Thunder-Cats Ho! The Battle for the Sunshine State Becomes Relevant

As the temperatures around America and Canada continue to drop, the anticipation for hockey in Florida is beginning to heat up. This past year Floridians turned out in substantially better numbers than previous seasons to support their NHL teams. According to ESPN, the Tampa Bay Lightning filled their arena to 96.2% capacity on average while the Florida Panthers managed 86.6% – up almost 5% from the 2010-2011 season.

What could have attributed this rise in attendance?

Did a giant man eating shark force the state to close down the beaches resulting in Floridians being forced to flock to their local rinks?

Possibly…but more than likely, contrary to what many northerners, think hockey is growing in the Sunshine State.

florida hockey
Inside the BT&T Center (Wikipedia)

Attendance numbers for both Florida teams have been steadily rising over the past few seasons and fan enthusiasm and support is climbing with it. While in past seasons both the Lightning and Panthers have had to rely on transplant fans and snowbirds to fill their arenas, the seeds of hockey in Florida are finally starting grow as Florida hockey begins to create its’ own identity.

One of the driving forces behind Floridian’s growing interest in hockey is the abundance of talented players that now populate both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. Currently the Tampa Bay Lightning are far more blessed than the Panthers when it comes to superstars, including future hall of famers Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, as well as reigning NHL Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy winner Steven Stamkos. However, the Panthers were able to put together quite an impressive offensive unit in only their first year of rebuilding under new General Manager Dale Tallon. The top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss was one of the best offensive lines in the NHL for the early part of the 2011-2012 season

Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos / Carolina Hurricane Tim Brent
before declining due to various injuries.

Star players like Steven Stamkos are the biggest assets to the growth of hockey in Florida. A player as talented at Stamkos transcends his own team and is more of a star player of the NHL as a whole rather than being limited to his own team. Outstanding players garnish national attention and thrust their teams into the spotlight. Hockey fans from all over tune in to watch the Lightning play to see what Steven Stamkos will do on any given night. The continuous good play of players like Stamkos and St. Louis will be a catalyst for increased interest in hockey both in and outside the state of Florida.

Another fortunate turn of events for the growth of hockey in Florida is that this upcoming season the Lightning and Panthers both look to be relevant playoff contenders in a much improved Southeast Division. The Bolts and Cats have not competed in the playoffs in the same season since the 1995-1996 season when the Panthers made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals where the eventually lost to the Colorado Avalanche. However, this season the Panthers will look to repeat as Southeast Division champs as the Lightning look to rebound from last year’s disappointing season. Each game in the rivalry will now be more important than ever as the divisional standings will most likely be tight down to the wire. Each point will be hard fought and each check will be delivered with a little extra force – and the fans will LOVE it.If you are expecting this newly recharged rivalry to burn out quickly – think again. Luckily for the Lighting and Panthers as well as hockey fans, each team bolsters an impressive prospect pool that will keep this rivalry burning bright for many seasons to come.

In 2011 the Panthers acquired what they hope to be the new face of their franchise when they drafted Jonathan Huberdeau 3rdoverall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Huberdeau has the scoring and playmaking ability that the Panthers have been seeking since the departure of Pavel Bure. While Huberdeau is clearly the gem of the Panthers’ prospect pool, players like Nick Bjugstad, Alex Petrovic, Drew Shore, Jacob Markstrom and Mike Matheson could all be future stars for the team. At only 22 years old,Steven Stamkos will be the Lightning’s superstar for many years to come and will continue to put fans in the seats. However, as former star players Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis begin to head towards retirement, the Lighting luckily have impressive prospects to replace them.

The team is stocked with players such as last year’s AHL MVP Cory Conacher who dominated the league on his way to leading the Lighting’s minor league affiliate to the Calder Cup. Skilled players like Tyler Johnson, JT Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov round out an impressive group of future Lightning stars that will help the team contend for many seasons to come.When the lockout is lifted and NHL play finally resumes, the Lightning and Panthers will begin to revitalize this rivalry and possibly bring it to heights that were once never thought possible. As the battle for the Sunshine State heats up and the intensity of the rivalry grows over the next few seasons, no matter who wins on the ice, the biggest winner of all will be the hockey fans who call Florida ho