HOCK­EY­TOWN SOUTH

Light­ning’s growth on ice and in com­mu­nity has turned Tampa into a hot spot, for now

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - HE­LENE EL­LIOTT

TAMPA, Fla. — This is the South, where foot­ball is still king, so the Tampa Bay Light­ning must work harder to en­trench it­self than teams in longer-es­tab­lished sports or in tra­di­tional hockey mar­kets.

Jay Feaster, for­merly the Light­ning’s gen­eral manager and now its ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of com­mu­nity hockey devel­op­ment, is re­minded of that each time he vis­its a lo­cal school to in­tro­duce street hockey to kids in first through eighth grades. For many, it’s the first time they’ve held a hockey stick.

“That’s the big­gest chal­lenge,” Feaster said. “We’ll be talk­ing and ask,

‘How­many of you know what the Stan­ley Cup is?’ Nine times out of10 they say, ‘It’s like the tro­phy for foot­ball. It’s like the Su­per Bowl.’ The kids are born and that’s part of their DNA, whereas hockey is not part of their DNA.”

Hockey might not have been in their blood but it’s be­com­ing a big­ger part of sports cul­ture here. Be­sides those grass-roots ef­forts, its growth has been fu­eled by ren­o­va­tions that en­hanced the fan ex­pe­ri­ence at gleam­ing AmalieArena, com­mu­nity in­volve­ment di­rected by owner Jeff Vinik af­ter he bought the fran­chise in 2010, and the cur­rent suc­cess of the young, ex­cit­ing Light­ning.

As the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal open­sWed­nes­day, fea­tur­ing the East cham­pion Light­ning against theWest cham­pion Chicago Black­hawks, Tam­paBay has be­comea hockey city for now— and, club ex­ec­u­tives hope, for the long term.

“Iwould say there are more hockey fans here than peo­ple re­al­ize,” said Steve Griggs, a na­tive of Canada who is pres­i­dent of the Light­ning and the arena. “I think peo­ple are so ex­cited about what Jeff Vinik’s do­ing here in the com­mu­nity and then you have a team that’s per­form­ing­well and they­want to be a part of it. Their knowl­edge of hockey might not be like it is in Min­nesota orToronto but their pas­sion for the game and our brand is on an equal level.”

The NHL came to Tampa Bay with an ex­pan­sion teamin1992, fol­low­ing the shift inU.S. pop­u­la­tion to Sun­belt cities. The Light­ning won the Stan­ley Cup in 2004— with Feaster at the helm— but took a steep fall af­ter the lock­out that can­celed the 2004-05 sea­son.

The sea­son ticket base had dwin­dled to about 4,000 by the time Vinik, a hedge­fund manager and mi­nor­ity owner of the Bos­ton Red Sox, bought the fran­chise and land around the down­townarena. Be­sides in­vest­ing about $60 mil­lion in im­prov­ing the coun­ty­owned build­ing, he plans a half-bil­lion-dollar real es­tate devel­op­ment near the arena, along the lines of L.A. Live. Froma hockey stand­point hewas smart enough to hire Steve Yz­er­man, a fi­nal­ist this sea­son for the gen­eral manager of the year award.

“That’s an ex­cit­ing, fun team­towatch,” NHLCom­mis­sioner Gary Bettman said. “Steve Yz­er­man has done a great job build­ing and then re­build­ing the team, but it all starts, as it al­ways does, with own­er­ship. Jeff Vinik has been a fab­u­lous owner forTampa, took over the fran­chise at a point in time where it needed good, strong, com­mit­ted own­er­ship.”

Feaster be­lieves Vinik’s fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment in the tea­mand the area will per­suade fans tomake long term emo­tional in­vest­ments.

“I look at it fromthe stand­point of the fan base,” Feaster said. “Even if there are some down years in the fu­ture, they look at it and say, ‘We trust th­ese peo­ple.’ ”

The Light­ning’s sea­son ticket base is at11,500 inan area that has no For­tune 500 com­pany head­quar­ters. It played to 98% ca­pac­ity this sea­son, up from96.9% last sea­son. The team’s five regular-sea­son games on NBCSN av­er­aged a1.4 rat­ing; its sec­ond-round play­off rat­ing av­er­aged 5.5 and rose to 8.3 in the East fi­nals, with six games on NBCSN and one on NBC. TheGame7 rat­ing of 11.9 was the high­est me­tered mar­ket rat­ing for a Light­ning gameon an NBC net­work in the Tampa mar­ket.“The re­search told us the mar­ket­was here. Past his­tory told us the mar­ket­was here,” said Griggs who pre­vi­ous­ly­worked for the Min­neso­taWild, theToron­toMaple Leafs, and the NBA’sToronto Rap­tors and Or­lando Magic. “What I would tell you is that the brand­was not strong and the prod­uct and ser­vices were not strong and the cul­ture needed to be trans­formed.” He­said the ma­jor­ity of sea­son-ticket hold­ers are from Tampa, in­clud­ing trans­plants. Win­ter vis­i­tors, called snow­birds, buy 10packs and mini-packs but most sea­son ticket hold­ers are first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion hockey fans, he said.

In­creas­ing the num­ber of fans is a mission for Feaster, who re­turned to the club last July. With ice at a pre­mium— there are only eight sheets of ice in the area and four more due to open in Pasco County later this year — street hockey is the eas­ier en­try level and the team has reached thou­sands of kids this year alone. The Light­ning runs clin­ics as far away as Or­lando and Day­tona Beach, sup­plies jer­seys to par­tic­i­pants in lo­cal rec hockey leagues, and plans to in­crease its in­volve­ment in lo­cal high school hockey.

“In my mind there’s no doubt that it’s a le­git­i­mate hockey mar­ket,” Feaster said.

It’s also a le­git­i­mate des­ti­na­tion for play­ers who want to win, and not merely coast to re­tire­ment.

“When you think of Florida you don’t re­ally think about hockey first and fore­most. But I must say I’m over­whelmed by the fan basewe have. Very­much ded­i­cated, un­be­liev­able fans,” said stand­out de­fense­man An­ton Stral­man, who signed a five-year, $22-mil­lion con­tract as a free agent last July.

“They meet us at the air­port ev­ery timewe come back froma play­off game. It’s been truly an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with the fans. I’ve never been in­volved with a teamwhere the fans are so ex­cited for you and re­ally give us a lot of en­ergy.”

Amalie Arena, with its Tesla coils that sim­u­late light­ning bolts, should be jump­ing Wed­nes­day night for the opener. The team’s suc­cess to date has al­ready pro­vided the city quite a jolt.

“It’s gal­va­nized the com­mu­nity,” Griggs said. “What we’ve done is we’ve moved peo­ple up the fandom lad­der. You have pas­sion­ate Light­ning fans, you have ca­sual fans and you have non-hockey fans. We’re try­ing to stair-step those fans up­ward and at­tract new­fans.”

Luis San­tana As­so­ci­ated Press

FANS CHEER in Tampa, Fla., af­ter the Light­ning’s 2-0 victory over the Rangers in New York in Game 7 of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals.

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