TAMPA — Longtime season ticket holder Sean Peel showed up at the Tampa Bay Lightning's home opener Monday and nearly did a double-take.
Cushioned, theater-style seats? Cup holders?
"I said, 'This isn't our section,' " said Peel, of Bradenton.
But he was in the right place, of course. He and other Lightning fans got their first look at $40 million worth of improvements at the St. Pete Times Forum.
They included better seating, more viewing areas, better lighting, bright new floors and dining bars — instead of the tops of trash cans — on which to rest nachos and pizza slices.
Most fans had only good things to say about the work, which Lightning owner Jeff Vinik paid for with private money.
"Mr. Vinik gets a big gold star," said Russ Sage, a season ticket holder from Clearwater.
For hard-core fans, many of the improvements, such as the new viewing areas and a new pipe organ, put the venue closer to their experiences in northern cities where hockey is a big deal.
Eight corner suites on the first level, for instance, were eliminated to open up the hallways and create viewing spots close to the ice.
"They're taking a page out of the Detroit play book as far as I'm concerned," said Al Hargest of Lithia, who grew up in Canada. "They made it about the fans."
He and others predicted that the improvements — and the fact they were privately, not publicly, funded — would sit well with fans and maybe attract even more people.
"Vinik puts his money where his mouth is," said Ross Sturgeon of Brandon.
Concerns that the closure of the Platt Street Bridge, one of the primary routes to the Times Forum, would cause major traffic headaches didn't seem to bear out, at least for many of the fans who attended.
Tampa police added more officers to help with traffic. And the Morgan Street exit off the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, which is typically closed for games, remained open.
For many of the fans, the small touches added up. Julie Hartman of New Port Richey and her two daughters, ages 8 and 6, leaned against one of the new dining bars and ate hot dogs before the game began.
"We'd always complained there was nowhere to eat," she said.
Juanita Caruthers, who has worked as an usher for 13 years, said the most frequent compliment she'd heard from fans was the new open areas. Others raved about the new floor — a bright white floor covering that doesn't get slippery like the old concrete floors did.
But as an usher, she appreciated something even more subtle.
Before the improvements, the seat numbers were on the bottoms of the seats, which meant people would be holding food, drinks and children's hands while they bent over to figure out if they were in the right spot.
But the new seats? They have the numbers right on the top.
Reach Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.