Craig Brush has an invitation for Lightning fans frustrated by the NHL lockout: Come to Estero, the president and general manager of the Florida Everblades said, and join the party.
Especially tonight at Germain Arena, where before the season opener, the banner for the 2011-12 Kelly Cup championship will rise.
Lightning fans can take pride, Brush said. The Everblades are Tampa Bay's ECHL affiliate.
"So we would love to have Tampa fans come down," he said. "Tickets are available."
That's more than can be said for the NHL, which Thursday night was supposed to open its regular season but instead is close to losing more than the two weeks of the season already canceled.
"There's hockey out there," Lightning forward Tom Pyatt said. "You've just got to find it."
The Everblades and Solar Bears, reborn after an 11-year absence, are the pro options.
But USF and Tampa have club teams in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, and 18 bay area club teams play in the Lightning Conference of the Florida High School Hockey Association.
Pyatt can tell you all about the ECHL, which is two rungs below the NHL, having spent a month and a half of the 2007-08 season with the Charlotte Checkers.
The selling point, he said, is the desperate effort from players trying to get to the next level.
"Guys are working their hearts out down there," he said.
Said Solar Bears chief operating officer Bob Ohrablo: "It's almost like every night is an audition. They don't have long-term contracts, so they could be gone tomorrow if they're not performing. It makes it a competitive brand of hockey."
It could be even more so if a rivalry between Orlando and Florida takes off. Six games to start the season (two exhibitions and the first four regular-season games) should help.
The Solar Bears have a notable history in Orlando, where they played from 1995-2001 in the International Hockey League. Winners of the 2001 Turner Cup, they folded with the league.
The reconstituted franchise is an affiliate of the NHL's Wild and plays in the Amway Center, home of the NBA's Magic.
"It's like the team never went away," Ohrablo said. "People very much remembered the Solar Bears brand and craved it. We knew that was the case when we did our business plan, but we had no idea it was as strong a brand as it really is."
Fledgling brands are those of the club teams from USF, whose home ice is the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, and the University of Tampa, which plays at the Ice and Sports Complex in Ellenton.
Tampa coach Steve Kucera said more than 1,000 watched last season's game between the teams at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. He expects more for the Nov. 12 rematch.
"They're all student-athletes. They play for the love of the game," Kucera said. "They really want ice time, so they go all out in games to try to do a really good job for their team and fans who are there. It's really enjoyable."
And that is the point, Brush said.
"There's always someone who says, 'I only came for one game, and now I'm buying season tickets.' It's a game people can get hooked on."
As Ohrablo reiterated: "Everybody is invited."