Hockey Fans Have All-Star Experience In Tampa
Fans from around the world descended on Tampa this past weekend for the National Hockey League All-Star Weekend, a swirl of events that included a fan festival, live concerts, and a red-carpet extravaganza to welcome the players.
Oh, and a hockey game or three broke out as well.
The weekend wasn't without challenges - people coming out for Saturday night's Skills Competition had to brave heavy traffic from Saturday's Gasparilla Pirate Fest and Parade.
Then on Sunday, rain started falling right before the puck dropped for the first game in Amalie Arena.
In between, fans packed activities held in Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park and other areas around downtown and the arena.
One of the most popular destinations was the NHL Trophy Showcase, a tent where the sport's most prestigious awards were on display. The biggest prize - the Stanley Cup - attracted the longest lines.
"It's kind of surreal," Tampa Bay Lightning fan Catherine Pedulla said after her family posed for a photo with the Cup. "We're hoping that it comes back here (to Tampa), we're hoping to see it again pretty soon."
Pedulla said she liked that local Lightning fans happily rubbed elbows with backers of rivals like the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals.
"It's pretty cool, it's just kind of a chill weekend, we're not really fighting or anything, there's nothing at stake, it's just pride," she said.
Nate Blythe drove from Orlando to check out players from his favorite team, the two-time defending champs Pittsburgh Penguins. He also had a chance to touch the Cup.
"It's amazing, especially with the Pens winning back-to-back titles the last two years," Blythe said. "I was at Game One in Pittsburgh last year, it was a pretty special moment."
Lightning fan Vinny Pickens of Palm Harbor said he had several chances to meet stars from his hometown as well as players from other teams.
"We got autographs from (Lightning players) Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, (Penguin) Sidney Crosby and (Boston Bruin) Brad Marchand," Pickens said just before he went in for Sunday's game. "It's so cool, it's just awesome just seeing them all."
That feeling was something almost every fan agreed with, no matter whose jersey they were wearing.
"It's awesome, I mean it's a dream come true to be able to see an event like this and see some of the best players in the world," Blythe said.
"It's absolutely wild, everyone's out having a good time," said Jamison Cronin, a Chicago Blackhawks fan who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. "I'm a huge hockey fan and I'm living it up man."
"It's been great. Thunder Alley's a good time, Amalie's a great arena, it's really good," said Ian Erickson, a Detroit Red Wings backer from Ohio.
Businesses near Amalie saw increased traffic as well. Larry Heisel is manager of Hattricks sports bar, about a half mile from Amalie.
"It's been outstanding, people from all over the country, people from all over the world have been here - Canada, Russia - it's been great," Heisel said. "Got tremendous reviews from everybody who's been here - people are just in a great mood, having a great time here, Tampa's showing its best foot forward on this."
And after the last of three games - where the Pacific Division won 5-2 over the Atlantic squad, All-Star captain and Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos agreed that Tampa has proven itself to be a hockey town.
"A lot of people may not get the opportunity to come down and watch a game here and be part of this community and how special it is," Stamkos said. "Anytime we can showcase it like this on the world stage, obviously everyone did a great job doing that."
He added that even some players were surprised by the passion of Tampa’s hockey fans.