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Unknown architect

Published May 4, 2004

No one ever calls him a genius. No one refers to him as an architect. No one fawns over his high-powered moves for high-salaried stars. Such praise is reserved, it seems, for the likes of Colorado's Pierre Lacroix.

No one talks about his toughness. No one suggests he is an iron-fisted tyrant who can squeeze nickels until Jefferson weeps. No one ever asks about his decades in the league. Such questions are the property of New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello.

[Photo by Scott Audette, Tampa Bay Lightning]
General manager Jay Feaster celebrates after the Lightning completes a sweep of Montreal in the second round. His leaguewide profile might rise at last if the team keeps winning.

No one ever refers to him as a bully. No one mentions his goals or the way his Flyers pushed the rest of the league around. No one brings up the Hall of Fame. Such regard is saved for Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke.

He isn't any of those guys. He is not in the Hall of Fame like New York Rangers GM Glen Sather or Pittsburgh's Craig Patrick. His name isn't all over the Stanley Cup like Minnesota's Doug Risebrough or Ottawa's John Muckler. He was never a coach like Calgary's Darryl Sutter or a TV analyst like the Islanders' Mike Milbury. He doesn't have a fistful of dollars like Detroit's Ken Holland.

When it comes to the general managers of the NHL, he has little identity and even less celebrity. He is that face in the crowd you can't quite fit with his team. He is the guy who didn't play and the guy who didn't coach and the guy who didn't beat his chest.

He is Jay Feaster.

All he has is a team in the final four.

He has restored credibility, and he is invisible. He has shoveled away the muck and stopped the insanity and turned every nickel into 10 cents worth of talent, and no one knows his name. He has righted the ship, balanced the books and redefined the reputation, and he remains a mystery.

Now, as the Lightning waits to play for the Eastern Conference championship, shouldn't the sport discover his name?

Those close to Feaster have begun to tease him about his anonymity. There are half a dozen moments during a hockey game when the TV cameras seem to find general managers. Not Feaster. You never see his face. You never hear his name. The other night, the talking heads at ESPN did a feature about the building of the Lightning ... with former general manager Rick Dudley.

"My wife (Anne) calls me the ghost general manager," Feaster said, laughing. "No one is sure who the general manager of this team is."

Odd. Normally, we pay closer attention to miracles. A guy raises a franchise from the dead, and he makes a lame reputation walk, and you might think it would make the evening news. A guy gets this team with this history and this budget within touching distance of the Stanley Cup, and you would suspect his back had been sufficiently slapped.

Except, um, which one is Feaster?

"It doesn't bother me," Feaster said, laughing harder. "I swear it doesn't."

Feaster tells a story. For more than a year, he had sought a trade for a top-level defenseman. For weeks, he had done background work on Darryl Sydor to see if Sydor would be a proper fit in the Lightning clubhouse. Finally, he pulled the trigger to bring in Sydor.

That night, Feaster was sitting on the team bus. Dave Andreychuk, the team captain, walked past. Andreychuk didn't say a word. He merely reached down and patted Feaster on the back, three times, then moved on.

"Something like that is the important thing to me," Feaster said. "It means a lot more than some article in a magazine or in the newspaper."

Who is Feaster? He is the man who restored patience, perspective, order to the Lightning front office. He is, according to team president Ron Campbell, the most important move the franchise has made in its turnaround.

Go back to February of 2002. The franchise was in chaos. Dudley, the GM, couldn't make trades fast enough. He was always tinkering, always moving things around, like a modern sculptor who couldn't decide when his piece was finished.

No one denies Dudley's work ethic, and no one denies his eye for talent. But even Dudley's biggest supporters would acknowledge this: If he were still here, this roster would look vastly, vastly different. These players might still be playing, but they'd be wearing different sweaters.

For one thing, if Dudley had survived, Vinny Lecavalier would not have. Dudley wanted to trade Lecavalier, and he was in a hurry to do so. Instead, Lecavalier stayed and Dudley left. Campbell wasn't exactly heartbroken; he had told CEO Tom Wilson six months earlier the wrong guy was in charge.

Campbell's optimism aside, the masses did not cheer when Feaster took over. If you were placing odds, you would have started at a million to one against him and worked upward. This was the Lightning, a franchise that devoured a lot of good men. Feaster seemed to lack pedigree.

Think of it. You inherit the store, and it's a mess. There is no cash in the till, no customers at the door and for 10 years, the product has been awful. You are bankrupt of interest, of ambition, of hope.

Feaster changed that by, of all things, changing very little. He tinkered a little, but he didn't blow up the roster. He didn't made trades to show how smart he was. He didn't make speeches to show how loud he was.

He brokered peace between Lecavalier and coach John Tortorella. He brought in toughness with Chris Dingman and Andre Roy. He suffered the heat for turning the fourth pick in the draft into Ruslan Fedotenko and Brad Lukowich, a trade he says he'd make again. He brought in John Grahame and Cory Stillman.

Then, of course, there are the things Feaster didn't do. He didn't trade Fredrik Modin, though he estimates he heard from "28 or 29" teams that wanted him. He didn't give up on Pavel Kubina when the rest of Tampa Bay was weary of him. He didn't trade Nikolai Khabibulin though everyone else seemed to think it was inevitable.

That's the part of the job everyone underestimates. For a general manager, there are dozens of decisions a day. Keeping the right player is as important as trading the wrong one.

"I have as much ego as anyone else," Feaster said. "I'd like to think what I bring is management ability. The operative part of my title isn't "general.' It's "manager.' "

It isn't easy, however, when you have quarters and the other guys have dollars. Some general managers assemble. They pick all-stars off the top shelf and they plug them in. Feaster? He has to be careful with his allowance.

"It forces you to make sure," Feaster said. "You have to do your homework. You can't afford to make mistakes. It isn't good enough to say I'm going to sign this guy for $5-million, and when he doesn't work out, say, "Don't worry. We'll get someone else.' We don't have that luxury."

You wonder. Would Feaster ever want to swap? Would he want an endless bankroll and the ability to sign top-shelf free agents?

Feaster pauses. He shakes his head.

"I like this team," he said. "I love these players. I love what we're doing. For me, this is fun. Assembling the Eastern Conference all-stars with a $100-million payroll, that's not some big desire of mine. To me, this is a bigger challenge."

Here in the background, the general manager nobody knows is happy. Let the cameras point elsewhere. Let someone else get the attention.

So what if no one knows Feaster's name.

As luck would have it, there is still time left to learn.

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