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'Piratically speaking,' NHL thrilled to don Gasparilla garb for All-Star Game

TAMPA — Jose Gaspar, mythical pirate, meet Lord Stanley of Preston.

Hang out, get to know one another, have as much fun as possible during the wrinkle in time that makes possible what will likely be a one-time-only encounter.

Next weekend, the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates and the National Hockey League All-Star Game share the spotlight in downtown Tampa — the first time the game with its Friday through Sunday activities has overlapped with an event as big as Gasparilla.

"This is a huge deal," said Christopher Lykes, captain of festival sponsor the Krewe of Gasparilla. "And maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity."

The soonest the All-Star Game returns to Tampa would be 2038, said Steve Mayer, NHL executive vice president.

"As you know, there are a lot of teams and new buildings and things like that," Meyer said. "The All-Star Game is naturally moved around."

Not to mention that the two events are scheduled based on different considerations. The All-Star Game was last held in Tampa on Jan. 24, 1999 — a year when the Gasparilla parade was staged two weeks later on Feb. 6.

What's more, had the NHL decided to send its players to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, there wouldn't even have been an All-Star Game this year.

But overlapping as they are in 2018, organizers have been meeting for months to create synergy between the events.

"We don't want to infringe on their event and they don't want to infringe on ours," Mayer said. "Yet we want to complement each other."

A fresh new #NHLAllStar look on South Howard. ??#GoBolts pic.twitter.com/rHR3bUNPkB

Any time a hockey decision-maker had an idea for merging themes, the krewe would answer, "Not a problem, let's just make sure it's done piratically," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which helped land the game for Amalie Arena.

"The NHL lit up the first time they heard that and probably found a way to use the phrase 'piratically' 47 times in the rest of the meetings."

• • •

In reality, Jose Gaspar and Lord Stanley would never have met.

For starters, the pirate was most likely a fictional character. But even if he were flesh and blood, legend has him dying in 1821 when his ship was sunk off the shores of Gasparilla Island along Charlotte and Lee counties.

Lord Stanley, Frederick Arthur Stanley, was the real governor general of Canada and created the cup that's named for him as a way to unify teams engaged in the sport. He was born in London in 1841 — 20 years after the purported pirate passed away.

Still, they will meet symbolically in Tampa.

GASPARILLA GUIDE: Complete coverage of the pirate invasion and festivities in Tampa

When the pirate ship José Gasparilla docks at the Tampa Convention Center to kick off the parade Saturday, Jan. 27, it will carry the iconic Stanley Cup championship trophy and the trophy's NHL custodians — dressed as swashbucklers.

Other examples of convergence:

The parade's grand marshal will be former Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star Vincent Lecavalier.

Rather than tossing foam cannonballs into the parade crowds as is tradition, the Krewe of Gasparilla will throw soft hockey pucks.

The NHL says it incorporated the pirate theme into the All-Star Game logo with "subtle border treatments inspired by the decoratively carved tailboards found along the bow that tie back to Tampa Bay's annual Gasparilla Festival."

And Gasparilla's Lykes said there is a "possibility that pirates show up on skates and wreak havoc on Amalie Arena" during events leading up to the big game.

• • •

The sports commission and the Tampa Bay Lightning have been pressing the NHL for years to bring Tampa a signature hockey event such as an all-star weekend or an outdoor game.

So in January 2017, as more than 60,000 tourists poured into Tampa for the College Football Playoff National Championship, the NHL sent executives here for a site visit to grade the area on how well it handled a big sports event.

"They saw how we set up, so the league had a good comfort level," Higgins said.

What impressed the NHL most, Higgins said: How the Tampa Riverwalk now connects downtown venues and hotels.

Still, it appeared the Winter Olympics would replace the All-Star Game as the annual break in NHL season play, as it has the past five times that once-every-four-years international games were held.

Then in April 2017, the NHL announced it would not send players to South Korea for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics. The 2018 All-Star game was back on and needed a venue.

"Normally, you'd have 12 to 18 months to prepare," said Bill Wickett, executive vice president for communications with Amalie Arena. "We'd have half of that."

Tampa was the NHL's first choice, Wickett added, the Gasparilla parade and its estimated 300,000 partiers notwithstanding.

"They knew Tampa could do it," Wickett said.

• • •

Still, before Tampa said yes, stakeholders had to be consulted.

The Krewe of Gasparilla, which started the parade in 1904, said yes immediately, eager for the exposure.

