Publish date:

Messiah In The Wilderness Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams is blessedly naive about hockey

Art Williams feels another crusade coming on, and the hallway
outside the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room will have to do for
a pulpit. "Dang it, my butt's on fire again," he whispers before
cornering The Tampa Tribune reporter Ira Kaufman and Lightning
center Darcy Tucker. A year ago the Georgia-born Williams, a
retired insurance magnate and former high school football coach,
had seen only one hockey game. These days he owns an NHL team
and the arena in which it plays, and he has a captive audience
anytime he chooses. "Ira, why didn't you award Darcy one of them
three stars?" Williams says. "You gave one to [Lightning
defenseman Pavel] Kubina, and that boy didn't play but one
quarter. Tucker here's a stud."

"You're right, Art," Kaufman replies. "He played great."

"Great, Tucker, hear that?" Williams says. "Used to call you
'sorry.' Now they're writin' how great you are 'cause it comes
from your soul. Yessir, ain't that right, Ira?

"Right, Art."

In his new role as Friar Puck, Williams, 56, sees new disciples
everywhere. "Folks gotta spread the word," he says. "About the
Lightning, I mean. No more pity party round here. Gotta believe,
like they tell you on Sunday."

With disarming rhetoric that is part hellfire and part bluster,
Williams has saved the most ridiculed franchise in the NHL. In
June he paid $117 million for a package that was first offered
at $230 million. The Lightning's numbers--a league-worst
17-55-10 last season and a $103 million debt for a team that was
purchased seven years ago for $50 million--are only part of the

Still, the acquisition, which included the Ice Palace, where the
team plays, made sense. The Palace, site of the '99 NHL All-Star
Game on Jan. 24, made $5 million in 1997, a figure that should
jump to $7 million this year, offsetting some of the team's
expected losses of nearly $20 million.

Williams paid off the team's debts, increased its $26 million
player payroll by $6 million, put $5 million into renovation of
the Palace and insisted that the team travel on private charter
rather than commercial flights. He fired general manager Phil
Esposito, adding the G.M.'s title to that of coach Jacques
Demers. Though total attendance is down from last year (14,905
per game in '97 and 10,880 per game so far this year), no more
free tickets means that paid attendance is up. Williams, whose
main residence is in Palm Beach, flies in on his private jet for
most home games. He doesn't drink, smoke or do ties. He wears
his emotions on the sleeves of his windbreaker, and he leads NHL
executives in dadgummit's by a country mile.

Williams started early as a manager, running a city pool in
Cairo, Ga., as a ninth grader. In 1960 he married Angela Hancock,
his second-grade sweetheart, when both of them were freshmen at
Mississippi State. By 1969 he was the football coach at Kendrick
(Ga.) High and was named State Coach of the Year.

In 1963 Williams's father, Arthur, died of a heart attack,
leaving his mother, Betty, a $15,000 whole-life insurance
policy. A cousin later told Williams that his father could have
bought a $100,000 term policy for the same premiums. Steamed
that his mother was forced to return to work, Williams began
selling term insurance and later started A.L. Williams &
Associates with 85 people and one mantra: "Prudential sells
insurance to make a living. I do it to correct an injustice."
Williams minimized overhead by hiring many part-timers and used
a multitiered commission structure likened by his critics to a
pyramid scheme. Williams's company surpassed Prudential and New
York Life to become the industry's leading seller of individual
life insurance in only nine years. He sold the company in 1989.

Lightning officials, though grateful for Williams's involvement,
still squirm a bit when in his giddy presence. In early
November, Williams asked to deliver a closed-door pep talk to
the team. Eleven dadgummit's and 15 minutes later he had chopped
down and built up his troops like a caffeinated drill sergeant.

That night the Lightning lost to the New York Rangers 10-2,
dropping Williams to 0-3 after pregame pep talks. This is one
tough sell. For what? Williams is worth more than a billion
dollars. He has four homes. He dotes on seven grandchildren. His
third motivational book, All You Can Do Is All You Can Do, but
All You Can Do Is Enough, earned raves from Norman Vincent
Peale, and Williams is always welcome at Art Williams Stadium on
Jerry Falwell's Liberty University campus. Does he need a
struggling hockey team? "I remind my wife I'm on a mission," he
says. She reminds him he's on a pacemaker.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Williams doesn't smoke or drink or do ties, and he leads NHL executives in dadgummit's by a country mile. [Art Williams]