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Areas at opposite ends of the ice

Tampa Bay, Toronto offer two different versions of hockey hysteria.

Toronto and Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay and Toronto.

They might be about as opposite as two hockey homes can be.

One is hot, the other is cold. One is north of the border, the other is south of the Mason-Dixon. One loves hockey, and the other, well, it's still warming up (or is it cooling down?) to the idea.

In Toronto, hockey rules. Maples Leafs this, Maple Leafs that. While Tampa Bay sports radio spends 12 months a year talking about the Bucs, Toronto goes 24-7 talking about the pucks. In fact, one probably can hear more about the Lightning on Toronto talk radio than in Tampa Bay.

"People there just can't get enough of it," said Toronto and former Lightning defenseman Cory Cross. "Hockey means everything in Toronto."

Cross, admittedly, isn't a league superstar, but hardly a day goes by when he isn't recognized on the streets of Toronto. Why? Because he plays hockey. Especially because he plays hockey for the Leafs.

"I think I've been recognized more (in four months) in Toronto than I was in (six years) with the Lightning," Cross said. "Every one there knows everyone with the team."

Cross knows hockey fever swept across Tampa Bay once upon a time. The Lightning still holds the all-time attendance records for exhibition, regular-season and playoff games. He played in front of 28,183 fans against the Flyers in the playoffs in 1996 _ still the most people to see an NHL game that counted. He played in most of the 20 games that drew at least 22,952 at the then-ThunderDome.

So he knows Tampa Bay can become, as Lightning coach Steve Ludzik likes to say, "fevered-up" to watch hockey. But living it, breathing it, drinking it is something totally different.

"It's the focal point of everything in Toronto," said Lightning and former Leaf forward Todd Warriner. "People just really focus in on hockey. The media there scrutinizes every little detail of the game. Some fans care about hockey and nothing else. People live the game of hockey there. Here, it's more relaxed, which is probably better. It's not the focal point of people's lives like it is in Toronto."

Ironically, Warriner said he was recognized in town just last week. He went to the bank, and the head teller is a season-ticket holder.

"But that's been it," Warriner said. "And, really, it wasn't bad for me in Toronto. I was left alone. I could pretty much go anywhere and no one would come up to me. But the stars, like (Mats Sundin) and (Curtis Joseph)? Those guys were mobbed all the time. It's not like that here, really."

Then again, Warriner points out, maybe it has something to do with the teams. Toronto is a Cup contender, while the Lightning is dangerously close to finishing last in the league for the third consecutive season.

"Maybe when this team gets really good, it will be like (Toronto) here," Warriner said. "Hopefully, we'll get to find out over the next couple of seasons."

Tradition also has something to do with it.

Toronto has had hockey almost as long as man figured out how to make ice. The Leafs are an Original Six team, having been around since 1917. Of the 216 players in the Hall of Fame (located in Toronto, of course), 45 played for the Leafs, including legendary names such as Turk Broda, Ace Bailey, King Clancy and Johnny Bower.

The Lightning has been around since 1992, and who does it have? Chris Kontos and Petr Klima?

"Tradition is what it's all about," said Ludzik, who grew up in Toronto. "That's what we're trying to build here. Obviously, we're not going to become like Toronto. No city will be like that. But we want to build something special here."