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NHL: Tampa 'in the mix' for big league events

The 1999 All-Star Game was the last major NHL event held in Tampa. The Lightning’s marketability has greatly increased since.
The 1999 All-Star Game was the last major NHL event held in Tampa. The Lightning’s marketability has greatly increased since.
Published Dec. 17, 2016

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has made it clear for years to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that he'd like to host one of the league's major events in Tampa.

The last one in Tampa was the 1999 All-Star Game.

"Every time (I ask), (Bettman) says, 'You're on the list' and 'You're moving toward the head of the list,' " Vinik said. "We'll get one."

But when? It sounds like there might be momentum for the Lightning and Tampa Bay to host a special event sooner than later. A few league representatives visited Tampa last month as part of a multicity scouting tour for potential sites for the All-Star Game, draft and outdoor games, including the annual New Year's Winter Classic, among other events.

NHL executive vice president Steve Mayer said the league hadn't made any decisions but hopes to announce plans soon for 2018 and potentially beyond. And the Lightning pitch made a great impression, he said.

"There's no question we are absolutely strongly considering Tampa in the mix," Mayer told the Tampa Bay Times. "The city can house a world-class event. It's proving it time after time after time."

Tampa, which will host the NCAA College Football Playoff championship game Jan. 9 at Raymond James Stadium, and has also held four Super Bowls, two Frozen Fours and an NCAA women's Final Four, among other big events. That experience plays a role, Mayer said.

Also a factor is the transformation of the Lightning franchise and the city since Vinik bought the team in 2010, from lengthy playoff runs the past two seasons to the $100 million invested in Amalie Arena and planned $1 billion in downtown.

The leaguewide marketability of the franchise is "massively different" since Vinik took over, NBC broadcaster Pierre McGuire. The Lightning was recently rated the No. 1 franchise in sports in ESPN's "Ultimate Standings."

"They're right at the top of the food chain," McGuire said. "You're talking about one of the best ownership groups in all of sports. Vinik has transformed the Tampa Bay Lightning into a very huge marketable commodity around the National Hockey League. I think Chicago is a huge measuring stick. Montreal is a huge measuring stick. Pittsburgh. I think Tampa is right there with them."

The Lightning hopes the "new blood" in Mayer, who joined the NHL a year ago, can make a difference in its quest. Mayer said Tampa is one of about 20 cities that league representatives have visited since he joined the NHL. The Lightning gave Mayer's group the "royal tour," including Amalie Arena, downtown Tampa, Raymond James Stadium and Bern's Steak House. Mayer said a new theater in Tampa, part of the Vinik construction, could be a great candidate for an awards show.

Could the Lightning also host a Winter Classic or another outdoor game? "Without saying what we would consider, I think there's nothing that they couldn't do in Tampa," Mayer said.

The NHL has held outdoor games in warm climates, including between the Kings and Ducks at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in January 2014. The league's ice-making guru, Dan Craig, uses a mobile refrigeration unit designed to make and keep ice cold in warmer venues.

Also, McGuire, who has broadcasted between the benches for more than a dozen outdoor games, recalls sweating a ton at last season's Feb. 27 game between the Avalanche and Red Wings at Coors Field in Denver. The high temperature that day was 70 degrees. In Tampa, the high was 68.

"After watching what the league did in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium, I don't know why they couldn't do it at Raymond James," McGuire said.

There is no guarantee Tampa Bay will get an event in the next few years. Plenty of cities are in the mix. But it's in a better position than now than it has been in the past.

"We think the time is right to be considered," Lightning vice president Bill Wickett said.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.