TAMPA — The Lightning will open Amalie Arena to a limited-capacity crowd of no more than 3,800 fans starting with their March 13 game against the Nashville Predators.
The Vinik Sports Group, which owns the Lightning and manages the arena, had been targeting a mid-March date to open the arena to the general public. The Lightning had a soft opening last month, allowing a few hundred family and friends to four home games. Attendance for the most recent home game on Saturday was officially 537 fans.
Ownership wanted to monitor city, county and state coronavirus figures before committing to allowing more fans into the arena, especially following the Super Bowl and the fear that the Bucs’ championship celebration might lead to a spike in cases.
Ticket information for season ticket members — including those who previously purchased adjusted season ticket plans before the start of the season — will be distributed in the coming days. The Lightning 18 home dates remaining in the regular season.
The Lightning originally planned to open their season with a limited number of fans but decided to shutter the building to spectators as coronavirus cases spiked over the holidays and into January.
The NHL season opened with just three teams — Arizona, Dallas and Florida — having fans in the stands, but by the end of this month half of the league’s 32 teams will have spectators in home arenas in varying capacities. The Lightning are one of six teams in the eight-team Central Division to host fans.
Amalie Arena was refitted to meet CDC coronavirus standards, which included modified HVAC filtration systems, signs on the ground 6 feet apart reminding fans to distance themselves in restrooms and concession areas, and new UV lighting to sanitize escalator guardrails.
The Toronto Raptors, who are playing their home games at Amalie through the end of their NBA season, have not yet made an announcement on whether they will allow more fans for their games.
No way to gauge
Lightning coach Jon Cooper admitted Thursday he’s not entirely on top of everything that’s happening in the NHL’s other three divisions. With teams playing solely in their own division through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs, Cooper said teams find themselves immersed with their division rivals.
“I think what’s missing from this (season) is that it’s almost like we’re playing in four different leagues caught up under one umbrella,” Cooper said.
Asked whether he’s followed the Maple Leafs’ start — Toronto entered Thursday with a league-best 38 points in 24 games this season — Cooper bemoaned the fact that Tampa Bay won’t get a chance to gauge itself against the leader of the all-Canadian North Division.
“I think for the players, the staff, the fans, it’s great to get to see everybody and play against everybody and kind of measure yourself,” Cooper said. “You watch the Leafs now, we can’t measure ourselves against the Leafs. We’d have to win our division through a playoff run and they would have to do the same thing for us ever to play them, and so I think that’s what’s unfortunate.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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