By Bob Andelman
(Originally published in The Sun-Times of Canada, January 11, 1993)
Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning has turned out better than any of the jokes about how ridiculous it would be to play ice hockey in Florida. But with a second NHL team on its way to the Sunshine State as early as next season, can a new round of jokes be far behind?
Consider: They’re talking about naming the team “The Humidity.” As in, if you thought the Miami Heat was bad, wait till you see the Humidity.”
Phil Esposito isn’t exactly thrilled to see a second Florida hockey team hitting the boards by the 1993-94 season. It’s a little soon, says the president of the first-year Lightning, much the same way new Miami franchise owner H. Wayne Huizenga said last summer that it was a little soon for Tampa Bay to get a baseball team to compete with his new National League team, the Florida Marlins.
“Now that it’s a done deal, I’m very excited,” he says. “But I didn’t think it should come yet. It should wait until ’95, ’96, give us a chance to sink our roots.”
Esposito is especially concerned about the way Huizenga may market his team. “There’s no way the Miami franchise can call itself ‘Florida’s team,'” he says. “They might try to do that, but we’ve got to stop them. He can call it Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood. I don’t care. But I don’t want it called the ‘South Florida Hurricanes.'”
The president of the Tampa Bay Lightning figures that without him, Huizenga wouldn’t even have a hockey team.
“They wouldn’t have even come close to getting the franchise (without us),” he says. “We were the guinea pigs. We’re doing a lot better than most expansion teams do in their first year. We’re way ahead.”
Still, he believes, “It’ll be a good, friendly rivalry.”
As for the continuing wisecracks and snickering he hears out of northern fans, Esposito doesn’t understand what all the fuss over hockey in Florida is all about.
“Once you get inside the building, it’s the same to me,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on outside, whether it’s snowing, raining or 90 degrees. Inside, the fans are yelling; I’m very impressed with their knowledge of the game, by how fast they’ve started picking on the referees. It’s no different than Boston or New York.”
Ric Green, director of sports development for the Broward Economic Development Council in Fort Lauderdale, thinks hockey will work in South Florida. “Personally, I don’t know a blue line from a hockey stick, but I’m looking forward to learning about it. And South Florida is populated by so many people from elsewhere that I think we might be surprised by how much sense it makes,” he says. “Hockey is a real nitty-gritty, city sport. I think it could do real well.”
During a sold-out December exhibition game between the Lightning and the New York Rangers at the Miami Arena, 80 percent of the crowd cheered for the Rangers. “If the Dolphins aren’t on, we don’t get the (Tampa Bay) Bucs games, we get the Jets and Giants.”
Green expects hockey will make a smooth transition across South Florida’s multicultural lines. “All the Dolphins games are carried in Spanish, as will be the Marlins games,” he says. “I’m going to be curious to see how this plays with kids because they can’t go out and play hockey here.”
Not now. But soon. A popular ice rink in Homestead was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew; with the coming of the NHL, it is expected to be rebuilt. And a new Miami rink will open in January. Statewide, rinks are open or scheduled to open in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando, Sarasota and Jacksonville. Rich Wasilewski, owner of the SunBlades Ice Arena in Clearwater, expects that Miami’s NHL franchise will cause a flurry of new rink construction in South Florida.
“The Lightning has had a significant impact on hockey awareness in our area,” Wasilewski says. The Lightning practices at SunBlades once a week, he says, and visiting teams often come to the arena as well. SunBlades is home to 16 leagues and the University of South Florida hockey team. A competing rink opened nearby a year ago but hasn’t dented SunBlades’ business.
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In related Florida hockey news, Tampa Coliseum Inc. – which has an exclusive contract to build a permanent arena for the Lightning – has missed deadline after deadline to complete its financing and begin construction. By the fall of 1992, TCI began to make large penalty payments to an escrow fund, first of $250,000, then $500,000, due every 30 days. Failure to make the payments would wipe out TCI’s deal with the Lightning.
“If they aren’t going to build it, I sure as hell want to know soon,” Esposito says. “It’s very difficult to make plans.”
Esposito says TCI’s D-Day is March 7. “If they don’t have everything in place on that day, we terminate (the lease agreement),” he says. Tampa developers would like to build the Lightning a downtown arena, one of several options Esposito is considering. Other possibilities include a $30-million upgrade of the Expo Hall; a retrofit of the empty Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, converting it from a baseball-primary facility to hockey; and a facility built by and for the Lightning itself.
The significance of TCI’s failure to start the arena weighs heavily on the Lightning’s purse strings. Season ticket sales were flat until the team actually began play at a temporary facility, the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa. But even a sellout accommodates just 10,000 fans, half of what a permanent arena will handle.
“It’s hurt quite a bit, to be honest,” Esposito says. “We still have a lot of people say, ‘They’re not going to make it, they still don’t have a building.’ But we’re not dumb. We know we need a facility.”