In late July, while the Sounders were in the midst of their phenomenal turnaround for the 2010 season and on their way to their second straight Lamar Hunt US Open Cup championship, Tod Leiweke announced that he would be leaving the team to join on as CEO and part owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On Friday, the team reunited with their old CEO as Leiweke hosted the Sounders at the Lightning’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
For many, it was their first NHL game – for others, their first hockey game at any level. But universally, the greatest draw wasn’t on the ice, but who greeted them when the bus arrived at the St. Pete Times Forum.
“I think the main thing for me and for a lot of the players on the team was seeing Tod because Tod Leiweke is such a quality individual and was so important to the establishment of the Sounders and what we got going in the first two years,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “His enthusiasm is always infectious and being around him is always a pleasure.”
Leiweke shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with each player, coach and staff member as they exited the bus, then took them to rinkside before ushering them to their seats. Some players even had the chance to sit on the Lightning bench during warm-ups.
The enthusiasm for the night was far from one-sided though, as Leiweke beamed at the chance to show the Sounders around his new team.
“I think one of the hardest things about the move was leaving the Sounders. Not only did I work hard to help it get going, but people fell in love with the team and I was hoping to see them through to a championship. Because I think it’s in their future,” Leiweke said before the opening faceoff. “I believe in Joe Roth. I believe in Adrian and I believe in Sigi and I believe in the players. It’s just awesome seeing these guys tonight.”
In Tampa, Leiweke has overseen the Lightning’s return to prominence after a dip that saw them finish last in the division in two straight seasons. The winners of the 2004 Stanley Cup now have the second best record in the Eastern Conference and lead the Southeast Division at 37-18-7.
Much like the Seahawks and Sounders, Leiweke also is seeing success in the box office.
“We’re really working on transforming this organization from the bolts up. There’s a new logo, a new jersey. We’re renovating the building. We’re making huge efforts to give back to the community. In a lot of ways the same things the Sounders did. I always say that I had my Master’s degree, but I got my doctorate in Sounders University,” Leiweke said, noting the similarities. “The same principles apply. Respecting your fans, building a brand that people can fall in love with and having a welcome mat. But ultimately it was the fans who created the Sounders brand. We were really good listeners. We understood what they wanted. Then we were good executors.”
A lifelong hockey player and fan who even played in rec leagues in Seattle, the move to Tampa marked Leiweke’s return to the NHL after an eight-year absence. Before joining the Seahawks front office in 2003, Leiweke had worked with the Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks.
The Lightning topped the Devils 2-1 on Friday, but Schmid reiterated that the result wasn’t as important as the company.
“It was enjoyable and a great night,” he said. “It was good to see old friends.”