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Hockey south of the Mason-Dixon Line gets a bad rep, and for the most part, rightfully so. While the quality of the product on the ice has been reasonably high in the last 15 years (with eight teams below the Maryland–Pennsylvania border making the Stanley Cup Finals since 1998, and five of them actually winning the silver chalice), the teams in the South get the majority of their grief from hockey purists who believe a.) hockey belongs where ice can actually form, and b.) almost every team in those markets have no fan support. While the latter could reasonably be argued for both the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers, it's not true of other teams (see: the Washington Capitals). Surprisingly to some, the subject of this review is one of those in the "not true" category.
Despite the negative impression making the rounds in the hockey-based media, the Tampa Bay Lightning are bucking the trend of "typical" Southern hockey market. With three potential hall-of-famers on the team in the latest seasons, a Stanley Cup to their name in 2003–04, and renovations in 2012 that bring the Tampa Bay Times Forum into the upper echelons of worldwide arenas, the Lightning have made their mark on both the Tampa Bay metro area and hockey as a whole.
You can see a brief history of the venue, and the team, in the "Crowd Reviews" from a previous review I wrote.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Attention thirsty Canadians: Tim Hortons is here!
That's right! On top of the Kona Brewing Company's beer gardens; Sweetbay Supermarkets salads and deli sandwiches; and the unsuspecting gem of barbequed pork, beef, or chicken on nachos; Canada's favo(u)rite purveyor of coffee brings its wares to the Forum in the form of a Tim Hortons Express, which is all of the coffee, but none of the doughnuts (sorry, sugar addicts).
As you can see, the Forum has something for every palate, including separate restaurants for both groups and club levels, and public full-liquor bars on all three levels. The only reason for the "not quite perfect" score is the fact that, unlike the vast majority of facilities I've been to, the listed prices do NOT include tax, so that $7 order of garlic fries is really $7.49...and yes, you will get pennies, nickels, and dimes back. It's kind of obnoxious at a sporting event, actually.
More than $47 million out of Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's pocket and private funding, and not a penny from the taxpayer, was used to bring the Forum up to its current state of grace. The replacement of every single seat in the arena with cushioned seats (that all, including the 300-level, have cupholders) was complimented with the addition of a fully-functional electronic pipe organ located above a full-service bar called "Between the Pipes", working Tesla coils hanging from the rafters in the corners of the facility, all four corners along the 100-level open to overlook the ice from the concourse, and the coup de grâce of the facility, the largest scoreboard in any North America; it spans from blue line to blue line and is an arena equivalent to Cowboys Stadium's behemoth, and marginally larger than the one in the Toyota Center.
Along with building a new grand entrance to the facility, widening the entire 100-level concourse, building a Party Deck over looking the Tampa skyline, and a rebuilding of the box office, these renovations showed the commitment to the team and city from the new ownership the fans were looking for, and they responded exceptionally well. In the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Lightning, despite not being in contention for many of the 48 games, still drew over 99% capacity for the 24 home games, with most sold out. And with the fans around, the atmosphere is electric! In fact, instead of having a traditional singer for "The Star-Spangled Banner", the organist plays the anthem while the crowd sings and a gigantic American flag is passed along the 100-level by the crowd. It doesn't get much better than that.
Surprisingly, this is the weakest score of the venue. One would expect the downtown core of the largest city in the region to be the perfect spot for any before and after revelry. However, Tampa is not your typical city, nor is Tampa Bay your typical market. With the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg relatively close in both size and distance, each one developed its own niche to differentiate itself from the other. While St. Petersburg got the tourist-oriented downtown with bars, restaurants, clubs, shops, and all-around stellar nightlife, Tampa got the corporations with white-collar workers and all the money they bring.
While both have their pros and cons, the obvious con here is the dearth of entertainment options available to patrons of the Forum after downtown shuts down at 5pm. A purpose-built outdoor complex that is within walking distance to the Forum, the Channelside Plaza, has slowly failed over time, leaving its largest tenant a Hooters restaurant. With new owners of Channelside, there is talk of a massive renovation, but as of 2013, that is at least a few years out, if ever. In the meantime, the only neighborhood options are Hattrick's, the local watering hole, and taking the only "rail" in Tampa Bay, the TECO Line Streetcar, to Ybor City for after hours entertainment.
Surprisingly, this is the strongest score of the venue. Now, this isn't to say these are the best fans in the NHL, but after going from one of the best first-season teams in NHL history to one of the worst, then back up to full supremacy with a Cup and back down during the ownership tenure of the "Saw" movie franchise creators, one wouldn't be surprised if the arena had less than 10,000 people in the stands. Not only did they return en masse, they averaged the 8th-best attendance numbers in the NHL during the 2013 season, selling out almost every single game even though they were out of contention just past the halfway mark of the abbreviated season.
It starts with the national anthem (as I mentioned in Atmosphere), continues throughout the game with flags and cheers throughout, and goes until the end of the game, where the vast majority of fans rarely leave before the last minute of the third period, win or lose. Completely contrary to what the national media might say, the fans of the Lightning genuinely surprised me about these positive facts and deserve more credit than they get.
For the most part, it is easy to find the Forum. One can drive from the north or west (northern Pinellas County) on Interstate 275 and exit on Ashley Drive into Downtown. If you're coming from the east or St. Petersburg and don't mind paying toll, the best way to go is the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway (named after the late Buccaneers' great), and exiting in front of the Forum; it's one exit that is hard to miss.
