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Tampa turns blue and white as Lightning playoff fever strikes

TAMPA

The blue-and-white yard signs are flying off give-away tables. The car flags, too. And a big blue banner proclaiming "Go Bolts!" now hangs from the cityís Municipal Office Building downtown.

Itís Stanley Cup playoff time in Tampa.

On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Lightning face off against the New Jersey Devils to open the first round of the National Hockey Leagueís second season.

After the lunchtime rush Tuesday, David Mangione paused a moment to make a prediction about how Hattricks Tavern ó the 21-year-old "original Lightning bar" in the shadow of Amalie Arena ó would look in 48 hours.

"People will start to arrive 31/2 hours before game time," said Mangione, the tavernís managing partner. "Every seat will be taken. The line will stretch out the door."

Mangione expects that kind of business for weeks to come. This yearís Lightning squad reminds him of the 2004 Stanley Cup champions.

"Best team in the East. This is a very similar type of situation," Mangione said. "Especially since they didnít make the postseason last year, the anticipation level is high to amp it up and get after it."

On Monday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn stood in the bucket of a Tampa Fire Rescue ladder truck and pulled out wire clippers to release and unfurl the team banner in what has become a City Hall tradition.

Lowered back to earth, Buckhorn, clad in a Lightning jersey (#58, "The Mayor" across his back), said April is the month his city gets serious about hockey.

"This town will be wearing blue for the next couple of weeks," Buckhorn said. "Who would have thought 20 years ago that Tampa would become a hockey town?"

The StubHub online ticket service reported late Monday that the average price for a ticket to Thursdayís game was $113 with more than 1,700 seats remaining. More than 60 percent of sales have been to Florida residents. Just 6 percent came from New Jersey and New York.

Three years ago, when the Lightning battled the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final, the team made national news by refusing to sell tickets to out-of-state fans and forbidding rival fans from wearing their teamís jerseys in some parts of the arena.

Those policies have been relaxed for this yearís playoff run.

Still, fans sitting in the high-priced and highly visible seats in the Vology Loge, Lexus Lounge and Chase Club section are prohibited from wearing opposing logos, said Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett.

And any Devils fans in those sections thinking about ripping off their outerwear, Superman-style, to reveal the black and red underneath, take heed: If you bare Devils gear, youíll be asked to check it. The Lightning will even provide alternate shirts.

Still, in a message sent to fans, the team didnít completely stamp out displays of out-of-town passion.

"Those guests can still access the clubs, enjoy the game with you and even cheer for their team," the statement read.

The previous policy preventing ticket sales or resales by season ticket holders to rival fans has gone by the boards, Wickett said.

"We donít need to do it. We have more season ticket holders than ever before," he said.

The Lightning has sold out 148 straight games, including the playoffs, and counts nearly 15,000 season ticket holders among the 19,092 seats in Amalie Arena.

Having a playoff team is good for Tampa and a great opportunity to show off the cityís booming downtown, said Lynda Remund, chief executive officer and president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

"Weíve got Water Street, Armature Works and Julian B. Lane park and the Rays possibly coming to Ybor," Remund said. "All four corners are coming together."

The lunchtime crowd at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square on Monday wore plenty of blue and white, but no one was more decked out than David Ferguson.

The 28-year-old Publix cashier from Clearwater took a day off to attend the festivities downtown, wandering among the cornhole games and merchandise give-away booths.

"I needed a new yard sign and Iíve got to be here for the playoff energy," said Ferguson, clad in a Lightning jersey and wraparound reflective sunglasses, and cradling a large plastic hammer ó a "Thor" hammer, to be precise.

A fan from as far back as he can remember, Ferguson carries the hammer to the dozen or so games he attends each year but leaves it in his car. Itís not allowed inside Amalie Arena.

Ferguson will be wielding his good-luck token with confidence this playoff season. Heís convinced the Lightning is going to win its first Stanley Cup title since 2004.

About 20 men donated $20 to have their whiskers shaved at Mondayís event so they could get their "playoff beards" started ó a tradition among players and fans.

Shirley Vereen, 57, a county worker from Tampa, stopped by to grab some freebies, including a Lightning place mat destined for her floors to protect them from whatever splashes or spills out of the bowls of her terrier mix Taz.

"How do you not support this?íí Vereen asked. "How many cities have a hockey team?"

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

   
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