Located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Tampa Bay is a place where the sun shines all year round. As the temperature rarely drops below 15 celsius throughout the year and is often in the upper 20s during swelteringly hot summers, it may come as a surprise that the sport of ice hockey dominates the professional sporting scene here.
The Tampa Bay Lightning club was launched in 1992 as an expansion team of the National Hockey League (NHL). It began life in America’s premier hockey league by playing in the compact Expo Hall, which only held 11,000 fans. As a surprise to many in the hockey world, the Lightning proved popular in the team’s early years. Despite failing to reach the playoffs in its first season, the Lightning sold out many games and soon switched homes to the Thunderdome in neighbouring St Petersburg. The team played there for three years before solidifying its presence in the Tampa area by moving into the Ice Palace in 1996 and reaching the playoffs for the first time in the 1995-96 season. The next six years were disappointing for the franchise, as it failed to reach the playoffs and went through three different coaches. Attendance reflected this poor run of form, as an average of only 11,500 fans came to watch the team during the 1998-1999 season.
The appointment of John Tortorella midway through the 2000-01 season proved to be a significant turning point in the fortunes of the club. The following season, Lightning players achieved their first winning season in four years. Tortorella’s new, fast-paced playing style proved successful as the team reached the playoffs in the 2002-03 season. With key attacking players, including Swede Frederick Modin, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St Louis and captain Dave Andreychuk, the Lightning scored an eye-watering 245 goals in the 2003-04 season. The club achieved the first 100-point season in franchise history that year and would go on to lift the Stanley Cup, an incredible achievement for a recently added expansion team. The following season, the wave of optimism surrounding the Lightning was put to an abrupt halt as a player strike led to the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season. However, the buzz surrounding the club remained strong, and it experienced two sellout seasons at the home arena.
After reaching the playoffs in the next two seasons, the Lightning experienced another three seasons without playoff hockey. By 2010, many of the Stanley Cup heroes of 2004 were now either retired or transferred, and legendary coach Tortorella had departed. New blood was needed, and it was provided in the form of owner Jeffrey Vinik and forward Steven Stamkos. Vinik revamped the coaching setup, bringing in former player Steve Yzerman as the general manager and Guy Boucher as head coach. Yzerman’s hockey knowledge helped propel the club back to the playoffs, with shrewd transfer dealings based around the recruitment of forwards Sean Bergenheim and Marc Antoine-Pouliot. Under the new coaching setup, Stamkos thrived. During the 2011-12 season, he scored a franchise record 60 goals. He would go on to play in the All-Star game (a friendly match featuring the best players in the NHL) in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016. The Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Finals again in 2015 but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. Stamkos inspired the team to reach the playoffs in 2016, although it lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Vinik transformed hockey on the ice and influenced the entire fan experience. Since 2010, more than $60 million has been invested in the Lightning’s home stadium, the newly named Amalie Arena. This investment included new club level seats, renovated bathrooms and new food options. It comes in conjunction with a wider $1 billion, 10-year master plan envisaged by Vinik to revamp the city centre of Tampa, which as of now lacks character and pedestrian friendly areas. The Lightning’s success on the ice and off of it has boosted attendance levels since 2010, and the team has experienced four seasons of sell-out crowds. In a city where American football and baseball struggle to draw healthy crowds, it is quite amazing to see what this hockey team has achieved. Canada’s favourite sport has firmly established itself as the most successful professional sport in Tampa Bay. With the new season set to start in October, expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to continue to thrive.