TAMPA — Tom Feurig and son Chris are born-and-bred hockey fans.
Tom, 61, grew up in East Lansing, Mich., where he was "in the locker room mopping up blood" while his father, Michigan State's team physician, sewed players together during intermissions. Chris, 26, can tell you the exact time (17:51) Michigan scored in overtime to beat Boston College in the 1998 national title game.
Since 1987, father and son have traveled to all but one edition of the Frozen Four, college hockey's men's national championship. This year, Tom, who lives in Fort Myers and works as CEO of Goodwill for Southwest Florida, won't have to travel far as Tampa becomes the first city in the South to host the 64-year-old tournament.
"You think about the tradition and college hockey sites, and you think about Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, places like that," he said. "You don't come to think of Tampa as being the hotbed to host the college Frozen Four. So I was somewhat surprised when I heard Tampa."
For the NCAA, Tampa Bay Sports Commission, Tampa Bay Lightning and University of Alabama-Huntsville, though, the choice was no surprise. Rather, it was a natural stage in the evolution of a formerly unnamed tournament played in small arenas that has become a nationally televised, major sporting event.
And for Tampa, it has been an event eight years in the making.
• • •
In June 2004, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, and interest in hockey was at an all-time high. Three days after the Game 7 win, Rob Higgins was appointed executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and given an edict to attract amateur sports events to Tampa and Hillsborough County.
What was then the St. Pete Times Forum had just hosted the first and second round of the 2003 men's basketball tournament, so he focused on other NCAA events. Higgins knew it would soon be time to bid for the 2009, '10 and '11 Frozen Four.
"The message to Rob at the Sports Commission was to think as out of the box as you can and to be as aggressive as you can when it comes to our building and partnering with us on events," said Bill Wickett, executive vice president of communications for the Lightning. "So when he came to us with (the Frozen Four), you might have raised your eyebrow for a second. But absolutely it made sense.
"We were trying to grow the Lightning and grow the footprint of hockey in the Tampa Bay community. Is there a better way to do it than with the Frozen Four? I'm not so sure."
• • •
All NCAA events must have a host institution. Of the 58 Division I men's hockey programs, there is just one in the South: Alabama-Huntsville, some 650 miles from Tampa.
In October 2004, Tampa was named host of the 2009 SEC men's basketball tournament. Soon after, Higgins and Wickett attended SEC preseason media day in Birmingham, Ala. They stayed an extra day and drove to Huntsville to meet with athletic director Jim Harris.
Two months later, Harris flew to Tampa to meet with Higgins and Wickett. While he was in town, the Times Forum hosted a minor-league hockey game to fill the scheduling void created by the NHL lockout.
"They ended up having about 12,000 people at it," Higgins said of the game. "And once he saw that there was that kind of support, basically, he was ready to sign on the dotted line as far as jointly pitching it to the NCAA."
With Harris on board, obtaining a request for proposal from the NCAA was next on the agenda. ("They send you the equivalent of a 50-page document, and we respond with a telephone book," Higgins said.) The laminated cover of the response featured an illustration of skates and a puck in the sand with a hockey stick propped against a beach chair with the ocean as the backdrop. "Frozen 4," with icicles hanging off the letters, was written on the top.
Inside, several sections detailed everything that would occur from when the teams landed to when they left. There were 31 letters of support, including pledges from then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the Lightning, Rays, Bucs, Tampa Electric and Hillsborough County School Board.
Wayne Dean, then-chair of the NCAA Division I ice hockey committee, and Tom Jacobs, then-NCAA director of championships, were impressed enough to name Tampa a finalist with Washington, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn.
As the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Lightning had access to the cup during the lockout. The Lightning also had a Frozen Four alumnus, Marty St. Louis, the reigning league MVP and first NCAA player to lead the league in scoring. During lunch at the University Club with Higgins, Wickett, Dean and Jacobs, St. Louis brought along the Stanley Cup.
"I was glad to help at the time and thought it would be a good chance for some of our fans to see what college hockey is all about," said St. Louis, who played for Vermont in the 1996 Frozen Four.
"They're really into college sports down here with the football and the basketball. But to get a chance to see college hockey at an event like this, obviously I was all for it."
• • •
A few weeks later, the Tampa team made a formal presentation in Indianapolis, eschewing a "dog and pony show" with local dignitaries and instead emphasizing the planned marketing efforts to ensure a healthy attendance, the student-athlete experience (example: instead of having the initial athlete reception in a hotel ballroom, have it on a yacht), and the on-ice experience, highlighted by a presentation from Tim Friedenberger, the man responsible at the time for making the Times Forum's ice.
The committee threw one curveball: "Would you be prepared to host in 2012?" Higgins responded with the hotel contracts for 2012 he had secured "just in case." And on June 23, 2005, the NCAA announced the Frozen Four would go to Washington in 2009 followed by Detroit, St. Paul and, finally, Tampa in 2012.
"It had all the pieces of the puzzle that we were looking for as a site," said Dean, now a senior associate athletic director at Yale. "When we opened the bid, we didn't know whether we'd go three or four years.
"Tampa's bid was just so great that we felt it was the best move to just award that out of the gate. They did such a great job in letting us know just how much they wanted it."
• • •
Much has changed since Tampa was awarded the Frozen Four in 2005. Harris, the Alabama-Huntsville athletic director, died of a heart attack in December 2010.
The Lightning has been sold twice. In the shuffle of the 2008 ownership change, it canceled its 2-year-old Lightning College Hockey Classic.
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose team played in both tournaments, released a statement at the time saying, "As hosts of the Frozen Four in 2012, I'm not sure it's the best message to send to the college hockey community by canceling the tournament at such a late date."
But Dean said the committee never reconsidered, in part, because of the work of Higgins and the letters of support he collected from the Bucs and Rays.
The original planners, Higgins and Wickett, are still in place, as is St. Louis.
"I didn't know or didn't think I'd still be here," the Lightning star said. "The odds of someone being in one place for so long, it doesn't happen very often."
For the past month, the promised marketing effort has been in full swing. The Sports Commission hung banners on street poles, advertised on about 30 billboards and bought 750 radio and 400 TV spots. A social media campaign, collegehockeyrewards.com, rewards fans for activities on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
Higgins said he expects about 14,000 hotel room nights to be filled during the tournament with a direct visitor spending to the local economy of nearly $11 million.
Outside of the 2010 tournament at Detroit's Ford Field, which more than doubled the previous attendance record, the 1999 tournament in Anaheim, Calif., is the lone Frozen Four over the past 15 years not to sell out. It's also the only other time the tournament was held outside of the North or Midwest. Tickets remain for this year's Frozen Four.
But there will be the usual crowd of diehard fans who come year after year. Fans such as Fred Curran, 61, who recently retired from the University of Vermont and first attended when St. Louis played in 1996, and Thai Coughlin, 42, who will travel from Singapore, as he has for the past 10 years.
"It's a Field of Dreams type of thing. There's a lot of people who will come, even in hard economic times," Tom Feurig said.
"From a discretion of where to spend discretionary income, for a lot of loyal hockey fans, this is Mecca."
Laura Keeley can be reached at [email protected].com.