OTTAWA — When veteran center Brian Boyle talks to other players around the league about playing for the Lightning, he senses a little envy.
"They just kind of look at you, 'Must be nice,' " Boyle said.
There's a lot to like. Tampa Bay has grown into a perennial Stanley Cup contender and is run by a well-respected owner in Jeff Vinik and one of the game's icons, general manager Steve Yzerman. There's the warm weather and no state income tax, giving players more bang for their buck. The Lightning received more validation last week, getting ranked the No. 1 franchise in pro sports in ESPN the Magazine's annual rankings. The fan-based poll reflects their feelings about the organization, top to bottom.
But what made this a special honor for Tampa Bay is how far it has come in six short years, making a culture change that has significantly altered its reputation around the league.
"Big time," said defenseman Victor Hedman, who signed an eight-year, $63 million contract extension in July. "Since Vinik has taken over, it's been a complete 180."
Hedman, drafted No. 2 overall in 2009, remembered 11,000, 12,000 fans in Amalie Arena his first season, and many of them weren't Lightning fans. CEO Steve Griggs said that whenever the Red Wings or Flyers were in town, there was a sea of red or orange, not blue. "The brand was irrelevant," he said.
The Lightning was also in the red financially. Owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie had nearly run the franchise into the ground. When Vinik bought the team in March 2010, he pledged to make it world class. And Tampa Bay is well on its way. Season ticket sales are up from 4,000 in Vinik's first year to 14,600, and the Lightning has sold out 70 consecutive games at Amalie Arena. The franchise, for the first time in Vinik's tenure, broke even last season. "We've made this a hockey town," Griggs said.
That has helped the Lightning lure free agents. Vinik says that Stamkos taking less money to stay on an eight-year, $68 million offseason deal being its biggest validation.
"We hear from our guys and throughout the league that we're one of the top destinations for players," Vinik said.
Among the other factors: Vinik buying into the community, including putting $70 million into upgrading the arena, $1 billion eventually for downtown development. Griggs points to the 185 full-time employees who help spread the "tribalism" in the community. Yzerman has turned over nearly the entire roster since 2010 — only Stamkos and Hedman remain — and coach Jon Cooper has led the Lightning to three straight playoff berths.
"This is not Jeff Vinik just saying 'We're going to be world class and I snap my fingers and it happens,' " Vinik said.
That culture played a role in retaining Stamkos. "The Lightning has been nothing but first class to my family, and that factors in," he said. "(Vinik) gives us every opportunity as a player to perform at our best. And that definitely shouldn't go unnoticed."
SLAP SHOTS: It was surprising that defenseman Slater Koekkoek, after making his first opening-night roster, didn't get a shot in the first three games. But if he's not playing in Tampa, better to get top-minutes in AHL Syracuse. … Interesting tid-bit in espn.com's story on Marian Hossa was that the future Hall of Famer seriously considered signing with the Lightning in 2009.