TAMPA — Lightning players are skating at Amalie Arena. More and more businesses are opening up around Tampa Bay. The NBA is gearing up to play down the road in Disney World.
So why won’t the NHL come to Tampa if its season resumes?
When the league announced its return-to-play plan May 26, it narrowed its list of potential hub cities in which to play because of coronavirus concerns to 10. Tampa wasn’t on the list.
The city and arena have successfully hosted many big events. The 1999 and 2018 NHL All-Star Games were at the arena, and the building had no issue hosting the 2004 and 2015 Stanley Cup finals. Outside the NHL, two NCAA Frozen Fours and the 2012 Republican National Convention were held there.
Tampa wasn’t so much eliminated from the NHL’s hub cities list as it slid down the list until it fell off. Other cities are better suited to host the playoff tournament the NHL has planned more than Tampa is poorly suited.
Tampa had a stronger case when talk buzzed about four cities hosting games if play resumed. Once the league landed on its plan for 12 teams in each of two cities, Tampa’s chances slimmed.
When he announced the 10 hub-city possibilities, commissioner Gary Bettman said the league probably needed to make a decision in three to four weeks. June 23 marks four weeks. The league didn’t want to make too quick of a decision and have circumstances around the coronavirus change.
The NHL is evaluating the spread of the virus in each city, as well as the availability of hotels, practice rinks and dressing room space in the arenas.
Florida was predicted to be a major hot spot, but most of the state has avoided a big hit so far. Tampa Bay Times reporting shows people largely stayed home even before Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide safer-at-home order April 1. Tampa and the bay area have a lower case rate than many other metropolitan areas, particularly NHL cities on the East Coast.
Tampa also has a lower case rate than cities remaining on the NHL’s list, such as Chicago. So presumably, the coronavirus was not a factor in why Tampa did not make the cut.
The NHL would require about 750 hotel rooms in each hub city.
The Tampa Marriott Water Street, owned by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, has 750 rooms on its property. It possibly could have been made fully available to the NHL.
If that wasn’t an option, there were other possibilities to share the load. The Tampa Westin Waterside is just across the Harbour Island Bridge from Amalie Arena, and the Epicurean Hotel — another favorite with NHL teams — is 3 miles away, on Howard Avenue in South Tampa.
Hotels do not seem to have been an issue for Tampa, either.
The Lightning do not have a practice rink close to Amalie Arena. They are far from alone in that among NHL teams, but the hub city ideally would have multiple sheets of ice nearby.
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The team’s practice facility at TGH Ice Plex, with its two sheets of ice, is about 10 miles from the arena in Brandon. There are four more sheets at Rinkside Sports, 20 miles north in Wesley Chapel. The Tampa Bay Skating Academy uses five sheets among the Clearwater Ice Arena, Oldsmar and the Countryside Mall, about 20 miles from downtown Tampa.
None of those situations are great for a pregame skate (which likely wouldn’t be possible with the main arena hosting three games a day).
The Tampa Bay area also does not have another rink capable of hosting games. Not all the hub city possibilities do, but it might be a bonus factor for some. Columbus, for example, has Ohio State’s rinks in addition to Nationwide Arena. Dallas offers its AHL rink as well as American Airlines Arena.
This playoff format would mean three games a day, and the NHL would want more than Amalie’s five dressing rooms.
Professional arenas have strict rules about sanitizing spaces between teams’ arrivals (it’s part of what protected the Lightning, who followed coronavirus-positive NBA players into two buildings immediately before the NHL season was put on hold March 12). Those protocols have gotten stricter as the league eyes a return now.
Tampa Bay and Amalie Arena can’t offer the space the NHL would like in order to bring 12 teams together.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.