the league know he’s a good coach, and you take the good with the bad. Part of what makes him a good coach is that he does not have the political correctness gene. He is not worried about what you or me or what anybody else thinks about him – he’s going to do what he thinks is right. I think some time away, some time to decompress, I think that’ll be good for him.
I don’t have any doubt that at some point in time, a team is going to be struggling and a team is going to need some discipline, some structure, and a general manager is going to say, “This is a guy that can provide it.”
* YOUR BACKGROUND IN HOCKEY IS UNUSUAL. CONDUCTING AHL HOCKEY OPERATIONS FOR THE HERSHEY BEARS AND THEN SERVING AS AN NHL G.M. DOESN’T ORDINARILY STEM FROM SKILLS GAINED AS AN ATTORNEY. HOW HAS YOUR PROFESSIONAL SHIFT IMPROVED YOU AS A PERSON?
I’d like to think one of the things I’m proud of is that when I came into the game – and this goes all the way back to Hershey – I was born and raised in a small town in Central Pennsylvania – my dad was corner grocery store owner, started working in the grocery store when he was 10 years old then bought it from the man who he worked for all those years. I was raised in a good, Christian home, I’d like to think I was a good person when I got to the NHL. I’d like to think that the players I had play for me over the years had always known that I was an honest broker, that I told them the truth. It’s not always pleasant, the truth you have to tell players, but I like to pride myself on that.
* HOW DID YOU BOUNCE BACK AFTER YOU WERE FIRED BY TAMPA BAY IN 2008 AND THEN BY CALGARY FOUR YEARS LATER?
Quite candidly, it was the greatest thing that could’ve happened to me. I had a lot of good friends who were here [in Tampa] and survived it and I see a lot of them who are still here – those are the people who really have the scars and the wounds – that was a tough period of time. And so from my perspective, we were here, we stayed here, our oldest daughter in high school, we allowed her to finish. Not being a part of that ownership group, that was a true blessing.
In terms of Calgary, I really believed things would work out with [Calgary President] Brian [Burke] and myself. I had known Brian a long time going back to my days in the AHL in Hershey when he was at the league office; we had always had a good relationship. I thought it was going to work but it did catch me off-guard when he came into my office in December and he said it wasn’t going to be good news. But I recognize that that’s part of the business. You know when you’re hired there’s probably going to come a day when you’re fired too. It didn’t change who I am or my talent or my ability.
* WHAT GOALS STAND OUT FROM YOUR EXECUTIVE CAREER?
I have to give two of them. One is in terms of its artistry – Lecavalier between-the-legs deflection in Montreal that sent the game to overtime [in Game 3 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals], and Richie wins it by banking one in off Jose Theodore. Just in terms of its artistry that late in the game of the playoffs.
The other one was the “shot heard ‘round the world” for the Tampa Bay Lightning from Marty St. Louis in overtime in Game 6 in Calgary [of the 2004 Final]. The Cup was in the building, the place was ready to explode and Marty comes through again.
I love Martin St. Louis as though he were a son. For the whole time I was here and the years after I left, Marty was the heart and soul of the Tampa Bay Lightning. As I told him at [this past] trade deadline, “If this is what you want, I love ya and I’ll always support you.” Because none of us were there we don’t know the conversations he had with [current g.m.] Steve [Yzerman]. Just as the last guy from that team, that was tough. I was emotional when I left the voicemail.