This is the South, where football is still king, so the Tampa Bay Lightning must work harder to entrench itself than teams in longer-established sports or in traditional hockey markets.
Jay Feaster, formerly the Lightning's general manager and now its executive director of community hockey development, is reminded of that each time he visits a local school to introduce street hockey to kids in first through eighth grades. For many, it's the first time they've held a hockey stick.
"That's the biggest challenge," Feaster said. "We'll be talking and ask, 'How many of you know what the Stanley Cup is?' Nine times out of 10 they say, 'It's like the trophy for football. It's like the Super Bowl.' The kids are born and that's part of their DNA, whereas hockey is not part of their DNA."
Hockey might not have been in their blood but it's becoming a bigger part of sports culture here. Besides those grass-roots efforts, its growth has been fueled by renovations that enhanced the fan experience at gleaming Amalie Arena, community involvement directed by owner Jeff Vinik after he bought the franchise in 2010, and the current success of the young, exciting Lightning.
As the Stanley Cup Final opens Wednesday, featuring the East champion Lightning against the West champion Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay has become a hockey city for now — and, club executives hope, for the long term.
"I would say there are more hockey fans here than people realize," said Steve Griggs, a native of Canada who is president of the Lightning and the arena. "I think people are so excited about what Jeff Vinik's doing here in the community and then you have a team that's performing well and they want to be a part of it. Their knowledge of hockey might not be like it is in Minnesota or Toronto but their passion for the game and our brand is on an equal level."
The NHL came to Tampa Bay via expansion team in 1992, following the shift in U.S. population to Sunbelt cities. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004 — with Feaster at the helm — but took a steep fall after the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
The season ticket base had dwindled to about 4,000 by the time Vinik, a hedge-fund manager and minority owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought the franchise and land around the downtown arena. Besides investing about $60 million in improving the county-owned building, he plans a half-billion-dollar real estate development near the arena, along the lines of L.A. Live. From a hockey standpoint he was smart enough to hire Steve Yzerman, a finalist this season for the general manager of the year award.
"That's an exciting, fun team to watch," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Steve Yzerman has done a great job building and then rebuilding the team, but it all starts, as it always does, with ownership. Jeff Vinik has been a fabulous owner for Tampa, took over the franchise at a point in time where it needed good, strong, committed ownership."
Feaster believes Vinik's financial investment in the team and the area will persuade fans to make long-term emotional investments. "I look at it from the standpoint of the fan base," Feaster said. "Even if there are some down years in the future, they look at it and say, 'We trust these people.' "
The Lightning's season ticket base is at 11,500 in an area that has no Fortune 500 company headquarters. It played to 98% capacity this season, up from 96.9% last season. The team's five regular-season games on NBCSN averaged a 1.4 rating; its second-round playoff rating averaged 5.5 and rose to 8.3 in the East finals, with six games on NBCSN and one on NBC. The Game 7 rating of 11.9 was the highest metered market rating for a Lightning game on an NBC network in the Tampa market.
"The research told us the market was here. Past history told us the market was here," said Griggs who previously worked for the Minnesota Wild, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the NBA's Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic. "What I would tell you is that the brand was not strong and the product and services were not strong and the culture needed to be transformed."
He said the majority of season-ticket holders are from Tampa, including transplants. Winter visitors, called snowbirds, buy 10-packs and mini-packs but most season ticket holders are first- or second-generation hockey fans, he said.
Increasing the number of fans is a mission for Feaster, who returned to the club last July. With ice at a premium — there are only eight sheets of ice in the area and four more due to open in Pasco County later this year — street hockey is the easier entry level and the team has reached thousands of kids this year alone. The Lightning runs clinics as far away as Orlando and Daytona Beach, supplies jerseys to participants in local rec hockey leagues, and plans to increase its involvement in local high school hockey.
"In my mind there's no doubt that it's a legitimate hockey market," Feaster said.
It's also a legitimate destination for players who want to win, and not merely coast to retirement.
"When you think of Florida you don't really think about hockey first and foremost. But I must say I'm overwhelmed by the fan base we have. Very much dedicated, unbelievable fans," said standout defenseman Anton Stralman, who signed a five-year, $22-million contract as a free agent last July.
"They meet us at the airport every time we come back from a playoff game. It's been truly an amazing experience with the fans. I've never been involved with a team where the fans are so excited for you and really give us a lot of energy."
Amalie Arena, with its Tesla coils that simulate lightning bolts, should be jumping Wednesday night for the opener. The team's success to date has already provided the city quite a jolt.
"It's galvanized the community," Griggs said. "What we've done is we've moved people up the fandom ladder. You have passionate Lightning fans, you have casual fans and you have non-hockey fans. We're trying to stair-step those fans upward and attract new fans."
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen