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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The hot ticket in Tampa

Bolts have gained public acceptance in football-crazy Florida

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TAMPA, Fla. -- The first voice one hears on the tram at Tampa International Airport is a recorded welcoming message from Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier.

The electronic marquee in front of the arena read: Tonight, Lightning vs. Winnipeg Jets, sold out.

Tampa it seems, is a hockey town.

Unlike the Florida Panthers, who are struggling to draw right now and had as many empty seats as they did full on Tuesday night, the Lightning are a hot ticket these days.

The Panthers rink isn't part of one community but is situated in an area capable of drawing on a number of places such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It's really in the middle of nowhere. When the Panthers are winning, it works. When they're not, it doesn't.

In Tampa, the Lightning are very much part of the city. The goal in Tampa is to become part of the community's fabric and it appears the club is succeeding.

To lump the two Florida markets together is unfair and inaccurate.

Tampa has reeled off 12 straight sellout crowds this season, including Thursday night against the Jets. Take it back to last season, and it's 15 in a row.

The Lightning rank seventh in the league in attendance while the Panthers sit in 24th.

"Traditionally this has been a football market but the Lightning have done very well to make inroads," said Rick Peckham, play-by-play voice of the Lightning for 18 years and previously the voice of the now- defunct Hartford Whalers.

"It's three years since Jeff Vinik bought the team and he's followed up on everything he said he would do in terms of world class. He's poured $45 million of his own money into the building and he doesn't own the building.

"Steve Yzerman has made all the right moves on the ice to increase the depth of the organization and you can see it when they bring guys up and contribute. You marry what's happened on the ice with what's happening in the community and you have a solid brand that people trust. Lots of organizations try to contrive it but the Lightning have done it for real."

Vinik has added a $5 million blue-line-to-blue-line HD screen and reconfigured the seating at the Tampa Bay Times Forum to enhance the fan experience.

He donates $50,000 per home game as part of his Hometown Heroes charity and during the lockout, he continued this initiative as every home game that should have been was crossed off the calendar.

"Every game. Even during the lockout he donates. He commits $2 million every year. The generosity and his vision for Tampa (have) built a trust between the team and the community and you can't put a price tag on that," said Peckham. "You have a 60-goal scorer in Steven Stamkos and Vinny (Lecavalier) and Marty St. Louis and that helps. Vinny is right up there with Lee Roy Selmon and Derrick Brooks as the most popular athletes this area has ever seen."

Lightning vice-president Dave Andreychuk says the organization has seen ups and downs but now has stability. Andreychuk has been in Tampa since 2000, first as a player until his retirement in 2006 and now as an executive.

"The brand is strong. When you look back at winning the Cup in 2004 and how people rallied around the team, it's the same feeling right now," said Andreychuk.

"This is a hockey market to a degree. You have your people from up north that already know hockey and then people that have caught on and then there are new Floridians that get interested and then hooked on the game once they get here. It's not like a strong hockey market where everybody knows the game.

"We're still teaching the game to an extent. But the game-day experience here is like no other in the league and people want to come back once they've been here."

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2013 $sourceSection0

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