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Lightning’s theme nights are fun, but a lot of thought goes in

Diana C. Nearhos | Carter Verhaeghe deserves more playing time. Hockey needs to address its culture issues seriously.
The giant pipes reflect shades of blue as the glowing letters spelling Tampa Bay Lightning silhouette organist Krystof Srebrakowski and the pipe organ high above the rink. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
The giant pipes reflect shades of blue as the glowing letters spelling Tampa Bay Lightning silhouette organist Krystof Srebrakowski and the pipe organ high above the rink. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Dec. 9, 2019

TAMPA — If John Franzone were the only one putting together the Lightning’s theme nights, ’90′s Night might have been all Seinfeld clips. But the vice president of game presentation has a young staff who steered the night in another direction.

The elements of what you see on any game night, themed or otherwise, come from the Lightning Vision team. Nothing happens by accident.

Once the promotional schedule is set sometime in the summer, the game operations team gets going. Franzone and his team start brainstorming and they have fun with it.

Related: MORE LIGHTNING: Carter Verhaeghe's first NHL goal comes with a three-point night

The 90’s Night was something a little different for the Lightning. It wasn’t tied to an initiative, just “fun for fun’s sake,” Franzone’s term, to celebrate the team’s 29th anniversary. Among the highlights: A new goal video featuring the Friends theme “I’ll Be There For You" and Yanni Gourde’s chop celebration to the clapping.

The Lightning stays within its brand. The elements are all familiar from the marketing campaigns for year-to-year.

“On a theme night, we get to play outside our sandbox, but we’re still in the same schoolyard,” Franzone said. We have to know how far to push with some of this stuff.”

Franzone enjoys the smaller themes like Halloween when they mix in pumpkin elements and organist Krystof Srebrakowski wore a Phantom of the Opera costume. The massive organ also gives the Lightning an easy opportunity to light it up in a color scheme to match the theme.

The intent of any game operations team is to complement the game on the ice without leaning into the range of gimmicks.

When Franzone was with the New York Yankees, all specialty presentations were about the team — Old Timers’ Day, retired number days. He was with the Rays when the team was bad, so game ops was more about having fun.

With the Lightning there’s been a mix, but most pieces revolve around the team and their initiatives, rather than pop culture like 90’s Night or Star Wars Night.

This organization also stays away from the pie-in-the-face style of taunting the other team. The song choices when a penalty is called and showing an opposing fan alone at the end of the kiss cam is as far as they go. It’s important to them not to even toe a line.

“Our goal is to make sure everyone walks out feeling more entertained, maybe even more informed, than when they came in,” Franzone said.

Quick hits with Jan Rutta

Something you’d like to do more of: Play tourist in his native Czech Republic.

First car: When he was 19, he bought a Ford Focus. Now he drives a Volkswagen Passat.

Posters in your childhood bedroom: One of Swedish hockey star Peter Forsberg, and one of a big red truck driving through a sand dune.

So, I had a thought

• Andrei Vasilevskiy’s play has been representative of the Lightning as a whole: a little inconsistent. The star goalie has not stolen a game, something for which he can usually be counted on. But Saturday’s 7-1 win against the Sharks might have been Vasilevskiy’s best game of the season. He looked comfortable in the crease. He turned away 37 shots, and only a very-well-placed goal prevented his first shutout of the year. The team defense was greatly improved; Vasilevskiy could see most shots and didn’t have to make any spectacular saves. But he was tested, including eight shots on a four-minute power play.

• The league is reportedly considering instituting a code of conduct. It has been an interesting couple of weeks. Bill Peters resigned as Flames coach after Akim Aliu, who played for him in the AHL 10 years ago, said Peters directed racist slurs at him then. Peters also was accused of physically assaulting players while he coached the Hurricanes. The Blackhawks suspended assistant coach Mark Crawford while they investigate allegations of mental and physical abuse against him while he was with another team. Similar allegations against other coaches at other levels have been made. A code of conduct would be great, but it’s only one step. Actively enforcing it is a bigger one. There needs to be a reckoning throughout hockey (if not sports) to change what is acceptable.

Three-on-three

Most games before first NHL goal for current rookie forwards: 3. Carter Verhaeghe, Lightning, 17 2. Sam Steel, Ducks, 18 1. David Gustafsson, Jets, 19.

Single-game points this season: T3. 47 instances T2. Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes, 5; Leon Draisaitl, Oilers, 5; Evgeni Malkin, Penguins, 5; Brad Marchand, Bruins, 5 (twice); David Pastrnak, Bruins, 5 1. Connor McDavid, Oilers, 6 (also had 5 once).

Related: MORE LIGHTNING: The hardest week on the schedule is coming up. It'll be a grind ... but also fun

Top Lightning ’90s Night elements: 3. Lightning matters video 2. Friends-inspired goal video 1. Playlist

Questions for the Lightning

Why isn’t Carter Verhaeghe playing more?

He’s a rookie finding his game, but Saturday’s game demonstrated that Verhaeghe — who had a goal, three points and was credited by Steven Stamkos for setting “the tone” — deserves more ice time. The best way to adjust to the NHL is by playing. He has been on the team all season but played only 17 games, and the only players with lower average ice time — he’s under 10 minutes — are the ones who haven’t stuck in the NHL. Saturday he played 12:38.

What would the NHL equivalent of the NFL”s My Cause My Cleats be?

For My Cause My Cleats, players get to wear custom cleats for one game a season to raise awareness of their favorite causes and money for them through auction of the cleats. How to apply it to the NHL? Custom-designed skates aren’t a thing. Stick tape is, but players don’t typically like playing with colored tape. It could be cool if players designed special warmup jerseys. Let’s think about this one.

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