TAMPA — There were several reasons the NHL announced Monday that Tampa will host the 2018 All-Star Game on Jan. 28.
The city has proven it can pull off huge events, including its fifth Super Bowl coming in 2021. Local officials were flexible enough to accommodate the NHL despite the relatively short notice, and the league is embracing sharing the weekend with the Gasparilla festival.
But, more than anything, the All-Star Game's return to Tampa for the first time in two decades can be credited to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. Vinik, who bought the team in 2010, vowed to transform it into a world-class franchise. And he's backed it up, establishing the city as a strong hockey market.
There have been more than 100 consecutive sellouts at Amalie Arena. The Lightning was ranked the No. 1 franchise in all of sports in ESPN's Ultimate Rankings in 2016.
"(Vinik) has been pushing for everything," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. "He wants to bring the world, not just the NHL, to Tampa. We wouldn't be in position to bring a major event to Tampa if the team weren't in strong shape and if the building were not in first-class condition.
"Jeff Vinik has not only stabilized the franchise but he brought the organization to a level of complete excellence on and off the ice. We love everything he's done."
Former Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier was in his first NHL season when the All-Star Game was last here in 1999, Wayne Gretzky's final one.
"It was a big party," Lecavalier said.
The All-Star weekend, which will likely include a skills competition Jan. 27 and a 3-on-3 tournament Jan. 28, shows how far the franchise has come under Vinik, Lecavalier said. Even in the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup season, Lecavalier pointed out that the arena didn't sell out every night.
The market has evolved. NHL executive VP Steve Mayer said Tampa is a candidate for a future outdoor game.
"Before it was only football, now you see people that love football, now they love hockey," Lecavalier said. "I really feel in Tampa I think the Lightning is embraced and I think it's been Tampa's team since Mr. Vinik has arrived."
In some ways, Vinik may have saved the franchise. Founder Phil Esposito said he was worried back in 2009. The team was dealing with financial issues and ownership turmoil. The Lightning had missed the playoffs three straight seasons. Esposito said he got an investment group together to raise $70 million to buy the team. He called Bettman. "He said, 'Phil, don't worry, I found the perfect guy for it,' " Esposito recalled. "'He likes Tampa and he's going to be terrific."
Bettman said the Lightning had issues back then and Vinik was the "right person at the right time" to solve them. Vinik has put $70 million into Amalie Arena and is part of a $3 billion investment in downtown Tampa.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Jeff absolutely brought this franchise to where it is supposed to be. What I envisioned it to be," Esposito said. "What he's doing downtown, 10 years from now people are going to go, 'Wow.' I hope I'm still around to see it."
Captain Steven Stamkos said Vinik was part of the reason he decided to stay in Tampa, signing an eight-year, $68 million deal last summer. Stamkos said it's "bittersweet" knowing an All-Star Game would mean no Olympics, but feels there's no better place to have this event than in Tampa. All-Star weekend ticket information will come this summer; Lightning full season ticket members are expected to have access.
"I think (the All-Star Game) is a long time coming," Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. "It's obviously a testament to what Mr. Vinik has done in our city, and our organization. It's a huge honor to host an even like that. It's just an opportunity to show what a great city we have and how great of a fan base we have to the rest of the league."