Is camp moving permanently to Forum?
Has the Lightning held its last training camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon?
The team has held camp there every year since 1998. But because of this year’s short camp (thanks to the trip through Europe that begins after a Sept. 25 exhibition game in New York), and an added 3,000 square feet to the St. Pete Times Forum weight room, camp will be held for the first time in Tampa.
“If it’s a success,” coach Barry Melrose said, “You’d be crazy not to do it again.”
In fact, Melrose said he pushed for camp to be held at the Times Forum.
“That was one of the things coming in that I asked for,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building. It’s our building. We’re making huge improvements to the weight room. We want to become one of the best organizations in the NHL. This is one of the steps, having state-of-the-art surroundings for these players.”
Camp begins Sept. 16 with physicals. First day on the ice is Sept. 17. Team spokesman Bill Wickett said practice sessions Sept. 17-19 will be open to the public, parking in the west lot is free, and FanFest is Sept. 21. But that pretty much ends camp as Tampa Bay plays home games Sept. 22 and 23 against the Penguins and Rangers, and then takes off for New York and the start of its European adventure that ends with season-opening games in Prague.
Certainly playing at the Times Forum will take some stress off the equipment guys, who otherwise would be scrambling to haul gear on consecutive game days between Brandon and Tampa. But Melrose had more benefits.
“You’ve got the hotels right close to the arena; you don’t have to worry about buses in the morning to take the guys to practice. They can walk,” he said. “It’s easy for the medical staff to get there; just a great location. The dressing rooms are much superior to the practice facility. It’s just a first-class way to have training camp. I think it’s awesome.”
From a fan perspective, the move has its down side. The Ice Sports Forum, which has four years left on a contract to be the Lightning's alternate practice facility, was terrific for getting very close to the action and the players. It was noisy. It was fun. The cavernous Times Forum may cut down on some of that ambiance.
As Brenda Sholl, Ice Sports Forum manager, said, “Fans are very disappointed.”
Wickett said the team has no intention of separating itself from its fans, and decisions on future training camps have not been reached.
“Our election to hold training camp at the St. Pete Times Forum this season is by no means an indicator that we are making any sort of permanent move,” he said. “But it is acknowledgment that our improved and expanded training facilities in the arena are an important upgrade for us. It’s fair to say the new ownership and the hockey operations management will evaluate the year’s camp before making any decisions for the future.”