Parking is readily available in the form of dirt lots, city-run metered lots, on-street metered parking, and the Forum's official garage, and the prices in the lots start at $10. Once inside, the 100- and 200-level concourses are wide, clean, and clutter-free. Unfortunately, the 300-level wasn't widened in the renovations, so the lone point off is for the clogged upper level during intermissions and the end of the game.
While the prices for food are a bit high (not to mention that obnoxious tax issue I mentioned in Food & Beverage), the tickets are amongst the cheapest in the league. Tickets start at $20, making it affordable for even the college kid on a tight budget, and upper deck center-ice tickets are only $40 (and sometimes less with specials). Add to that a world-class facility with a slew of brand-new features, and the return on investment is some of the best in top-tier American sports.
As mentioned before, and worth another mention here, the largest arena scoreboard in North America hangs from the rafters. Even though you can see it in the pictures above, they do it no justice. It's so omnipresent, I found myself looking at that during the action instead of the ice just to keep up better. It's huge, beautiful, and undoubtedly the wave of the future...as well it should be.
All the other renovations warrant another group mention here, including the Tesla coils (which shoot actual electric bolts from the coil apparatus to two grounded chains five feet from the coil in each direction), "Between the Pipes" (the bar overlooking the floor/ice, complete with a pipe organ played throughout the game), the Party Deck (which not only boasts the best public views of downtown Tampa, but also $1 hot dogs and $1 draught beers after every game), and the new grand staircase entrance to the arena.
Don't have a ticket, or want to sit outside on a beautiful night on the Party Deck? Fear not, because not only are TVs provided to keep up with the action as you imbibe, a large projection is shown on the wall of the parking garage, accessible to anyone in or overlooking the main plaza.
In front of the new grand staircase is a bronze statue of hall-of-famer Phil Esposito. Why is the Boston Bruins' great honored 1300 miles south? Well, without him, there would be no hockey in Tampa Bay, and quite possibly the South. He put together a good enough bid to force the NHL to expand to Tampa Bay in 1991; the team started the next year for the 1992-93 season in Tampa's Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds, only to move to St. Pete for a few years to the Thunderdome before the Forum opened in 1996. "Espo" is revered in this area for bringing the "game on ice" to the "place of palms", and providing "Hockey Bay, USA" a chance to possess Lord Stanley's Cup.
Teams in the South usually don't do enough to appease the purist crowd. Lackluster attendance, financial meltdowns, and poor play have caused Atlanta to lose their team, and rampant speculation about Phoenix's and Florida's futures. Even teams that have won the Cup, like Carolina, Anaheim, and even 2012 defending champs Los Angeles had not-so-stellar 2013 campaigns, if not on the ice, in the stands.
Oddly enough, Tampa Bay is different. It remains to be seen if the spike in the fan base coming out is an unexpected blip with all the renovations now finally complete or if it's something else, but with new ownership 100% committed to making sure the team is run right and promising to atone for the sins of owners past, it feels more genuine this time. It feels like this fickle market that has trouble supporting its football and baseball franchises (for a myriad of reasons, both transparent to the world and seen only by those in the region's scope) has finally found what it was looking for. Nothing speaks more to the quality of the fans than to see a sellout crowd start by singing their hearts out to one of the hardest songs in history to staying until the last minute of a lopsided game.
Hockey definitely has a future in Tampa Bay, and thanks to the facility in which it plays out, it appears to be a long one with great things to come.
As there really is no "wintertime" of which to speak here in Tampa Bay, the one piece of solace I have in this land of palm trees and warm breezes between the months of October and April is NHL hockey at the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the St. Pete Times Forum (nĂ©e Ice Palace). As out-of-place as a hockey rink would seem in the land of orange groves and perpetual flip-flops, the Forum really does make Downtown Tampa seem - if only for a few months a year - more on par with hockey meccas, like Montreal, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Opened in 1996 to replace St. Petersburg's Thunderdome (which, in 1998, was returning to its originally-built purpose - baseball - under the guise of "Tropicana Field") as the home of the Lightning, the Ice Palace (renamed after the area's largest newspaper bought the naming rights in 2002) quickly became a major player on the national stage. At one point in 2009, it was actually the busiest venue in the world; today, it remains in the top 5 worldwide, and for good reason. In a metro area full of things to do outside, it somehow finds a way to keep them coming in, and - for the most part - it does not disappoint.
Nestled on scenic Channelside Drive in Downtown Tampa, the St. Pete Times Forum, formerly known as the Ice Palace, is a beautiful place to watch any event, but especially what the building was created for - hockey.
New Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has pledged major improvements to the St. Pete Times Forum over the next 2 years. Not that it's a bad barn to begin with. Good variety on food & beverages in the lower level but in the 300s...not so much. Best bet there is the Gordon Biersch garlic fries. Downtown Tampa gets a bad rap for the sidewalks rolling up at 5:00. While this is partly true, there are plenty of dining/nightlife options at Channelside and my personal favorite pre/postgame, Hattricks, is about a 5 minute walk away. Fans are taking a beating for being apathetic but they were alienated by previous ownership. They all seem to be coming back now and when they get going, the barn gets LOUD!
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