Vinnie Viola, the billionaire owner of the Florida Panthers, has been selected by President-elect Donald Trump to be the new Secretary of the Army pending Senate confirmation.
A 1977 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Viola was a captain in the Army.
Founder of the Wall Street electronic trading firm Virtu Financial, the Brooklyn-born Viola bought the Panthers in 2013 and helped turn the fortunes of the languishing hockey club around in a relatively short time.
“I am proud to have such an incredibly accomplished and selfless individual as Vincent Viola as our Secretary of the Army,” Trump said in a statement. The two met at Trump Tower in Manhattan last week.
“Whether it is his distinguished military service or highly impressive track record in the world of business, Vinnie has proved throughout his life that he knows how to be a leader and deliver major results in the face of any challenge.
“He is a man of outstanding work ethic, integrity, and strategic vision, with an exceptional ability to motivate others. The American people, whether civilian or military, should have great confidence that Vinnie Viola has what it takes to keep America safe and oversee issues of concern to our troops in the Army.”
Said Viola: “If confirmed, I will work tirelessly to provide our president with the land force he will need to accomplish any mission in support of his National Defense Strategy.
“A primary focus of my leadership will be ensuring that America's soldiers have the ways and means to fight and win across the full spectrum of conflict. This great honor comes with great responsibility, and I will fight for the American people and their right to live free every day.”
Matthew Caldwell is the CEO of the Panthers and one of many former military members — including assistant general manager Eric Joyce — holding high-ranking positions within the organization.
“This,” Caldwell said, “is the crown jewel of his career, being able to go back and serve the country in such a high position.”
On Monday, Caldwell was beaming as he spoke of what it meant to have his friend and mentor be nominated for such a lofty position.
“I couldn’t be more proud for Vinnie and his family,” said Caldwell, himself a 2002 graduate of West Point. “If you know Vinnie, you know he’s so patriotic and loves the military. He loves his country and knows what West Point and the Army did for him.
“It was really the foundation of his leadership and he has gone on to do some great things in the business world. Knowing a man like Vinnie will be running the U.S. Army is just really inspiring. It makes me feel safe.”
Viola, who founded the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is a graduate of the Army’s Ranger School and member of the 101st Airborne who has often spoke of how serving molded him as a young man.
“I was really raised in the military, my whole formation,” Viola said at the June unveiling of the team’s new uniforms which were designed to have a military look from the crest on the front to the patches on the sleeves.
“I was 17 when I left for West Point. From the first day at West Point, my focus and purpose was about became selfless leadership, putting others before yourself and being ready to sacrifice for others. For me, the military is every thing I am; the Army is everything I am.”
In the four seasons since Viola and business partner and friend Doug Cifu have owned the team, the Panthers have visited West Point twice and played the New Jersey Devils in the first professional sporting event on campus during the preseason.
“Everyone is ecstatic, excited for him,” general manager and interim coach Tom Rowe said. “Being an American myself, when your owner accepts a position like this, Secretary of the Army, that’s pretty impressive.”
Derek MacKenzie was named the Panthers’ team captain during that trip to West Point and was given his new jersey with the ‘C’ on the front by Viola.
While those who know Viola realize how much pride he takes in his time at West Point as well as his service in the Army, MacKenzie says he was taken aback by how revered Viola is at the academy.
“He obviously takes a lot of pride in that visit,” MacKenzie said, “but I also look at some of the well respected men at West Point and the way they looked at Vinnie and how excited they got when he comes and brings our team over there.
“It certainly reiterates how well respected he is not only in his business world, but at West Point and within this team.”
According to the Panthers, ownership of the team will remain within the Viola family pending confirmation and Cifu will take over as NHL Governor and chairman of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment.
The day-to-day operations of the hockey team and the arena it operates are not expected to be affected.
“It’s great news for him and we’re happy for him,” said goalie Roberto Luongo, who agreed to come back to the Panthers in a 2014 trade after seeing how committed Viola and Cifu were to turning the franchise around.
“I’m sure this is something he has worked a long time for and takes a lot of pride in.”
How closely Trump and Viola are connected is not immediately known with Caldwell saying “I don’t think they know each other that well.”
Trump and Viola both had some business dealings during the recent campaign as Trump leased a plane — the one the Panthers used last season — from Viola’s Eastern Airlines for Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence.
Former Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders had previously used that aircraft during his campaign.
The BB&T Center in Sunrise, which is owned by Broward County but run by the Panthers, was also the site of a Trump rally in August.
Caldwell said the team had a lease agreement with Trump just as it had with President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012.
“It was the same deal, a rental fee and then we pass along the expenses,” Caldwell said. “They paid and everything. There was no donation, no gift.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Vinnie Viola served in Vietnam. Viola, owner of the Florida Panthers and a 1977 graduate of West Point, was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to be the Secretary of the Army on Monday.