The Ice Palace in Tampa Bay
Everything could have been so wonderful....
Together with the Ottawa Senators and the San Jose Sharks the Tampa Bay Lighting entered the NHL during the wave of expansion-teams in the early 90s. Hockey had succeeded away from itīs traditional roots in cities such as Los Angeles and the NHL felt that the time had come to enlarge itīs footprint in the United States.
No suitable hockey-arena existed in Tampa Bay at the time when the team was due to take the ice and the Lighting performed at the Expo Hall in Tampa Bay, an arena with a seating capactity of 10.425. This proofed to be too little, and one year later the team moved into the Thunder-Dome in St. Petersburgh, an indoor football-arena. Despite the fact that the Thunder-Dome didnīt really have a lot in common with a hockey-arena the fans started to rush to the games, with an average attendance of more than 20.000 the Lighting quickly turned into a huge success at the box office (the team averaged 10.013 at the Expo Hall in itīs first season).
The fairy-tale of hockey in Tampa Bay was almost too good to be true. In itīs 4th season the team reached the playoffs for the first time and more than 25.000 fans showed up for the home-games against the Philadelphia Flyers, who had as much trouble with the racious crowds as with the team itself and won the very exciting series after 6 hard-fought games. The attendance-record was set with 28.183 spectators on the 23rd of April 1996, this also became the highest attendance for any NHL-game during the whole decade.
The team had made the playoffs, the fans were there and compared to the other expansion teams such as the Ottawa Senators the team played competitive hockey game after game. But as with most too-good-to-be-true-stories the end came fast and quick in 1996/97. While the team finally moved into itīs own hockey-arena with the Ice Palace in Tampa Bay the puck found itīs way into the net of the Lighting way too often in order to keep the fans interested in their team. After the departure of the Lighting from the Thunder-Dome the Dome became home to the Devil Rays, Tampa Bayīs baseball expansion-team in 1998 and was renamed to Tropicana Field.
Average-attendance at Lighting-games hit rock-bottom in 1998/99 when the team averaged 11.511 at the Ice Palace, a far cry from the 20.986 who flocked out to games of the Lighting in 1993-94. Ownership changed hands three times and at times a Japanses investment-group owned the arena and the team and itīs questionable wether one of the owners ever went to a game himself. When the team was finally sold to an US-billionaire everybody hoped that the franchise would come back on the right track, but the owner only had a good hand at embarassing himself in front of the media. When the team used itīs first-overall draft pick in 1998 in order to get Vincent Lecavallier, a promising young center, the team-owner stated at a press-conference that he was confident that Vincent would eventually dominate the NHL as Michael Jordan did it with the NBA. When a reporter questioned why he did not compare Lecavallier with Wayne Gretzky instead, the owner stated that he did not know too much about a Mr. Gretzky and thought that a comparison with Michael Jordan would be preferable. Fans in Tampa are still waiting for the first goal on a dunk, even though Vincent Lecavallier turned into a great young player after just 2 seasons in the league.
The team was sold once again in 1999 and since then it finally appears as if things are in order again. No "donīt give a damn" owners and no "donīt know a crap" owners renewed the faith of the fans that they would finally get a descent franchise in their frontyard again. With special offers such as "get your money back if you didnīt enjoy the game" the team-owner managed to get people back into the stands, only a few returned their tickets, and as of now it appears as if the Lighting are headed into a promising future. In 1999/2000 an average attendance of 13.600 was recorded, in 2000/2001 the attendance jumped another 10%.
The Ice Palace is one of the nicest arenas in the NHL. The use of a lot of glass during the construction gives the venue a museum or theatre-like appearance, even though a hockey-fan might be slightly disturbed by palm-trees in front of an hockey-arena. From the inside the Ice Palace more or less looks like most new buildings of the 90s. Three levels seperated by two levels of corporate suits and a capacity of 19.500, basically the same structure as one can find in Montreal or Chicago these days.
Ticket-prices are rather low by NHL-comparison. The cheapest seats sell for 9,25 $,
top-tickets in the lower level sell between 75 and 125 $. Due to the steep
construction of the building the team claims that no seat is more than 100 feet removed
from the ice, if youīre scared of heights invest a couple dollars more at the box-office.
The view is excellent from all seats.
Tips for visitors:
Problems at the box-office concerning the availability of tickets shouldnīt be a problem at all. Games against the Florida Panthers or top-NHL-teams such as the Maple Leafs or Red Wings will probably result in a sellout, so you might get tickets in advance, especially with the current attendance figures that indicate a return of those fans, who turned of the team during the years under changing ownership-groups and last-place finishs in the league.
Parking is available for 11.500 cars around the arena which is located right at the bay at the southern border of the inner-city withing striking distance to the harbour and the Florida Sea Aquariums.
Getting there is also pretty easy, just follow directions to the center of the city and then to the arena.
If you wish to order tickets in advance I would recommend the use of Ticketmasterīs
online-ticketing (link at the bottom of this article).
Seating chart of the arena:
Seating chart provided by www.eishockey.com.
Links to the team:
The team: www.tampabaylighting.com