- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. — When the Tampa Bay Lightning earned the right to pick first overall in the 2008 draft, “Seen Stamkos?” billboards went up all around the area. It was no secret that Steven Stamkos was their guy, set to become the face of the franchise.

Despite the initial buzz, Stamkos didn’t immediately become a recognizable face in Tampa.

“You used to be able to walk around the mall or the streets and not be noticed,” he said.

That’s not the case anymore. Helped by Stamkos‘ emergence as one of the NHL’s best, the Lightning are competitive again and in the midst of a hockey renaissance in Tampa. The franchise is two lockouts and almost nine years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, but thanks to a charismatic coach, deep-pocketed owner and strong core of stars, it’s thriving in a nontraditional market.

“It’s truly a hockey town,” Stamkos said. “And for people that don’t really associate hockey and Florida as two things that are in common, I’d suggest they come down and take a look at the game. The fan experience is unbelievable, and it’s a great place to play.”

All of that starts with winning. The Lightning won the Cup in 2003-04 in their 12th year of existence, led by Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis.

“Obviously, it was huge; it was big for the market; it was big for a Southern market and a Southern team,” Lynn Wittenburg, Lightning vice president of brand management, said. “I think having quality hockey in this area was great, and it was an exciting time and exciting for our fans, exciting for us as an organization. So that definitely let everyone know it’s possible.”

Before the John Tortorella era that culminated with just the city’s second major professional sports championship, the Lightning made the playoffs just once. Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik spent five-plus seasons in Tampa Bay after being the first pick of the franchise in 1992.

“We were an expansion team obviously, and it took a little while to get the fans here,” Hamrlik said Thursday. “It was not easy, but one time we made the playoff, and we had such a good crowd. The town and the fans were really into it against the Flyers, I think. Obviously, the team build on and put some really good players, and they went to the final; they won the Cup.”

The good times rolled, and the champagne flowed with that victory. But the Lightning never got a true chance to be defending champions, as the 2004-05 lockout wiped out the entire season.

Ownership changes, including Oren Koules and Len Barrie’s fitful time in charge, mixed with losing to cut into what the Lightning gained from winning the Cup. Fortunes changed when Jeff Vinik bought the team in 2010 and hired Steve Yzerman as general manager.

Under new coach Guy Boucher, the Lightning made it to the Eastern Conference finals, sweeping the Caps in the process and jump-starting what Wittenburg called a “revitalization” of hockey in Tampa.

“When Vinik came back in after some ownership group changes, he brought stability, and he brought a focus on both hockey but also community and also on giving back and that kind of stuff,” she said. “His philosophy is to give back and make this part of the community and make sure that hockey is ingrained in the community here, and it’s been working.”

Before Vinik took over, the season-ticket base was about 5,500; now it’s 11,000. In a market that didn’t have any semblance of hockey tradition before the early 1990s, Vinik has a lofty vision for Tampa.

“There’s no way we can’t be the Green Bay Packers of the NHL,” he said at the team’s media day last month. “We have very high aspirations for this organization.”

Even after a disappointing 2011-12 season in which the Lightning missed the playoffs thanks to subpar goaltending, 85 percent of season-ticket holders renewed, Wittenburg said. Given incentives to keep their money with the team during this lockout, most fans decided to hold on to their seats.

In the mean time, Vinik poured $45 million into renovating the building now known as Tampa Bay Times Forum. The party deck outside features a view of the city skyline, while one end of the rink has an open concourse for fans to stand and watch games. Tesla coils that create lightning effects are the building’s unique feature.

Then there’s the new, high-definition, 28-by-20-foot video board that Wittenburg likened to what Jerry Jones installed at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

“I still can’t get over that. It’s huge, especially when you’re on the ice looking up,” Stamkos said. “I think it’s probably one of the best in the league.”

The fan experience isn’t quite on par with places such as the Bell Centre in Montreal, Madison Square Garden in New York and TD Garden in Boston, but it’s electric when the Lightning are winning. Tampa Bay has done more winning than losing at home so far this season, but even when that’s not happening, it’s not a bad place to watch a game.

“Winning matters — I would never say that it doesn’t — but it’s also I think when you start building something in a community and people know that win or lose, they’re going to have a great time at our event,” Wittenburg said. “We’ve done a lot of things to make sure the environment is one where you’re always having a good time.”

Vinik said coming out of the lockout that he was worried about fans coming back “every day. I worry about the fans; I worry about the community; I worry about the sport of hockey in general.” Putting 200 season tickets on sale for $200 (that’s $8.33 a game) was a good start, and those sold out in 90 minutes.

Having a game-changing player such as Stamkos doesn’t hurt the marketing efforts, either.

“I think what he brings to the game is excitement,” Wittenburg said. “He’s coming off a 60-goal season, and he makes our games exciting each and every night. He’s a great, young, up-and-coming superstar in the league, and I’m in charge of marketing, it’s really easy to market him and what he’s doing on the ice and to get fans excited around that.”

Hamrlik has played for five different NHL teams since the Lightning traded him in late 1997, but the first building block of the franchise has enjoyed watching the transformation.

“I think it’s good hockey town right now, obviously. When you win, the fans always come,” Hamrlik said. “They build really good team over the years.”