TAMPA — Monday was a bad night to be a Blackhawks fan in Tampa.
It was hard to spot any Chicago colors in a sea of Lightning blue as at least 4,000 people descended on Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park — despite temperatures stuck at around 92 degrees — for a free Tampa Bay Lightning watch party. Another prominent color: red, as in the bright red flares that soared into the air when the team scored its first goal.
It seems Lightning fever has infected more bodies than can be stuffed into the earlier outdoor venue for away games at Channelside Bay Plaza, officials said. Crowd estimates for the free May 29 watch party there topped 1,000, and fans were forced to stand up to watch because of the lack of ground space.
Fans showed up at Curtis Hixon hours before the 8 p.m. game to pose for selfies with the Lightning Girls and Thunderbug, make the rounds among local food trucks, and defend prime spots to watch a live broadcast of the game on two 9-by-16-foot LED screens. To entertain impatient Bolts fans, the party also provided plenty of giveaways, games and even blue-and-white dye for fans’ playoff beards.
What’s more, there were touches of the energy that fills Amalie Arena for home games with the shooting flares and even a live organ playing.
The watch parties have provided an introduction to hockey for 6-year-old Gavin Cordero. His Tampa family has never attended a hockey game, but Gavin hopes to join a local hockey team soon — using some of the skills he showed Monday scoring an easy goal against dad Ruben Cordero on a mini ball-hockey game set up at the park.
Gavin’s missing front teeth complete his look as a hockey player, Cordero said.
“Before the Lightning were in the playoffs we never watched hockey, but the watch parties sounded like something fun for him and he’s loved it,” Cordero said.
Monday’s was the first hockey game Erika Tornatore and Jay Pridham had ever seen. The two traveled from Orlando for the watch party, drawn by the allure of food trucks and loaded french fries from one in particular — the award-winning “Cajun in a Truck.”
“The only thing we knew about the Lightning before coming here were that they’re a pretty good hockey team,” Pridham said. “If food trucks are involved, I’m definitely up for learning more about hockey.”
City officials and Tampa police have plenty of experience hosting rowdy events in the park, including last month’s Tampa Bay Margarita Festival, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said. Logistics and security fell together quickly for the hastily declared watch party.
If the playoffs progress to a Game 6 on June 15, the away game will be shown on the giant 28-by-50 foot video screens inside the Amalie Arena to accommodate crowds and keep them connected to their home rink, Lightning officials said.
The Lightning won’t know exactly how much all the ex citement has added to the bottom line of Tampa businesses, including their own, until the playoff games are over, said Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Rohrlack.
But judging from the crowds in the park, the electric blue dye in Garrison Channel and the number of fluttering flags hanging from businesses throughout the area, it’s safe to say the number of hockey fans in the Sunshine State is growing, he said.
Case in point: When the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004 — the team’s first and only championship — Rohrlack was able to score tickets to three of four home games easily, he said. This year, he’s watching the sold out games on screens outside.
“I think years ago the Lightning did have to work harder than our other sports teams to win over fans, but the level of excitement now is incredible and I think that’s in direct correlation to how this ownership and this team have reached out and wanted to be a part of the community,” Rohrlack said.
You couldn’t put a price on the worldwide exposure the Tampa Bay area has received during the Lightning’s run for the Stanley Cup, said Patrick Harrison, vice president of marketing for Visit Tampa Bay, the tourism agency.
“Even if it’s someone in Chicago complaining that they can’t get tickets to the games, any time they’re talking about Tampa Bay and showing our downtown waterfront and palm trees on every major channel and network, we’ll take it,” Harrison said.
Watch party fans Dave Swartz and his family were fans of the Lightning even before they moved to Tampa four months ago from Canton, Ohio. They didn’t have a local hockey team in northeast Ohio, he said, so they followed whoever was playing on TV. His wife Tabitha, 18-month-old daughter Nevada and 8-year-old son Xavier were decked out in Lightning gear for Monday’s watch party, father and son sporting blue and white hair-do’s.
“I like hockey because you can scream when people score goals,” Xavier said as he danced around with glowing thundersticks. “I like that we can do all this stuff outside and watch the game too. And I like the Lightning Girls.”