Yes, Virginia, There are NHL Fans in Florida

The only Ice in Florida is in their Drinks

 Yes, Virginia, the hockey snobs up north are wrong.  It is a fact that for the majority of the NHL season, the weather in Florida is the antithesis of most NHL cities.  When fans in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto are braving days that include the term wind chill factor, the Tampa Bay Lightning fan base are in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops.

As the Lightning opened up the playoffs this year against Detroit and Montreal, two of the “Original 6”, a majority of their fans continually asked in social media: “What do they know about hockey down in Florida?”  I guess it is a legitimate question since the team has only been around since 1992.

So, in 23 years of existence, the Tampa Bay Lightning has won one Stanley Cup and are currently in the Eastern Conference Finals vying for their second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Like most NHL franchises there have been good years and bad years for the organization.

So again, yes Virginia, with the current owner, Jeffrey Vinik who hired Steve Yzerman as the General Manager and they have the club at an all-time high in attendance as well as excitement in what has historically been a football town in a football state, there is hockey in Florida and there are hockey fans in Florida too.

Steve Yzerman
Steve Yzerman

Have you gone to an NHL game?

Many Floridians are transplants coming from the north where there has been hockey for a long time.  Some of these new state citizens have brought their love of this wonderful game down south.  One of those transplants, a certain NHL hall of famer by the name of Phil Esposito who lived in the Tampa Bay area missed hockey so much, he made it his mission to bring an NHL franchise to Tampa and the Lightning were born.

A few years after their inception, a young man from the Montreal area was the consensus number one pick in the 1998 draft.  Immediately after selecting Vinny Lecavalier, the new Lightning owner, a gentleman by the name of Art Williams proclaimed that his new #1 was “The Michael Jordan of Hockey”.  Okay, so maybe some Floridians don’t know anything about hockey after all.

Shortly after drafting Lecavalier, in the third round of the same draft, the team selected Brad Richards.  Within a couple of years, the team signed Marty St. Louis and brought in John Tortorella as the coach.  This was the nucleus for the Stanley Cup Championship.

Before long, the team was competitive.  Vinny, Marty and Brad Richards were our big three.  Torts behind the bench and during press conferences was certainly entertaining to watch.  Attendance began to creep up and people began talking about the Lightning.  Whenever I ran into someone who had not caught this fever, I asked them one simple thing:  “Have you gone to a game?”  And if you were here, I would also say to you, Virginia, have you gone to a game?

Stanley Finds the Florida Beaches

The organization, with General Manager Jay Feaster at the helm, began to put together a team that not only captured the heart of this southern town, but captured Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Players like Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor were added along with Ruslan Fedotenko and my personal favorite, Chris Dingman.

In the blink of an eye, the pieces were in place to compete deep into the playoffs.  Freddy Modin and Andre Roy came along.  Defensemen like Dan Boyle, Cory Sarich, Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor made the team’s blueliners a force to be reckoned with now.

John Tortorella
John Tortorella (AP photo/Chris O’Meara)

After holding out with the then Phoenix Coyotes, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin was acquired by the Lightning in a trade and the organization had a clear number one netminder.  Jay Feaster brought together all the pieces that he inherited, traded for and drafted to make their successful Stanley Cup run.

What is not to love?

During that Stanley Cup run in the 2003-2004 season, you could feel the energy swelling in the area.  There was no doubt that most people, especially the natives couldn’t tell the difference between a high stick and a cross check.  One thing they did understand is that this was a game of speed and power.

In the heart of a state that has so many Football and Nascar fans, the NHL fits right in.  The famous quote by Brendan Shanahan comes to mind in which he replied when a reporter had the temerity to ask him if hockey is hard.  “I don’t know, you tell me.  We need the strength and power of a football player, the stamina of a marathon runner, and the concentration of a brain surgeon.  But we need to put all this together while moving at high speeds on a cold and slippery surface while five other guys use clubs to try and kill us, oh yeah, did I mention that this whole time we’re standing on blades 1/8 of an inch thick?”

So, yes Virginia, the description provided by Mr. Shanahan is all that we sports fans in Florida need to solidify our love for this fantastic game.  It has all the best elements of all sports and unlike the other major three, most fans did not play hockey at any kind of competitive level.  See, most of us played baseball or football or basketball as both kids and growing into adulthood.  Some of us played well into our adult life in beer leagues and other competitive and non-competitive leagues.  But hockey is different.  Sure there are adult leagues with no contact and no slap shots but those are rare; especially down here in the south.

Whether we are transplanted from up north or were born and raised here on Florida’s Gulf Coast, we have all come to love this game called hockey.  Need proof?  Look at the attendance of the Lightning.  Since the 2000-2001 season, 14 years because of the lockout year, almost 10 million butts in the seats here in Tampa have watched the Lightning.  The actual number per the NHL is 9,857,806 but that does not count playoffs.  Wrap your mind around that you Northern Hockey Snobs.  Almost 10 million people paying hard-earned money to watch an NHL game here in the Sunshine State.

Even the slightest slight isn’t right

The snobbery from the hockey fans up north is without merit.  They sometimes speak as if all the players on our team were born and raised here in Florida.  Tweets and other social media have been inundated with queries castigating our knowledge of the game.

How dare us, in a state that sees gentle and temperate weather almost 12 months a year watch hockey.  Who are we to cheer on our Tampa Bay Lightning?  Who are we to go to the home games and watch the away games on television?  Don’t we know that hockey is a northern game?

NBC Sports recently issued television ratings for game four of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Tampa Bay Lighting and the New York Rangers.  In the Tampa market, the game averaged a 7.9 household rating and in New York they averaged a 5.5 rating.  So, when all you Original 6 fans talk about banners from the Original 6 era, let’s face it, you like saying you’re a fan a whole lot more than you show that you’re a fan.  Meanwhile, down here in the southland, we show our fandom.

So, Virginia, There are NHL Hockey Fans in Florida!!  It is evident as former NHL players, not to mention Hall of Famers, Phil Esposito and Steve Yzerman are a part of the franchise here in Tampa.  Other former players like Dave Andreychuk and Chris Dingman have made homes here with their families and are a part of the team in one capacity or another.  A player from the inaugural team in 1992, Brian Bradley is still a Community Representative with the team.  The former GM, Jay Feaster is back with the team as Executive Director of Community Hockey Development.  These great hockey men have chosen to make Tampa home, which by itself increases our overall hockey IQ.

We live here and will continue to live here forever, loving this beautiful game, the fastest game on earth.  Ten years from now, a hundred years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 1000 years from now, fans in Florida will continue to love and celebrate this game.