TAMPA — When Paul Dhillon, an Army captain, learned in 2013 that he was going to be stationed in Tampa, he immediately purchased a 10-game Tampa Bay Lightning ticket package.
This season, he splurged on two season tickets right behind the Lightning bench. You could often see him on TV wearing Tampa Bay blue and white, especially during head coach Jon Cooper's midgame interviews.
But you won't see Dhillon on TV during the Stanley Cup final. He's stationed in Fort Knox, Ky., for five weeks of Army training, part of his duties as an assistant professor at the University of South Florida Army ROTC program.
And as he has tried to sell his tickets on secondary markets, he said the Lightning front office has threatened to move his seats or cancel them for the rest of the playoffs and next season. It temporarily blocked his ability to manage his tickets online and said he would have to pick up his tickets in person at the arena if he wants to use them.
Dhillon — who attends Tampa Bay fan events with his young child and wife, owns a Lightning vanity license plate that reads "5 HOLE," and was even honored in full uniform on the team's jumbotron as a "Hero of the Game" last spring — said he never agreed not to sell his seats when he bought the season ticket package or when he re-upped for 2015-16.
"I'm willing to comply with any policy they show me in writing but they're just making up stuff as they go," Dhillon, 32, said. "I really feel that they're strong-arming me into complying with what the Lightning want."
What the Lightning want is an Amalie Arena full of Bolts blue instead of Blackhawks red for the final — especially when it comes to highly visible seats like Dhillon's. Throughout the playoffs the Lightning have taken aggressive measures to ensure the team's fans get first chance at tickets, including blocking out-of-state credit cards from purchasing seats through the team's online Ticketmaster portal and barring opposing team colors in certain club areas.
But Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that the team may have gone too far in Dhillon's case and "perhaps on this our passion got in the way."
"If a gentleman serving our country feels he was slighted, oh my god, we owe him an apology," Leiweke said.
Dhillon said he sold about half of his 41 games on StubHub during the regular season without ever hearing from the Lightning.
But problems started in the first round of the playoffs when he attempted to sell tickets to a game against the Detroit Red Wings on StubHub. Dhillon said he was contacted by Jarrod Dillon, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Lightning, who said the team preferred he didn't sell his tickets in a way where they could end up in the hands of Red Wings fans.
"I told him 'I completely agree as a Lightning fan but I can't control who buys the tickets on StubHub,' " Dhillon said.
Dhillon was informed he had three options: Use the tickets, give them back to the team for games he couldn't attend or have his account canceled. Though it meant forgoing large profits on the secondary market, Dhillon didn't sell any more tickets for the next two rounds.
For the Stanley Cup final, though, he thought if he resold the tickets through Ticketmaster's resale exchange accessed through the Lightning website, Ticketmaster would block anyone outside Florida from buying his tickets. He sold two $290 tickets to Game 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks for $2,600 a piece.
But the out-of-state restriction did not apply to Ticketmaster's resale market, and Dhillon received another phone call from the Lightning front office. This time, he was told the Lightning was taking the rest of his tickets.
A day later, the team backtracked and said he could still use his tickets, but only if he personally picked them up from will call. He could not print them out and was locked out of his online account. If he wanted to give his tickets to another Lightning fan, he would have to inform will call who was taking his place.
Dhillon gave his tickets to a neighbor for Game 1. He was surprised when he learned from his neighbor that Blackhawks fans were sitting directly behind his seats.
Dhillon texted Dillon with the Lightning to ask why he was targeted but not those ticket holders.
Dillon responded: "Looking into it now. Thanks for the heads up."
And later: "Just wanted you to know, that account behind you has been relocated for the rest of the cup and next year. Thanks for bringing to my attention."
Bill Wickett, Lightning executive vice president of communications, said those seats belonged to a ticket broker who willingly moved when approached by the team.
Leiweke said the Lightning does not have a policy that specifically prohibits season ticket holders from selling tickets on a secondary market, though the team strongly encourages that they try to find hometown fans to fill their seats.
"If you tried once, twice, three times to sell to Lightning fans, that's all we ask," Leiweke said. "But make no mistake, there are people who are taking this defining moment and trying to turn it into an economic gain."
He also said the team stood by its efforts to keep opposing fans out of the arena, despite the outrage it caused in Chicago this past week.
"Five years ago there was hardly a pulse for this franchise and there were games that were overwhelmed with opposing fans. Fans said to us, 'fix it,' " Leiweke said. "What we've tried to do is live up to our pledge to our fans that we're going to create a great environment."
"I specifically apologize to this (captain),'' he said, "but I'm not going to apologize for our efforts to make sure this building is our home."
Leiweke offered to get coffee with Dhillon after the season. Dhillon said he would like that opportunity.
After the Times inquiry to the Lightning, Dhillon was allowed to print, transfer or sell his tickets online again.
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com. Follow @scontorno.