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Fans arrive for NHL All-Star game asking: 'What's Gasparilla?'

Tyler Seguin, an All-Star hockey player for the Dallas Stars, signs autographs at baggage claim at Tampa International Airport on Friday. Seguin and other All-Stars arrived in Tampa throughout the morning for the All-Star Game at Amalie Arena. [photo: Steve Contorno]

TAMPA — Many hockey fans landing Friday at Tampa International Airport had little idea they were stepping into the city's biggest party in addition to the NHL All-Star Game.

What is Gasparilla?

"It's a music festival, right?" guessed Chris Ferrara, who had arrived from St. Louis holding four pucks in hopes of snagging some autographs.

Sorry, no. That's in March.

Most northern visitors arrived to what they expected: Sunshine, T-shirt weather and plenty of All-Star buzz. Signs throughout the airport promoted the game. Autograph hawks and fans swarmed NHL players as they headed to baggage claim.

But Gasparwhatnow?

"I just know it's something related to pirates," said Tara Dunn, 38, coming from San Diego. "I hope it won't be a pain in the butt to deal with."

For Tampa Bay's uninitiated out-of-town guests, Gasparilla is a 114-year-old celebration of a mythical pirate named Jose Gaspar who supposedly made his base in southwest Florida as he plundered his way through the Gulf of Mexico. It's marked by a theatrical invasion of the city by water (11:30 a.m.) and the Parade of Pirates, an event that draws more than 300,000 people along Bayshore Boulevard (2 p.m.).

Think of it as Tampa's Mardi Gras or St. Patrick's Day. Or, as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn put it: "Just a raucous good time."

"It's part of Tampa's DNA," Buckhorn said.

From the moment the NHL announced Tampa's Amalie Arena would host the 2018 All-Star Game, local leaders have worked to converge the game and ancillary events with Gasparilla.

The Stanley Cup, for example, will make an appearance on the Jose Gaspar, the ship that leads the invasion of Tampa.

But mostly it's been an exercise in logistics, as the league and local leaders prepare for even more visitors on a day when Tampa is already bursting at the seams. Traffic, parking and transit have all been optimized for the dueling celebrations, officials say. AT&T will boost cell phone service around downtown Tampa on Saturday, a benefit to both parade and All-Star event attendees.

"I'm from Tampa so I know there are definitely going to be a lot of traffic challenges," said David Cole, 55, after landing from Minneapolis. "But it's going to make for a festive environment and I'm excited."

The parade ends at 5:30 p.m. and the NHL All-Star Skills competition begins 90 minutes later around the corner from the route's finish. Even if people don't plan to partake in Gasparilla, NHL organizers encourage them to head downtown by 11 a.m. There are pre-game activities around the arena beginning at noon.

By the time of the actual All-Star game Sunday afternoon, most of the remnants of Gasparilla should be erased (excluding the side effects of over-consumption).

The City of Tampa and Visit Tampa Bay have tried their best to let visitors know that Gasparilla will coincide with the game or any other planned vacations in the area. But they know many people won't find out about it until they get there, said Santiago Corrado, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

"When you land, you might not know you're coming for Gasparilla, but you will know that there's an All-Star Game and another big event," Corrado said. "I hope there will be a lot of crossover."

If there is, Buckhorn said, "People are going to see a lot of missing teeth — both the locals and the hockey players."

Geoff Gilbert, a St. Louis Blues fan in town for All-Star weekend with his 12-year-old son Mac, said he only learned of Gasparilla because it was "hard to get a hotel." But since he'll be at the nearby Embassy Suites, he said he'll probably check it out.

"It sounded like it would be hard to avoid," Gilbert said, as Mac hunted Dallas Stars All-Star Tyler Seguin for an autograph. "I did hear they're going to be throwing pucks instead of beads."

As Nathan Hilsendager, 31, finished his journey from Calgary, Canada, he said he looked forward to going to both.

"Good planning to have them both at the same time," he said. "Not a bad weekend to be in Tampa."

NHL ALL-STAR GAME: Your guide to the fun and celebrities at Tampa's NHL All-Star Game

GASPARILLA 2018: Complete coverage of the pirate invasion and festivities

One person had been tipped off about the debauchery coinciding with the game: NBC hockey analyst Keith Jones. As he entered an elevator at the airport, he said he was "pre-warned" about the pirate festivities — and all that goes with it — by Tampa Bay Lightning television analyst Brian Engblom.

"He said it's a crazy time," Jones said.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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