An offer he could not refuse

Posted Jul 26, 2010

The chance to return to hockey and be part owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning prompted Tod Leiweke’s decision to leave the Seahawks and Vulcan Sports.

In the end, Tod Leiweke the Seahawks’ and Vulcan Sports CEO lost an emotional tug-of-war with Tod Leiweke the hockey fanatic and dreamer.

That’s why the Seahawks and other entities of Paul Allen’s sports domain – Sounders FC of the Major Soccer League and the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA – are suddenly looking for a new boss. That’s why the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL and owner Jeff Vinik are envisioning Leiweke working the same franchise magic there that he has here for the past seven years.

“With the emotion I feel, why would I leave?” Leiweke said at a news conference Monday afternoon, less than three hours after it had been announced that he would be leaving the Pacific Northwest.

“An opportunity comes along for me to go back to a sport that I play, that I love. I do remember as a kid listening to hockey games – listening to the great Dan Kelly call St. Louis Blues games. I played the game my entire life. I still play here in a beer league.

“So it’s an exciting thing.”

As is being part owner of a professional hockey franchise.

“This is a hard decision,” said Leiweke, who came to Seahawks in 2003 after serving as president of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. “I was trying to tell my kids that you get to a point in time in your life where sort of a dream comes true. That dream as a lifelong hockey fan was a chance to go work for this great guy in Jeff Vinik and to work with (general manager) Steve Yzerman and be a minority owner.”

As he said later, “I get to order the food for the owners’ box and actually stay in there and eat it.”

Leiweke’s eyes filled with tears several times during the brief Q&A session, for good reason.

Labeling the Seahawks, Sounders and Blazers as “being in a good place,” he added, “That’s very gratifying. And in some way, to tell you the truth, it makes it that much harder to leave because this has been seven years, but it’s been in dog years.

“As I told my brother, ‘It’s been like 49 years of my life I’ve been here.’ ”

Despite the Seahawks’ combined nine victories the past two seasons, the franchise is in much better shape than it was when Leiweke was hired seven years ago.

A year-old statement of a stadium that then was only partially filled has hosted a string of 60 consecutive sellouts, and counting. The team won four NFC West titles in a row (2004-07) and its first conference championship (2005). The franchise moved into its state-of-the-art headquarters on the shores of Lake Washington in 2008. More recently, Leiweke parted ways with two friends – Tim Ruskell and Jim Mora – and spearheaded the searches to find a new general manager (John Schneider) and coach (Pete Carroll) that he has entrusted to rejuvenate the on-field product.

“Paul Allen has given me seven of the best years of my life, and allowed me to lead,” Leiweke said, pausing again as his voice cracked. “So for that I will be eternally grateful.”

That’s why this sleep-depriving decision came with what Leiweke called asterisks.

“I’ve given this place everything that we had and we’ve built something special here,” he said. “Walking away from that, those are the things that keep you awake at night. So there’s no way to resolve those asterisks other than to say that this is a dream come true and this place is in good shape.”

The Seahawks’ loss is the Lightning’s gain.

“I am thrilled to welcome Tod to the Lightning organization as CEO and as my partner,” Vinik said in a statement. “Tod has the vision, the passion and the experience to lead the franchise towards my goal of being world class on and off the ice.

“He is an inspirational leader and I am delighted he has shown the confidence in the entire Tampa Bay community to join the Lightning.”

Leiweke is leaving, but not yet gone, because he will be involved in the process to find his successor. He’ll spend the next few days in Tampa, then return to, as he put it, “I’m going to get it right.” Leiweke said he anticipates the process taking months, not weeks.

“If we do it right in the transition, we just simply won’t miss a beat,” he said. “This organization is now bigger than any one person.”