NASHVILLE — An NHL game played outdoors is something that has to be seen to be truly believed. And after the Lightning’s Stadium Series game Saturday in Nashville, the team’s brass can see the potential of a game in Tampa as more of a reality than ever.
When the Lightning first started their campaign to host an outdoor game at Raymond James Stadium, it was likely a pipe dream. The team hadn’t yet arrived on the national stage, its fan base was still growing and the idea of building a functional ice surface during humid and unpredictable Gulf Coast winters was dicey.
Since then, the league’s rink-building technology has made monumental strides while the Lightning put together a star-studded lineup, won the past two Stanley Cups, hosted an All-Star Game and played in the league’s Global Series in Sweden. For every home game, fans pack Amalie Arena, which boasts the longest sellout streak in the NHL.
Universally, from the front office to the locker room, the biggest takeaway for the Lightning from the game at Nissan Stadium was the support the team received on the road. Its block of approximately 20,000 tickets sold out, and another estimated 10,000 fans got tickets on their own.
“The fandom that came out, the commitment by the fans to come out and travel all the way to Nashville, that was a statement,” Lightning CEO Steve Griggs said. “And I think our players saw that, our coaches saw that, our organization saw it, (owner) Jeff (Vinik) saw it, and it just reinvigorates you to try and go get in a stadium game, because the fans deserve it.”
If you bring it, they will come
The presence of Lightning fans among the sellout crowd of 68,619 was unmistakable at the league’s seventh highest-attended regular-season outdoor game.
“It’s freaking awesome,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said after the game. “Tampa’s a hockey town, and it’s finally getting the recognition that it deserves. Shoutout to our fans. It’s just truly remarkable how many fans came out. I felt like there were more Tampa fans than Nashville fans.”
Griggs said the NHL was impressed with the turnout of Lightning fans in Nashville, and road support is something it considers when it awards games each season. Typically, playing as the away team at an outdoor game is the pathway to hosting one. The Predators had a tremendous road showing for their first outdoor game three years ago at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and were awarded this year’s Stadium Series game at Nissan Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“When we were the away team in Dallas, we had one of the most visiting fans attend that game,” said Predators CEO Sean Henry, who was the Lightning’s COO before leaving for Nashville. “That’s incredible with the size of our city. I think we had the most jerseys sold after a game. They do look at it. It’s a metric that’s there. How does the city support tentpole events?
“We had the All-Star Game in ‘16, played in the Stanley Cup in ‘17. So we had back-to-back years of working really closely with the (NHL’s) events team and league to create something special. And then we were at the Winter Classic in Dallas in 2020. For us, it was not if we would host an outdoor game, but when.”
Showcasing the city
Griggs envisions Tampa hosting an outdoor game focused around its culture, similar to how Nashville’s game featured live music acts as an homage to its Music City identity. He said Tampa could do something similar by centering the event around Gasparilla, just like the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa, which is no stranger to hosting big events.
Just as the Lightning arrived at the game in Nashville wearing cowboy hats and denim-on-denim Canadian tuxedos and riding a party wagon pulled by a tractor, teams could dock by pirate ship during Gasparilla, Griggs suggested. What if the game pitted the Lightning against the budding cross-state rival Panthers? coach Jon Cooper wondered.
“We’ve been thinking about that for a long time,” Cooper said. “We feel pretty privileged that we got to play in one as it is. To host one would be phenomenal, especially if we got to host the team right down the street. That would be a blast.”
So many factors are at play.
Saturday’s showing certainly showed that Lightning fans would do their part to fill Raymond James, which has a similar capacity to Nissan Stadium. But the stadium wouldn’t be able to host a Winter Classic game — which are always held on New Year’s Day — since the Outback Bowl is played there the same day. So any outdoor game in Tampa game would have to be part of the Stadium Series.
“As far as our organization is concerned, there is no doubt we could pull this off and it would be a huge success,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said in January. “We have the fan support, we have the longest sellout streak in the league, we have a number of star players, so we should be able to attract eyeballs on TV. We have one of the fastest growing cities in North America. We have a great stadium, a great rink here, great game presentation. Our fans deserve an outdoor game here in Tampa.”
Weather is always a challenge
Weather is the biggest obstacle. Building the outdoor ice surface is a nearly two-week process, and rain can hinder it. The average high in January is in the low-70s, and the average low is in the low-50s, which is fine temperature-wise, said Fox 13 chief meteorologist Paul Dellegatto. But the humidity and general unpredictability of the weather is a challenge, Dellegatto said.
“You have a higher probability of having a really humid night any time of the year with the high dew points,” Dellegatto said. “Even at Amalie Arena, they keep the humidity really, really low, and that improves the ice quality.”
Griggs said from all of the analysis the team has done, the best window for a game would be between Jan. 15-Feb. 6.
“That seems to be the sweet spot in finding those five days to make it work, and with the technology that the league has we think it’s doable,” Griggs said. “I believe that’s what we’re working through with the league, and we need a full week of really, really good weather to make it happen.”
The NHL’s ice-building technology improves every year, but so does its ability to maneuver through weather issues. And the league has had to overcome obstacles in each of its two games in SunBelt cities. The entire ice sheet in Dallas had to be rebuilt because of rain, and steady showers in Nashville forced constant relayering and resurfacing.
Ultimately, for the league to award Tampa an outdoor game, it must first be confident its technology can handle the weather.
“I think there’s a lot of challenges,” NHL senior manager of facilities operations and hockey operations Derek King said. “And we’ve seen the challenges when we are in Dallas and we’ve seen the challenges (in Nashville), and I know there’s a lot of talk about a game and in Tampa and that’s just something I know that I don’t have the answers to.”
The Lightning sent about 130 staff members to Nashville, some to work the event and get the experience of putting on such a show, others to gather specifics on what hosting a game would entail both inside and outside the stadium, with the other fan activities. The team also studied every outdoor game, from the one played on a parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1991 to more recent contests played in warm-weather venues like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
“We’ve looked at every single outdoor game and the humidity, the temperatures, during the day, at night, we’ve looked at all those,” Griggs said. “And when it comes down to it, can we fill the stadium? Absolutely. Can we have an amazing event here for the weekend? Absolutely. Wrapping around Gasparilla would be an incredible event.
“The variable is what we can figure out with the weather and the league to figure it out. We think we’ve earned it. ... We’re understanding of the challenges.”
• • •
The Tampa Bay Times has commemorated the Lightning’s second consecutive Stanley Cup title with a new hardcover coffee table book, Striking Twice. Order now.
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.
Never miss out on the latest with the Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Florida college sports and more. Follow our Tampa Bay Times sports team on Twitter and Facebook.