On a picturesque Florida evening in March, the Tampa Bay Lightning took to their home ice sitting one point out of the division lead, and yet Amalie Arena was only at one-fifth capacity. Now, before the fans of the other 29 NHL organizations that reside north of the Lightning attempt to point out this is the reason hockey does not belong in a state like Florida, one must remember the circumstances surrounding this game.
That game against the Nashville Predators was the first time in the past 365 days that ticketed attendance was permitted at Amalie Arena due to COVID-19 protocols. The Lightning honored their fans by raising the 2019-20 Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters, and, while there were only 3,800 fans to witness it in person, the atmosphere was as electric as any sold-out crowd at any NHL stadium.
In fact, up until the pause during the 2019-20 season, the Lightning had sold-out Amalie Arena for 234 consecutive games — more than five and one-half seasons of hockey — and have finished in the top-10 in league attendance every year since the 2012-13 season. However, the truth is that many fans outside of the Sunshine State are quick to write off the Lightning’s Cup celebration as being illegitimate and often discredit Bolts Nation as being an afterthought within the league.
This could not be further from reality.
With that said, in an effort to give the Lightning faithful a platform to voice their legitimacy as a hockey fandom, I sat down with my colleagues — Andrew Mulville and Eugene Helfrick — as well as members of the Tampa Bay community to discuss what the Lightning mean to their city.
Where Lightning Strikes, Thunder Roars
Sonya Bryson-Kirksey (@SonniSings) – Lightning Anthem Singer – Hockey fan for 8 years
Growing up around football in Greenville, South Carolina, Sonya Bryson-Kirksey was exposed to hockey as an adult — performing at the very first game she ever attended.
To Bryson-Kirksey, the way the Lightning organization honored and valued the military community instantly made her fall in love with the team.
Seth Kushner (@SethKush) – Block Party Podcast Host – Hockey fan for 10+ years
Seth Kushner discovered hockey after moving to Tampa Bay from Chicago. Having always wanted to root for a Tampa area team, he found the Lightning were able to fill that void after receiving such a warm reception from the staff and fans.
Christina the Tampa Sports Bae (@TampaSportsBae) – Hockey fan for 7 years
Christina, an online sports personality and coverage provider for all things Tampa Bay sports, fell in love with the atmosphere, roar of the crowd, and literal electricity in the building at Amalie Arena when she attended her very first hockey game.
The Lightning’s Impact: Family, Diversity & Passion
Q: What do the Tampa Bay Lightning mean to you? What do you they mean to the community?
Sonya Bryson-Kirksey: Personally, the Tampa Bay Lightning means family, my “Amalie Family.” I see multi-generational families, groups of friends, first-timers, and lots of other fan dynamics. But for that three-hour period of time, we are all one hockey family.
Andrew Mulville: The Tampa Bay Lightning mean family to me. My family has rarely missed watching a Lightning game together, so for me the team will always remind me of time spent with them.
Seth Kushner: They mean a lot [to the community]. Not just the guys on the ice but the marketing people, security, the peeps (sic) running Facebook. They are all crucial to the success of the franchise. The Lightning will always be the underdog since this is a football town, but the passion Lighting fans have is on par.
Eugene Helfrick: The franchise brings out the best in the community, allowing the franchise and sport to grow all over the Bay area. It has united more than the fanbase, as the Lightning have become a focal point of the entire downtown area, with Jeff Vinik, our owner, helping to reshape the area.
Q: Do you think the Tampa Bay Lightning or Tampa Bay as a hockey market gets a bad reputation?
EH: A lot of that bad reputation comes from people who have never been to a Lightning game before, or still believe that expanding hockey in any way was a negative for the sport. That’s still a fairly common sentiment, that the Sunbelt can’t understand hockey for reasons x-y-z. And while I’ll agree in some ways, I can’t skate after all, the sport’s been around long enough in these areas that it is starting to take hold in ways that they never could have predicted.
Christina: I don’t think they get a bad reputation. I think it’s more of a thought that hockey shouldn’t belong in Florida because I mean, it’s Florida! But I think over the years the Lightning and Tampa Bay has proved to be a great market for hockey.
SK: Not anymore. Hockey is thriving in Tampa Bay. Anyone who says otherwise probably thinks the Cup win from last year isn’t legit. (from ‘TRAIKOS: Lightning deserve an asterisk after winning the COVID-19 Cup — for all the right reasons’, Toronto Sun, 9/28/20)
SBK: I think a certain hockey crowd feels hockey is out of place in a Florida beach town, but we here know better. Even the people who move here from other hockey markets, still support the Lightning. Tampa Bay is an amazing melting pot with active and retired military, snowbirds and locals that love hockey, and all of the amazing sports teams we have here.
Q: What sets Tampa Bay Lightning fans apart from the fans of other hockey markets?
AM: The Tampa Bay area is a melting pot of sorts. A large percentage of the population in Central Florida were not born in Florida. There are people from all over the United States (and all over the world!) that live in Tampa. Although there is a great amount of diversity, Lightning fans come together as one family to cheer on the Bolts!
EH: I think Lightning fans are some of the most welcoming in the sport. I know I’ve talked to plenty of visiting fans over the years who commented on how pleasant the fans were in the stadium. That doesn’t mean you won’t get booed if you’re wearing rival colors, but it’s mostly in good fun.
SBK: We support our team in every aspect of life. Our local news teams dress in blue on game days. Schools have jersey days. During the playoffs, there were banners, flags and billboards everywhere, and when they won the Stanley Cup, we packed out the boat parade and city celebration. (from ‘Fans finally cheer champs in person at Lightning parade and party’ Tampa Bay Times, 9/30/20) We support Lightning watch parties at Thunder Alley, Sparkman Wharf, Ferg’s, Armature Works, The Brass Tap or someone’s back yard. We will watch Lightning hockey here or there, we will watch Lightning hockey anywhere.
Q: What do you want fans around the National Hockey League to know about Tampa Bay Lightning fans?
C: Hockey in Tampa isn’t going anywhere. Tampa is only going to continue to grow as a hockey market and I foresee the Lightning being a dominant team for years to come.
SK: We’ve heard it all before. No one can say anything that is new to us. We aren’t afraid to mix it up with Boston, New York, Philly, and Toronto. We understand hockey just fine [and] that we know how to work the salary cap better than anyone.
EH: Just realize that Lightning fans are as real as any other in the sport. The team’s reach is growing fast across the city, and while it will never be as strong as an institution like football, it’s still much larger than you likely realize. The Lightning sell out every game for a reason, and unlike even a decade ago, there’s far more Blue in the stadium than any other color.
AM: Tampa Bay Lightning fans are passionate about the game of hockey! When I was growing up, I did not have access to a hockey rink but still fell in love with the game. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t get cold here!
While Tampa Bay will continue to be a football city first and foremost, the Lightning have proven that their reach is expanding across the area. In a town that is known for its beaches, ice hockey has not only found a way to take root, it is surging through the pulse of the community.
A special thank you goes out to Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, Seth Kushner, and Christina for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to give all them all a follow on social media — Andrew and Eugene as well — to stay up to date on all things related to the Lightning and Tampa Bay sports!
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Detroit Red Wings, hosts The Grind Line and THW Podcasts, and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.