Can hockey ever become big in the south? It is a question that has been asked for decades. With the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers, and other teams such as the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars continuing to struggle with attendance, the topic has become increasingly important. One team, and one city have set out to prove that hockey can become a major sport in the southern states.
The Beginning of Hockey in Tampa
The Lightning played their first game on October 7, 1992 after being founded by Phil Esposito. They played their inaugural season in the 11,000 seat Expo-Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The future looked uncertain for the new hockey club.
The following season the Tampa Bay Lightning moved to the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, Florida. The stadium was originally built for baseball, so temporary seating had to be put in to accommodate the team. The stadium was also renamed to the “Thunderdome.” Being a baseball stadium, it had a much higher seating capacity then any NHL rink at the time, however it was very rare for attendance to be anywhere near the seating capacity. In a playoff game in 1996 the Thunderdome set an NHL attendance record of 28,183 which stood until the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton.
During the 1996 off-season the Lightning moved to the Ice Palace (now the Tampa Bay Times Forum), a new arena designed specifically for hockey.
Around 1998 the Lightning were deeply in dept, struggling and on the brink of bankruptcy. The teams ownership was in serious question. Rumors surfaced that the NHL would take control of the team if they could not find a buyer. It was starting to look as if hockey had no chance of being successful in the south, especially in the city of Tampa.
Things began to look up again for the team in 2002 with two consecutive winning seasons and a Stanley Cup victory. However, the Lightning continued to struggle with attendance issues. They quickly fell off again after the 2004-2005 lockout.
A New Era for Southern Hockey
Under new owner Jeffrey Vinik, the team got a new beginning in 2010. Vinik hired Steve Yzerman, a member of the NHL Hall of Fame, to be general manager of the club. Guy Boucher was hired as the new head coach. Since buying the team, Vinik has spent thousands on renovations to the rink. Some of the renovations include an organ, telsa coils that shoot off lightning bolts, a party deck, and cushioned seats. The Lightning also continue to spend money on ad campaigns and promotions for the team. The new owner has made it clear he is willing to spend whatever it takes to make Tampa a hockey city, and so far his efforts have been paying off.
Here is an ad put on by the Lightning shortly after the team was taken over by owner Jeff Vinik:
Attendance numbers have soared for the Lightning in the most recent seasons. In the past, crowds at the Tampa Bay Times Forum usually consisted of seasoned hockey fans. Now the Lightning are bringing in a more diversified group of fans due to promotions and great ticket deals. At the average Lightning game you can now see a wide variety of fans ranging from season-ticket holders, business people, children, and even college students with great student discounts.
Check out ESPN’s attendance rankings: http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance
With the support of a city behind them, Vinik and the Lightning are striving to create the first long-term highly successful hockey team in a southern state. The probability is looking great for the city of Tampa. The Lightning are not only bringing up a great group of young players, but also a massive generation of young hockey fans to join a growing fan base.
A highly successful hockey city in the south may be becoming a reality.