"It is an awesome opportunity to take a hidden jewel with Gasparilla that doesn't have a lot of national familiarity and expose it to a new audience," Higgins said.

City of Tampa and Hillsborough County authorities felt confident the region could pull off two events simultaneously, Higgins said, because of its experience hosting the 2009 Super Bowl, the 2012 Republican National Convention and the 2017 college football championship.

In the end, the question came down to hotel rooms.

About one-third of All-Star Game attendees are coming from out of town, Higgins said, so the NHL needed a guarantee of at least 1,700 rooms in the downtown and the Westshore areas. Hotels stepped up with more than 2,600 rooms.

Next came meetings to make sure the NHL and Gasparilla events didn't get in the way of one another. Little conflict was identified.

The Krewe of Gasparilla laid claim to downtown roads in the parade vicinity and Curtis Hixon Park. The NHL was fine with that.

Major events will indeed overlap on Saturday: The NHL Fan Festival outside Amalie Arena from noon to 11 p.m. on Saturday; the Gasparilla flotilla invasion from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., ending at the Tampa Convention Center; and the parade along Bayshore Boulevard from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., ending at Curtis Hixon Park and featuring entertainment along the Riverwalk throughout the day and into the night.

But the NHL and Gasparilla sponsors envision different crowds will turn out for each set of events. The league's All-Star Skills Competition inside Amalie Arena doesn't start until 7 p.m. Saturday.

• • •

Even the traffic is something downtown has experienced before, planners said.

During the past three years, on Gasparilla Saturday, the arena has sold out for events — twice for Lightning games and once for a concert, Wickett said. If anything, he said, traffic may be lighter than then because a third of those attending Saturday's Skill's Competition will be from out of town and walking from nearby hotels.

"Will it take longer to get to Amalie than on a normal Saturday? Absolutely," Higgins said. "Will it take longer than a normal Gasparilla Saturday? We don't anticipate that. It may be a little better."

Still, the NHL All-Star Game website includes a note that "traffic will be extremely heavy" and advising guests coming downtown Saturday to do so prior to 11 a.m. The note includes a link to alternative transportation options.

With Gasparilla a Saturday-only celebration, the NHL will own downtown on Sunday, when the puck is set to drop at 3:30 p.m. for the nationally broadcast namesake game featuring a 3-on-3 tournament among All-Star teams representing the league's four divisions.

The NHL and Gasparilla are even sharing resources. A stage and concert equipment being used for an All-Star weekend concert at Curtis Hixon Park on Friday night will then be used by Gasparilla for live bands there on Saturday.

Tampa expects to benefit economically from the dual event weekend.

The Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission reports last year's NHL All-Star weekend generated more than $20 million in visitor tourism.

Gasparilla and its Children's Parade held a week prior typically combine to bring in around the same amount.

Still, don't expect the two to double that amount, said Patrick Harrison, chief marketing officer of Visit Tampa Bay, the local tourism agency.

"There will be crossover traffic," Harrison said.

But based on hotel estimates, the economic impact should outpace a normal Gasparilla weekend, he said.

"It will be very hard to get a hotel room anywhere in the Tampa Bay region."

Last year on Gasparilla day, county hotel occupancy was 87.8 percent. Projections call for a number above 90 percent this year, said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

• • •

If all goes well, even if the NHL All-Star game and Gasparilla never overlap again, other major events could be scheduled on the same weekend as the parade in the future.

"We have a short list of events, sports and entertainment, that could happen over this time frame," Higgins said. He would not elaborate.

What about the NFL Super Bowl, scheduled for this time of year in 2021 at Raymond James Stadium?

"I would never say never," Gasparilla's Lykes said.

When pro football's championship game was held in Tampa in 2001, the Gasparilla parade was rescheduled a week earlier to overlap with Super Bowl weekend for the added exposure.

An estimated 750,000 people attended the parade that year and a traffic consultant who had worked eight Super Bowls said he had never seen anything like it, "except for Bangkok, Thailand."

The area has proved it can handle the traffic better now than in 2001, Lykes said.

The Super Bowl returned to Tampa in 2009, but without the double bill of Gasparilla.

Visit Tampa Bay's Corrada suggests living in the present, not the future.

"This is going to be a great mix of visitors and locals coming together to cheer another marquee event in Hillsborough County and a great 100-year tradition," Corrada said. "It will be a great weekend."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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