TAMPA — Welcome to the center of the hockey universe.
That's right. Sun-baked Tampa Bay.
Think about it.
Tampa Bay has the best team in hockey — the Lightning. ESPN, looking at what kind of bang the fans get for their buck, called it the best franchise in all of sports. Not just hockey. All sports. Who are we to disagree?
The Lightning has the best goalie in the game in Andrei Vasilevskiy. And, on any given night, two of the best players in the league in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. And the best coach in Jon Cooper. And the best general manager in Steve Yzerman. And the best owner in Jeffrey Vinik.
Tampa Bay has a cool rink and cool uniforms and a cool nickname and a cool thing that buzzes lightning every time the home team scores a goal.
Now it has the NHL All-Star Game.
What more do you want? What more is there?
We don't wear scarves and mittens and toques to the games. We don't scrape our windshields to drive home. The only thing frozen around here is our margaritas.
But, make no mistake, we know how to do hockey.
It wasn't always that way. Remember when Phil Esposito, with no money and no plan and no place to play, actually talked the NHL into giving us a team?
"The greatest salesman of all-time,'' inaugural Lightning coach Terry Crisp has said time and time again.
Espo then charmed a bunch of Japanese businessmen into giving him millions of dollars and then jerry-rigged Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds into a hockey arena.
"The first game, one of our guys scores a hat trick and security ejected a fan who threw his hat on the ice,'' Esposito said recently while sitting inside an empty Expo Hall. "We had a long way to go, but I knew hockey would work here.''
He knew it would work because of so many transplants from up north. What he didn't know was how Floridians would be hooked. It was love at first fight.
But the path to the best hockey place on earth has been long and winding and, at times, blinding.
Tampa Bay played hockey in a baseball stadium. They had one owner (Art "Are You a Stud or a Dud'' Williams) who traveled with his own affirmation staff and another owner (Oren Koules) who somehow put out a hockey product that was more frightening than those Saw movies he produced.
There have been high moments along the way, too, none greater than when former owner Bill Davidson brought the organization out of the abyss and led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004 as thousands who couldn't get into the arena watched on a big screen from the plaza outside.
We have had special stars — Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards. We've had unforgettable characters — Enrico Ciccone, tough guy Rudy Poeschek and coach John Tortorella. And we have the catchiest catch-phrase in the game: Be The Thunder.
This weekend isn't our first All-Star Game, but this time we can hold our head with pride. This time, it feels like we really deserve this game, not that it was just our turn to get the game.
"It's remarkable how much has changed since the last time the NHL family came to Tampa Bay for All-Star Weekend in 1999,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Think of how much hockey has grown in the area, how far the Lightning organization has advanced — how bright the future is for the team, for the fans and for the city. Together, Tampa and the Lightning have achieved great things. And Jeff Vinik will continue to set even-loftier standards of excellence in the years ahead."
The present is bright. The future looks brighter.
Every game is sold out. Lightning banners line the city streets. Vinik is committed to Tampa Bay. The core players are expected to be here for years. The Lightning is a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Not only this season, but for seasons to come.
Others can try to claim hockey as their own.
After all, this great game is played all over the world — from state-of-the-art arenas in New York City and Stockholm to frozen ponds in Saskatchewan to backyard rinks in the suburbs of Minneapolis and Boston.
Windsor, Nova Scotia claims to be the birthplace of ice hockey. So does Paisley, Scotland. And various places in Russia.
Toronto is considered the center of modern hockey. Detroit calls itself "HockeyTown.''
But this is the epicenter of hockey. Tampa Bay.
For this weekend. And for many weekends to come.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.