SUNRISE, Fla. - Vincent Viola's first event as owner of the Florida Panthers opened in a manner worthy of a West Point graduate like himself, with a colour guard presenting a U.S. flag and an Army sergeant singing the national anthem.
Viola sang along and clapped at the end. His enthusiasm was evident, as he hopes it will be in his new role.
Viola was formally introduced as the Panthers' principal owner, chairman and governor on Friday, after spending $250 million for the team and the operating rights to the BB&T Center, where Florida plays its home games.
"We understand the privilege of the stewardship that ownership of a sports franchise really means," Viola said. "We don't really own anything. The players sweat, sacrifice their health in later years to do well on the ice, to provide the right feeling and connection to the fans. It's about the players and the fans and our service to those two respective groups that will determine our success. I really, truly believe that."
Viola also gets the Saveology.com Iceplex where the Panthers train, along with team's development partnership with Boyd Gaming, an effort to put a casino adjacent to that arena. His acquisition of the Panthers happened quickly, starting about a month ago when he asked NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to have lunch.
"A very nice lunch," Bettman said.
Must have been, since Viola didn't wait around to complete the deal. He and his family — his sons are hockey-mad — plan to relocate to South Florida soon, and Viola said he's already assured general manager Dale Tallon that any resources the team needs to move closer to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup will be available.
As part of the deal, Douglas Cifu takes over as the Panthers' vice chairman, partner and alternate governor. Team president Michael Yormark was promoted, now getting chief executive officer as part of his title.
"When you think back at the 20-year history of this team ... there has been one constant," Bettman said. "South Florida has always been an important, terrific hockey market for us and we've had passionate, loyal fans for the Florida Panthers. Well, today, we open a new chapter."
Viola is the chairman and CEO of Virtu Financial, an electronic trading firm with offices in the U.S., Singapore and Ireland. He's taking over a franchise that has been to the playoffs only once since 2000 and finished with the fewest points in the NHL last season.
Then again, his resume shows he's never hidden from a challenge.
Viola is a graduate of West Point, once chaired the New York Mercantile Exchange and was so moved by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that he decided to found a centre devoted to helping military officials combat terrorism. Viola helped ensure that the mercantile exchange reopened quickly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, earning him a citation saying in part that "his actions embody the American Spirit in its most noble form."
"With Vinnie as the principal owner, we are going to be looking at an era where I think there will be unprecedented commitment," Bettman said. "Vinnie represents a focus and a determination to bring out excellence, commitment, hard work, teamwork, and he'll make sure that the resources that this club needs — not only to be competitive, but to be a winning, successful team — will be available to the club and to the players."
Viola said he has a long hockey background, as a fan. The Brooklyn native was a New York Rangers fan going back to the early 1960s, when he couldn't afford a good seat at their games, or really one that allowed him any decent view of the ice.
Eventually, his seat kept getting better.
And he said watching the Panthers at the end of last season provided him with the intuition that the time was right to call Bettman and start thinking about getting a view from an owners' suite.
"It's poised to win," Viola said of the Panthers. "And I'm committed."