We understand if our Northern friends haven’t caught on yet, but everyone around Tampa knows the truth. This is a hockey town, home to the best-run and arguably most exciting franchise with the best owner, Jeff Vinik, in the National Hockey League.
Yeah, I’m talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning. And I’m talking about this town. This Sun Belt town, this place where it’s blazing hot with soaking humidity and the only ice we used to care about was inside a margarita glass.
It’s the same place where fans were about to be ejected for throwing their hats onto the ice after Chris Kontos scored his third goal in the Bolts’ inaugural game in 1992 against, oh, what was the team? I believe it was the Chicago Blackhawks, the opponent tonight as the Stanley Cup Finals get underway at Amalie Arena.
I’m sure all those fans from Up North got a big chuckle at the Southern rubes over that one. Team founder Phil Esposito had instructed ushers to eject anyone that night who threw something on the ice, but he forgot to tell them about hockey’s three-goal tradition of the hat trick.
So, OK, we had a bit of a learning curve.
Get over it.
A whiny Chicago columnist, complaining about the Bolts’ policy of letting local fans have first dibs on tickets for playoff games, noted, “It’s fashionable now for lesser NHL cities in this country to act petulantly like this, assuming they can use policies to somehow create more people who actually like their team and also assuming the vocalized loyalties of fans have a tangible effect on winning or losing.”
Well, while that guy wasn’t looking, lots of people began to care deeply about this team.
It didn’t have anything to do with a ticket policy, either. The Lightning aren’t a novelty. They’ve basically always been around for any of the 20-somethings living here.
“Those kids who were 4 or 5 years old when we started, they’re 27 or 28 now and buying their own tickets,” Esposito said. “They’re taking their kids to the games. This is a great hockey market.
“I keep arguing with people from up North who ask how you can play hockey in Florida. They just don’t understand what’s happening here.”
The Lightning ranked ninth out of the NHL’s 30 teams in attendance this year, with the arena at 98 percent capacity.
Yes, Chicago was first. Give yourselves a cookie.
The bigger story is the evolution of the team since 2004, the first and, until now, last time the Lightning had a shot at Lord Stanley’s goblet.
“It was a hootenanny back then,” said John Franzone, the Lightning’s vice president of game presentation. “It was a party. This is a mission.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gets it.
‘I think it’s fair to say that over the past decade, hockey in Tampa Bay has grown from a novelty to becoming a hockey city, one that’s knowledgeable about the game and passionate about its team in much larger numbers than ever before,” he said.
“We always knew hockey would work in Tampa Bay. What we didn’t have until now was the long-term commitment and resources being brought to bear that Jeff Vinik has devoted to this team and to this city.’’
Dave Andreychuk was the Lightning’s captain in ’04 and now is a team vice president. He has seen the change as well.
“There’s a different feel, yeah,” he said. “And the kids know nothing else but the Tampa Bay Lightning here.”
It makes sense.
Younger fans, attracted to the speed and excitement of the game, aren’t affected by the northern snobbery about hockey in Florida.
Chicago may have the tradition, but as far as young fans here know, the Blackhawks are just the next team to beat.
They’re one of the so-called Original Six franchises?
So what? So were Detroit, Montreal and the New York Rangers. The Bolts have taken out all three in this postseason. And if some team from Florida should take out a fourth to win the Cup?
“They’d declare a national day of mourning,” Lightning announcer and NHL veteran Bobby “The Chief” Taylor said.
If the series should go the Blackhawks’ way, well, traditionalists shouldn’t get cocky. This is a young team, with a deft organization, performing for people who care. The Lightning are going to be around for a while.
“I may have started it, but Jeff Vinik finished it,” Esposito said. “Now, this is going to be a hockey market forever.”