The return of the NHL All-Star Game to Tampa Bay has been a long time coming. When Tampa last hosted the All-Star game back in 1999, the sport was still in its infancy in the city. At the time, no one knew if hockey would find a long-term foothold in the football-centric town. The Lightning organization had weak ownership, were on shaky grounds financially and featured a team that was falling far short of relevance on the ice. It would not have been a stretch to imagine the franchise would call a new city home by the mid-2000’s.
How The Times Have Changed
Nearly two decades later, the Lightning franchise is in a much different spot in the sports world. The once-struggling organization has become one of the faces of success for a non-traditional hockey market. The team was rated the #1 sports franchise in the ESPN Ultimate Ranking in 2016, has sold out more than 100 straight games and has had four consecutive winning seasons.
You don’t have to look far to find the catalyst for the rebirth of the Lightning organization. When the franchise was purchased in 2010, they needed steady and thoughtful leadership to lead the team out of irrelevance. What they got was Jeff Vinik, an owner who had a vision for downtown Tampa and a willingness to give the Lightning both the time and money they needed to become more than just a top sports franchise. No, the new Lightning owner has done more than rebuild a hockey team; he has worked to build the team into one of the keystones of Tampa.
Now, due in large part to the work of Vinik and his team, Tampa Bay will be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game. This honor will bring more than media attention for the city of Tampa; it will shine a light on a city working to show that it truly is a hockey town.
Renovating the Fan Experience
If there is one thing to say about Vinik, it is that the man is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. When he said that he was going to create a fan experience unique to Tampa Bay, he invested more than $70 million into renovating and transforming the Ice Palace (now Amalie Arena) into one of the top venues in America. By adding one of the largest video screens in the NHL, working Tesla coils and a massive pipe organ, home games in Tampa Bay now have a unique look, sound, and feel. This environment is begging for display in an all-star game, much like how Nashville gained a new relevance in the hockey world after their showing when they hosted the game in 2016.
Taking It to Channelside
When Vinik bought the Lightning organization in 2010, the team wasn’t the only group struggling on the waterside of Tampa. The downtown section located next to Amalie Arena, called Channelside, had been hit hard by the 2008 recession. The recession slowed the growth of condo and home sales in Tampa. The high rental cost for businesses in Channelside caused a number of high profile restaurants and businesses to leave the area.
Not long after buying the Lightning, Vinik started discussing a renovation of not just his new arena, but the entire Channelside district. As the years passed, the proposed ‘Vinnikville’ has gone from conjecture to a $3 billion plan, with phase one tentatively planned to start in 2018.
While this project will not be started until well after the All-Star game, it still represents why the NHL brought the game back to Tampa. At the center of this renovation has always been the Lightning organization. By laying down roots in Tampa, Vinik brought in investors that may have otherwise overlooked the struggling downtown. If the renovation is completed as planned, downtown Tampa could go from business center to hockey stronghold each Lightning home game.
Building a Hockey Community
An often overlooked part of the transformation of Tampa into a hockey town has been the Lightning’s investment to bring hockey in any form to the area. Sometimes this means finding unique ways to bring a sport that simply can’t exist in its’ native form to Florida.
Part of the mission for the ‘Lightning Made Hockey’ program has been about giving children and elementary schools in and around Tampa Bay the knowledge and equipment needed to play street hockey. The initiative started with the lofty goal of equipping 100,000 children with street hockey sticks and balls in an effort to bring awareness to a sport that is traditionally ignored in Florida.
Offering Hockey in Florida
Another aspect of growing the sport in Florida has been the creation of the Lightning High School Hockey League (LHSHL) in 2015. This high school league merged two smaller hockey organizations into one league under the Lightning banner that spanned the full length of the greater Tampa Bay area. So by using a framework developed by the many volunteers who were working to offer hockey to high schoolers in the area, the Lightning added their own resources to bring a wider audience to the LHSHL.
Since it’s inception, the LHSHL has seen great success not only in local play but in national tournaments as well. In 2016 the Mitchell Mustangs became the first Florida high school to win the USA Hockey High School National Championships, with a second LHSHL team, the Manatee Admirals, reaching the semifinals. So while the LHSHL may not be producing NHL draft picks yet, it still has been a great start for a young league.
Hopefully, the Lightning will be able to highlight the success of the LHSHL during the festivities of the All-Star weekend. By showing the world what is being built in Tampa, other small market teams can look to emulate the approach, putting their own regional spins on the formula that has shown success in Tampa so far.
The Perfect Time for Tampa
There really is no better time for Tampa to host the All-Star game than 2018. By 2019, construction should be started on Channelside, so trying to host an event as big as the All-Star game would be out of the question. Besides, the city is ready to firmly bring itself into the discussion for best hockey city in America. It may not have the history of a Detroit or Chicago, but it represents what all NHL franchises want to be. A franchise that represents both a sports team and a valued member of the community.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.