TAMPA — Once upon a time, the Lightning were desperate for fans.
The glow of the 2004 Stanley Cup had worn off, the Oren Koules ownership regime had gone sideways, and the Lightning were struggling on the ice and in the bleachers. It was not uncommon to see Rangers, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs fans show up en masse for games at Amalie Arena.
So when the Lightning made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, the team took the unusual step of monitoring zip codes to block out-of-state fans from purchasing seats through Ticketmaster during the postseason. Not only did this ensure local fans would get the first crack at tickets, it also, theoretically, created a greater home-ice advantage during the playoffs.
The policy, which was mocked in other markets, was soon eliminated as Lightning season ticket sales began to grow, and it became a forgotten relic of a bygone era.
Except for one tiny detail that blew up on social media Friday.
Along with the ticket restrictions, the Lightning had instituted a policy that forbade fans from wearing the jerseys of other teams in their premium seats and club lounges. It worked out to less than 10 percent of capacity when Amalie Arena was filled, but the Lightning were serious enough about it to post notices when fans purchased seats in those areas.
Was it a wise policy? Not really.
Sporting venues should be the one place where we celebrate our differences peacefully and joyfully. If we can’t be civil to each other while cheering at a hockey game, how can we possibly co-exist anywhere else?
Now the Lightning say they did this only at the request of their season ticket holders in the club lounges, but that still doesn’t make it right. Or very smart. And it came back to bite them during the Panthers series when an encounter with a fan was videotaped.
A Florida fan and his 11-year-old son were confronted by a pair of team/arena representatives who explained they would either need to switch their apparel (the team would provide them with T-shirts) or they would be given a refund and asked to leave their seats. When the man argued his case, the team employee threatened to have Tampa police remove them from the arena.
Overkill? Oh, yeah.
Did it come to pass? No.
If you listen to the videotape closely, the Florida fan starts off by claiming ignorance but then later says he was told by a team employee that they could wear their jerseys in their seats. The video has a bit of a gotcha feel to it, but that doesn’t make the episode any less wrong.
And, hours after the video showed up on YouTube and other websites, the Lightning told the Tampa Bay Times in a statement that they would no longer enforce the policy.
“After careful consideration the Lightning have elected to relax its visiting team apparel policy in the premium clubs for playoff games at Amalie Arena. The policy was originally instituted in 2015 at the request of our valued ticket holders in those areas, but we realize we have grown as an organization and as a hockey market since that time and it is no longer necessary.”
This was one of those ideas that might have sounded clever in a staff meeting, but wasn’t fully vetted. And it just got compounded when trying to enforce it beyond a simple request.
It may have been after the fact, but the Lightning at least recognized the mistake.
This is one jersey (policy) that deserved to be retired.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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