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Thousands get free tickets to Tampa Bay Lightning games

TAMPA — The Lightning announced a crowd of 17,249 for Saturday's game with the Capitals at the St. Pete Times Forum.

But if a recent pattern is an indication, tickets sold likely were significantly fewer.

Numbers provided by Hillsborough County, which owns the 13-year-old facility, show that through December (the latest data available) the team sold an average of 14,119 tickets for 16 dates. Announced crowds, however, averaged 16,698.

NHL teams announce attendance based on tickets distributed, which means Tampa Bay gave away an average of 2,579.

Not surprisingly, the Lightning's poor record for a second straight season plus a difficult economy have slowed ticket sales. Getting fans in the building with freebies means they probably are buying food, drinks and souvenirs. And if they like the show, perhaps they buy a ticket next time.

Still, the numbers reflect a tough financial situation.

"There is no question the struggling economy is hurting companies right now, especially those of us asking people to spend their hard-earned money on nonessentials," team spokesman Bill Wickett said.

Lightning owner OK Hockey already has restructured its $70 million financing agreement with previous owner Palace Sports & Entertainment. And last week, it asked St. Pete Times Forum employees to pay $30 a month to park in a lot across the street from the arena that OK Hockey leases. The funds will help pay the $250,000 yearly rental, Wickett said.

The real key, though, is getting paying fans into the arena.

"We have worked to be creative and responsive in pricing our tickets," Wickett said, "in particular an all-inclusive ticket that includes parking, food and drinks for two people. That has been well-received, especially for weekend games."

RECORD-SETTER: The Capitals' Mike Green, who on Saturday set an NHL record for defensemen by scoring in his eighth straight game, left Lightning players impressed.

"He's a special player, and it's fun to watch," D Matt Smaby said. "He's got an immense amount of talent. It's kind of unbelievable what he's doing. It's not that we were rooting for him, but it's fun to see when he shows off all his skill.

"He can put the puck in the net as good or even better than some forwards."

ANOTHER FIRST: Rookie G Mike McKenna, in his sixth game (fifth start), was pulled for the first time after allowing three goals on 12 first-period shots.

"He's been pretty good for us," coach Rick Tocchet said. "But you're looking for big saves there."

PLUS SIDE: Plus-minus is deceiving because so much depends on one's teammates. But it is worth noting D Steve Eminger, at plus-1, was the Lightning's only plus against Washington.

"He can be a top-four defenseman in the league the way he's played for us," Tocchet said.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com and Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com

Thousands get free tickets to Tampa Bay Lightning games 02/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 7:27am]

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