How did the Lightning make Tampa Bay fall in love with hockey?
Nearly half a century after riding through the nationally ridiculed dawn of the Bucs franchise, Ken Turkel still possesses a creamsicle heart.
It pulsed and fibrillated through the ebbs and flows of the franchise; through John McKay and John Lynch, slapstick and Super Bowls.
“The Bucs are my first love, and they will always live on in my heart because I will never forget that 11-year-old kid who lived in this town without a home team of any kind,” said Turkel, a prominent trial attorney. from Tampa. whose family have owned season tickets since the team‘s inaugural season in 1976. “They are, were and will be.”
But even Turkel can’t deny the powerful pressure exerted by the neighboring franchise on his psyche. The Lightning sucked it up like a soap opera, so it follows the rest of the team’s zealous Legion, immersed in the characters, cliffhangers and game-changing results that come with a run to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“The journey is so much longer (than football),” Turkel said. “You’re so much more familiar with everyone, you feel like you know these guys. And let’s be honest, they started the boat parade.
A whole community has booked passage.
While reveling in those amber waves of grain alcohol along the river, skating and checking their way to NHL supremacy, and setting a standard of local benevolence, the Lightning grew attached to the area, probably more than any other local sporting entity.
“We went to middle school and high school here, so I remember middle school, the Lightning came (to school),” said Emily Pesquera, a 19-year-old University of Tampa student who left the New Jersey eight years ago and attended the Amalie Arena watch party for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
“We had street hockey, ice hockey in PE, so the Lightning did a lot for the community and made us…want to become Lightning fans. And it’s just cool to have a hockey team in Florida. We never thought there would be such a problem for hockey in Florida. »
Which is not to say that hockey has overtaken football as the undisputed king of the local sports landscape.
From the Bucs to the Bulls, high school action to nostalgia for the heyday of the University of Tampa, football remains much deeper in the fabric of the community.
The number of Bucs specialty license plates issued in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties (29,207) is nearly triple the number of Lightning plates (10,064) issued in the same area, according to the Florida Department of Highway. Safety and Motor Vehicles.
But referring strictly to the beloved barometer, ask yourself: Has any Tampa Bay franchise ever been adored as much as this generation of the Lightning?
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
We’ll send you Bolts news, analysis and commentary every week throughout the season.
You are all registered!
Want more of our free weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s start.
Explore all your options
“The Biggest Owner in Sport”
“Now here in Florida, you know the deal: we’ve been waiting all year for football season,” said Turkel, who has five Lightning season tickets. “But if you buy Lightning season tickets and go to the games…all about it, from the minute you set foot on the scene, the cuteness grabs you.”
That experience begins with the lowly 63-year-old Jersey native who saved the franchise and helped spark a true downtown renaissance. A dozen years ago, Jeff Vinik — then a Boston-based hedge fund manager — bought the Lightning from two feuding owners for somewhere north of $100 million.
Twelve years, 282 consecutive home sales (excluding the phase where full capacity was not allowed) and two Stanley Cups later, the franchise is valued at $650 million, according to Forbes. Additionally, Vinik’s ongoing Water Street Tampa project – a $3 billion, 70-acre development featuring residential and office towers, retail sites and restaurants – is radically transforming the city’s landscape to the outskirts of the city center.
“When it comes to something the fans themselves can touch,” said longtime former Bay Area TV sports anchor Tom Korun, “Jeff is far above of anyone who’s ever owned a franchise in this community that I’ve known since I’ve been here.”
Brian Bradley, the leading scorer on the Lightning’s inaugural team in 1992-93 and the franchise’s first true star, calls Vinik “probably the biggest owner in the sport.”
Locally, he is the most popular who is leaving.
While Rays main owner Stuart Sternberg maintained a winning product despite a meager budget, he polarized the fanbase with a futile split-season plan that would have put the team in Montreal for half the season.
And despite the Glazers’ community investments (and two Super Bowls), the community never warmed to the family, who demanded a new stadium when they bought the Bucs in 1995, and reaped much of the profits. of this stage, partly funded by taxpayers.
Vinik? He never talked about relocating his franchise, just resuscitating it.
“The (prior) ownership with Oren Koules and Len Barrie was just out of control, and I don’t think the franchise would have pulled it off,” Bradley added. “We might have moved to Quebec or somewhere else, because I just think it was so hectic. And Jeff took over a team that was having problems, and look what he did with it.
“Heroes” and hockey
Attending a Lightning home game is an assault on the senses, not to mention an affirmation of the existence of humanity.
The happy hour vibe of “Thunder Alley,” the sprawling outdoor courtyard (with concessions and periodic live music) on the west side of the arena serves as a prelude to a mesmerizing pre-game light show complete with state-of-the-art sound.
National anthem regular singer Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, a former U.S. Air Force technical sergeant whose return from a near-fatal bout with COVID-19 made her a franchise treasure, is also included in game night culture.
And with every home game for the past 11 years, Vinik’s foundation gives a $50,000 grant to a “community hero’s” chosen charity. Winners included organ donor advocates, food bank leaders and volunteer ad litem guardians.
“You see people on the beach chairs (in Thunder Alley), and it’s such a Florida vibe. You don’t do that in January in Montreal or New York or whatever,” Turkel said.
“And the way they’ve kind of built the gaming experience, every time you walk in, regardless of the type of game, you know the experience is just top notch.”
Hockey isn’t bad either. Complementing elegance, skill and toughness on the ice, one of the most entrenched management structures outside of it.
In a league where personnel stability is almost an oxymoron, Vinik has only hired two general managers – Steve Yzerman and current general manager Julien BriseBois. Coach Jon Cooper, who is finishing his ninth full season at Tampa Bay, is the NHL’s longest-serving coach.
“They have continuity, they have a plan, they have a long-term plan,” said Korun, who has worked for two major television network affiliates during his more than 32 years in the Bay Area market. .
“And because they’re able to keep successful people together and not waver in their moves with coaches and GMs or whatever, they keep the way. In (2019) when Columbus swept them (in the first round of the playoffs) they could have just said, “You know what, we have to rethink this whole thing.” They did not do it. They didn’t panic.
But their fanbase still does, with thrilling happiness. It happens every year around this time, when the familiar bearded faces skate through Amalie Arena – or the lounges – every other night and deliver tension, delirium, agony, excruciating and, quite often, last-second euphoria.
The Bay Area’s most beloved sports franchise rarely disappoints.
“This organization is incredible,” said Pesquera’s mother, Flo. “They do so much for the community, and the players are just awesome.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts Beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.