Although it’s still considered a young franchise, the Lightning won the 2004 Stanley Cup and has made several, deep playoff runs. Yet, it’s been a challenge for the Tampa Bay community to earn the title of “hockey town.”
Lightning founder Phil Esposito admitted that bringing professional ice hockey to the land of sunshine and palm trees in 1992 was a gamble. But he got some reassurance from Gabe Paul a former president of the Yankees and Cleveland Indians who was living in Tampa at the time.
“I asked him one question do you think hockey can survive here in this area,” Esposito said during intermission at the recent Lightning vs. Canadians game. “He said well we love football. We love car crashes. We love wrestling and we love boxing. (It) seems to me you’ve got it all in hockey.”
But the NHL Hall of Fame player knew he had a challenge creating a team in a non-traditional hockey market like Tampa.
Fans from the “traditional markets” or original six NHL teams don’t mind roughing up a newcomer according to a sports writer covering the recent game between the Lightning and Montreal Canadians, one of the original six teams.
“Hockey fans, especially in Canada, they want everyone to like hockey. But when new people start liking hockey, they kind of resent it,” said Arpon Basu, editor and chief of The Athletic, a subscription online sports journal. “When the NHL goes and reaches out into these new markets to get new people to love their game, they get mocked and get made fun of. There was a lot of that going on when they initially came to Tampa.”
Esposito shrugged off those early taunts and criticisms that ice hockey doesn’t belong in a place with no winter.
“The truth is you play indoors. You don’t play outside,” said Esposito, now the color commentator for Lightning radio broadcasts. “I remember as a player going into Montreal. It was 6 below zero as we walked in when we came out it was 12 below zero. Here I walk into the building it’s 73-75 I walk out it’s 73-75.now I ask you, what would you prefer?”
The Lightning has come a long way since playing at the State Fairgrounds Expo Hall and St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field – known then as the Thunder Dome.
Players like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, the 2004 Stanley Cup win plus several playoffs have earned the team and its fans respect said Jim Devellano with the Detroit Red Wings, another of the original six teams.
“This is a hockey town and it will be forever. They’ve made it,” Devellano said. “They’re as good of hockey town as any in the National Hockey League. Sold out, night, after night, after night. Good hockey club, night, after night after night.”
In fact, at many Lightning home games, you can find Scotty Bowman, the coach with the most wins in NHL history and 14 Stanley Cup victories.
“I happen to live in Sarasota. I know a lot of people that come up from there, it’s not that tough of hike,” Bowman said. “The kids are playing hockey in the area, even kids from Sarasota. Families that I know, their kids are getting involved and they’ll increase as rinks are being built, which they are doing in Florida.”
Since the Lightning arrived, the number of ice rinks has increased. There are high school teams, street hockey and club hockey for kids and adults.
Seven years ago, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik took over the team. He decided one way to grow the fan base was to teach life skills and hockey to Tampa Bay youngsters. He said that includes handing out free hockey sticks that kids can use on and off the ice.
“Actually, we’re going to do more than 100,000 sticks and pucks to kids throughout the area. We’re up to 70,000 right now, after two years, and we’re going to keep going,” Vinik said. “Because again, let’s get everybody to love this great sport. You know, what kid doesn’t want a stick in their hand.”
It’s a strategy that makes Esposito proud.
“We’re 25 years in existence. We haven’t got the tradition of the original six teams, but you have to make your own tradition,” Esposito said. “Jeff Vinik when he bought this team, brought it to where I always thought it should be.”
And that, according to Esposito, is a winning team in a hockey town.