Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman has enjoyed his few trips to the Seminole Heights neighborhood, which is just a couple miles from downtown Tampa.
"Lot of cool coffee shops, some old vintage stuff," Hedman said. "Definitely a place that's on the rise."
But for the past couple months, Seminole Heights was struck with tragedy. There were four murders in this neighborhood, with killings suspect Howell Emanuel Donaldson III finally caught in late November following a harrowing, six-week manhunt.
Local business were hurt badly too, down on average of 30-percent, according to Tampa police chief Brian Dugan. They asked the Lightning for help, and the team stepped up, with Hedman, captain Steven Stamkos and fellow forward J.T. Brown signing autographs Monday night in three locations from 5-6 p.m.. Stamkos will be at Brew Bus Brewing (41010 N. Florida Ave), Hedman at Fodder & Shine (5190 Florida Ave) and Brown, along with Dugan, at Ella's American Folk Art Cafe (5119 N. Nebraska). Fans were encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys that will be donated to underserved elementary aged children in Seminole Heights for Christmas.
Needless to say, this isn't the average autograph signing for these players.
"This is a little bit special, no way to look around that," Hedman said. "It's been a tough almost two months for them. For us as an organization, we want to be the ones that go out to the fans, show our faces, give back to them the way they've supported us through everything. It's a no-brainer for us to go down there."
This event has been in the works for three weeks, even before the suspect was caught. Dugan had experience with the Lightning before, inviting Brown (along with Rays pitcher Chris Archer) out to trick-or-treat in the community on Halloween.
Brown could sense a strong community that was "living in fear" for a couple months.
"For all the negativity going on, for that moment, they were able to smile and laugh again," Brown said. "I'm expecting more of that tonight."
Anthony Derby, 27, owner of Brew Bus Brewing, said the biggest issues for local businesses were weekends, with his brewery down 50-60-percent. He said Ella's was similar. The locals tried to support, but the neighborhood wasn't drawing as many from downtown or other bay area locales. "We have a lot of regulars that walk here or ride their bike, and after 6 p.m. they didn't feel comfortable," Derby said.
But Derby said, with the killing suspect in jail, last weekend was normal business for them. On Monday, there were already a dozen lined up at their door three hours before opening. David Grillo, 62, a retired consultant from Tampa, was first in line at 12:30 p.m, making his first trip to the neighborhood in months. Zach Earnest, 25, a Panthers fan, made the drive from Daytona this morning.
"We're just trying to get the awareness out that Seminole Heights isn't branded where the serial killer lives," Derby said. "This is just for people to know there is still good stuff going on in Seminole Heights."
Both Hedman and Stamkos, two faces of the Lightning franchise, are in the early stages of starting their own foundations. Brown, one of around 30 black players in the NHL, has been active with the local police departments, including participating in a ride-a-long.
"To have the opportunity to have us go out there and help these businesses and the community will be something special," Brown said.