TAMPA — Linda Alfonso had never been to a Tampa Bay Lightning game. But last year, she caught playoff fever and went "all in" — as was the team's motto that adorned scores of signs posted all over the city.
She lived just down the street on Davis Islands from Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier and his then-teammate Simon Gagne, and wanted to show her support. She went to a signmaker and created replica "All In" signs with the wording changed to "DI's In."
She had 30 made and asked her neighbors on the islands to put up the yard signs. She sold them at $8 apiece and soon had to order more. Not one neighbor balked. They were all in.
Because Tampa is, after all, a hockey town — one that will be hosting an estimated 18,000 fans for the Frozen Four NCAA hockey championships on Thursday and Saturday.
What, you ask?
Doesn't hockey and the Tampa Bay area seem as likely a match as ice cream in an oven?
But look at attendance figures.
Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal reported that the Lightning's average attendance increase last season was the highest in the National Hockey League, Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said. This year, despite sliding out of playoff contention, the team's average attendance has increased from 17,269 last year to 17,981.
Compare those gains with the Tampa Bay Rays: Despite a third playoff appearance in the last four years, the team saw its total home attendance drop in 2011.
Or with the consistently blacked-out Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had just two sellouts last year and none in 2010, when the team won a respectable 10 games.
When it comes to filling venues, the Lightning has averaged 96 percent capacity this season. The Bucs averaged 86 percent and the Rays averaged 55 percent in 2011, according to data compiled by ESPN.
The Tampa Bay area's support of the Lightning was a definite factor that helped persuade NCAA officials in 2005 to send the Frozen Four here.
"They do support hockey," said Kristin Fasbender, NCAA associate director of championships and alliances.
But where does the support come from? It's still a surprise to people like Alfonso, a native who doubted professional hockey would succeed when it arrived in Tampa in 1992.
"Down here, hockey was this esoteric game," she said. "You knew about it, but you thought it was played somewhere cold. And then it came here, and I thought it would never take."
Then she began to notice how many northern transplants were neighbors who hailed from hockey regions.
"I think we live in a community where a lot of people come from somewhere else," added Wickett. "A lot of people have moved down here from up North and a lot of them were probably hockey fans and they're raising their families to be hockey fans."
But another reason fans cite for hockey's popularity has been the work of Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and team executives who cleaned up the team's logo and uniforms, and spent $40 million of private money to renovate the rebranded Tampa Bay Times Forum with updated seats and suites, a party deck, two Tesla coils that create a live lightning show, and a whimsical digital pipe organ that harkens back to hockey's early days.
Season ticketholders also get hockey sweaters that include a sewn-in discount chip for concession stands.
"I just think the ownership of the Lightning has done a great deal to make an environment that was already fan-friendly better," said David Mangione, general manager and partner of Hattricks sports bar, a hockey hangout near the Times Forum.
Mangione, also a season ticketholder, said another factor makes hockey work here: A Lightning game seems to be more of a nighttime entertainment event when compared with Tampa Bay's other professional sporting events.
The venue boasts a VIP club and serves mixed drinks in its concourses. Located downtown in the Channel District, post- and pre-game parties and dinners can be just a walk away.
Buccaneers games, meanwhile, are often held under the searing sun at Raymond James Stadium, while Tropicana Field remains a drive from many downtown St. Petersburg bars and restaurants.
"It was definitely a vision by the ownership group to not just create a good game atmosphere but a fun atmosphere," Mangione said of the Lightning. "There's a percentage of people who don't go for the game, they go for the scene. There definitely is a lot more eye candy, so to speak. The bars are all updated and really nice. The suites are all updated and really nice.
"They have places where you and 10 friends can go to a game, and if you're not sitting together, you can all hang out," he said.
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.