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How did the Lightning make Tampa Bay fall in love with hockey?

In a football-crazy sports market, the Bolts have captured the community’s heart.
Lightning star Nikita Kucherov hoists the Stanley Cup with his team while celebrating in the rain during the franchise's championship celebration at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa last July. The Lightning currently are seeking their third Stanley Cup in as many seasons.
Lightning star Nikita Kucherov hoists the Stanley Cup with his team while celebrating in the rain during the franchise's championship celebration at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa last July. The Lightning currently are seeking their third Stanley Cup in as many seasons. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 17

Nearly a half-century after sitting through the nationally lampooned dawn of the Bucs franchise, Ken Turkel still possesses a heart of creamsicle.

It has pulsated and fibrillated through the franchise’s ebbs and flows; through John McKay and John Lynch, slapstick and Super Bowls.

“The Bucs are my first love, and they will always live in my heart because I will never forget that 11-year-old kid who lived in this city without a hometown team of any kind,” said Turkel, a prominent Tampa trial lawyer whose family has owned season tickets since the team’s inaugural 1976 season. “They are, were and will be it.”

But not even Turkel can deny the powerful tug of the neighboring franchise on his psyche. The Lightning have sucked him in like a soap opera, so he follows along with the rest of the team’s zealous legion, immersed in the characters, cliffhangers and climactic outcomes that accompany a Stanley Cup playoff run.

“The journey is so much longer (than football),” Turkel said. “You’re so much more familiar with everybody, you feel like you know these guys. And let’s be honest, they started the boat-parade thing.”

A whole community has booked passage.

While reveling in those amber waves of grain alcohol along the river, skating and checking their way to NHL supremacy and setting a standard for local benevolence, the Lightning have endeared themselves to the region, arguably more than any other local sports entity ever has.

“We went to middle and high school down here, so I remember middle school, the Lightning came (to the school),” said 19-year-old University of Tampa student Emily Pesquera, who moved from New Jersey eight years ago and attended the Amalie Arena watch party for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.

“We had street hockey, ice hockey in P.E., so the Lightning just did a lot for the community and made us ... want to become Lightning fans. And it’s just cool to have a hockey team in Florida. We would never think that there would be such a big deal for hockey in Florida.”

Which isn’t to suggest hockey has leapfrogged football as the undisputed king of the local sports landscape.

From the Bucs to the Bulls, from high school action to nostalgia for University of Tampa’s heyday, football remains far more deeply embedded in the community’s fabric.

The number of Bucs specialty license plates issued in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties (29,207) is nearly triple that of Lightning plates (10,064) issued in the same area, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

But gauging strictly by the beloved barometer, ask yourself: Has any Tampa Bay franchise ever been adored as much as this generation of the Lightning?

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‘Greatest owner in sports’

During his dozen years as owner of the Lightning, Jeff Vinik has brought stability, and two Stanley Cups, to the organization.
During his dozen years as owner of the Lightning, Jeff Vinik has brought stability, and two Stanley Cups, to the organization. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Now here in Florida, you know the deal: We wait all year for football season,” said Turkel, who owns five Lightning season tickets. “But if you buy Lightning season tickets and you go to the games ... everything about it, from the minute you set foot on the premises, just kind grabs you.”

That experience starts with the unassuming 63-year-old Jersey native who salvaged the franchise and helped ignite a veritable downtown renaissance. A dozen years ago, Jeff Vinik — then a Boston-based hedge-fund manager — purchased the Lightning from a pair of feuding owners for somewhere north of $100 million.

Twelve years, 282 consecutive home sellouts (excluding the phase when full capacity wasn’t permitted) and two Stanley Cups later, the franchise is valued at $650 million, according to Forbes. Moreover, Vinik’s ongoing Water Street Tampa project — a $3 billion, 70-acre development featuring residential and office towers, retail sites and restaurants — is radically transforming the city’s landscape on its downtown fringes.

“When it comes to something the fans themselves can touch,” former longtime bay area TV sports anchor Tom Korun said, “Jeff is far and above anyone that’s ever owned a franchise in this community that I know since I’ve been here.”

Brian Bradley, the top goal scorer on the Lightning’s inaugural 1992-93 team and the franchise’s first bona fide star, calls Vinik “probably the greatest owner in sports.”

Locally, he’s the most popular going away.

While Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has maintained a winning product despite a meager budget, he polarized the fan base with a futile split-season plan that would’ve put the team in Montreal for half the season.

And despite the Glazers’ community investments (and two Super Bowls), the community never has warmed to the family, which demanded a new stadium upon purchasing the Bucs in 1995,and has reaped a bulk of the profits of that stadium, financed in part by taxpayers.

Vinik? He never spoke of relocating his franchise, just resuscitating it.

“The (prior) ownership with Oren Koules and Len Barrie was just out of control, and I don’t think the franchise would’ve made it,” Bradley added. “We would’ve moved to maybe Quebec City or somewhere else, because I just think it was in so much turmoil. And Jeff took over a team that was in trouble, and look at what he’s turned it into.”

‘Heroes’ and hockey

Lightning center Steven Stamkos shoots against the Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final earlier this month at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay won the series to advance to its third straight Stanley Cup final.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos shoots against the Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final earlier this month at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay won the series to advance to its third straight Stanley Cup final. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

To attend a Lightning home game is an assault on the senses, not to mention an affirmation of humanity’s existence.

The happy-hour ambiance of “Thunder Alley,” the sprawling outdoor courtyard (with concessions and periodic live music) on the arena’s west side serves as a prelude to a mesmerizing pregame light show complemented by state-of-the-art sound.

Also embedded in the game-night culture is regular national-anthem singer Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, a former U.S. Air Force technical sergeant whose return from a near-fatal bout with COVID-19 has made her even more of a franchise treasure.

And during each home game for the last 11 years, Vinik’s foundation gives a $50,000 grant to the charity of choice of a “Community Hero.” Honorees have included organ-donor advocates, food-bank executives and guardian ad litem volunteers.

“You see people out in the beach chairs (in Thunder Alley), and that’s such a Florida vibe. You’re not doing that in January in Montreal or New York or whatever,” Turkel said.

“And the way that they have sort of built the game experience, every time you walk in, whatever kind of game it is, you know the experience is just top-notch.”

The hockey’s not bad, either. Complementing the sleekness, skill and ruggedness on the ice is one of the most well-grounded management structures off it.

In a league where staff stability is nearly an oxymoron, Vinik has hired only two general managers — Steve Yzerman and current GM Julien BriseBois. Coach Jon Cooper, completing his ninth full season in Tampa Bay, is the NHL’s longest-tenured coach.

“They have continuity, they have a plan, they have a long-range plan,” said Korun, who worked for two major TV-network affiliates during his 32-plus years in the bay area market.

“And because they’re able to keep successful people together and not knee-jerk their movements with coaches and GMs or whatever, they stay the path. Back in (2019) when Columbus swept them (in the opening round of the playoffs), they could’ve just said, ‘You know what, we’ve got to re-think all this.’ They didn’t. They didn’t panic.”

But their fan base still does, with palpitating bliss. Happens every year around this time, when the familiar bearded faces skate into Amalie Arena — or living rooms — every other night and deliver tension, delirium, agony, excruciation and, quite often, last-second euphoria.

The bay area’s most beloved sports franchise rarely disappoints.

“This organization is unbelievable,” said Pesquera’s mother, Flo. “They do so much for the community, and the players are just awesome.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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