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Lightning fans are proof that Southern hockey is all grown up

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A trip to the Tampa Bay Lightning Family Carnival reveals how strong hockey is in the South.

Lexi LaFleur Brown and I stood in the quiet shelter of Amalie Arena's bleachers while the ice filled with fans.

Brown, a PhD student, goaltender and wife of Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown, was there to help support the Lightning's community outreach program during the Lightning Family Carnival. Her job for the day was to stand in a mini net in her gear while children (and some adults) shot pucks at her, teaching them about the game and furthering the hockey education of a new generation of Southern fans.

I spoke with Brown because I noticed that recently she'd tweeted about the difference between large and small markets: "A ticket to the Leaf game in Tampa is $25. I gave up my first born to get standing room at the ACC in college."

"So that's a high price for a Leafs ticket," I said.

"I think it's crazy. When I was in college, I was living in Toronto, and I remember it being sort of impossible for me to go to a game, being a college student. And then coming here, seeing how affordable it is? -- And also, they do fundraisers here. They do toy drives or food drives. And if you donate items, you get a free ticket to a game, which is unheard of in big markets."

To elaborate upon these donations, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik recently reached the $10 million mark in supporting the community through the Lightning Foundation, a way in which his presence in Tampa Bay as the owner of the Bolts is wiggling its way into the hearts of this Southern town.

Brown mentioned that she is still able to engage in the passion for hockey she's had since her youth, mostly due to the Lightning organization's involvement in community hockey programs. "I play hockey in Brandon [the town that hosts Tampa Bay's practice rink] myself, and also the Lightning have a fantastic program to develop the sport here, and I kind of tag along whenever I'm invited to. One of their focuses is on girls' hockey, so it's a passion of mine, and I've been able to help out."

Has the community been enthusiastic about hockey here?

"Yeah, definitely," Brown replied. "Especially with the Lightning being so successful, it's sparked this big interest in hockey here. The team's been doing a very good job of developing on that momentum from the sport."

So the fanbase is different from Northern hockey fanbases.

"I do think it is different. I think that people native to Florida are kind of new. ... Like it's not in the culture as much as it is somewhere up north, where people have outdoor rinks, or it's so much more accessible. ... But a lot of people have come down from the North, and they are open to growing hockey. I think that all of the positive things that this organization is doing for the community is definitely helping develop hockey here."

Recently, the Tampa Bay Lightning held a fan carnival at Amalie Arena, and the purpose of the day was to give back to the fan community that has believed hard in the team. The ice at Amalie was turned, for an afternoon, into a completely un-creepy circus, with face painting and booths and entertainment, but with one additional draw -- NHL players staffed the carnival stalls, and front office personnel walked around, too.

The tickets for the event were incredibly affordable. Compared to some hockey markets, it would have been impossible to have access to a player for $40 USD, especially to play NHL 16 with J.T. Brown, or ping-pong with Steven Stamkos, or even to shake Steve Yzerman's hand as he walked past and wish him luck in his latest trade negotiations. But at Amalie, around 3,000 fans came to mingle with the players and enjoy access to players in a light-hearted setting, at an event meant primarily for the newest generation of hockey lovers, the kids.

There were games of chances, a "dunk a Rangers fan" booth, video game matches with players, autograph and photo sessions, and more. Even the players who bear the brunt of press attention enjoyed the attention of fans. "It's fantastic," Stamkos told Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times. "When Mr. [Jeff] Vinik bought the team, this was the vision that he had, to have this support of the community and fans like we do."

This growing Southern fanbase has been mired in troubling news of late. With the team's general manager, Steve Yzerman, surrounded by drama (from Martin St. Louis, the former face of the franchise, getting traded away in 2013-2014, and Stamkos' contract up shortly, not to mention issues regarding Jonathan Drouin) fans are left to wonder, what will remain of the team that they cheered on for the successful cup run of 2004, or the ECF run of 2011, or even the most recent success of the 2014-2015 series?

Stamkos wryly pointed out in an interview during the playoffs that he is one of two members of the 2011 cup run that survived the complete rebuild of the team. The other one is Victor Hedman.

But despite the gathering storm, this Southern fanbase has stayed strong. Putting attendance questions to rest, there is no lack of fans to fill the seats. So what makes the fanbase in Tampa Bay as strong as it is? Has Southern hockey come of age?

Hockey in Southern places has always been contentious. Few believed that a hockey fanbase would grow in Tampa Bay because it lacks a historic interest in the sport, and even Phil Esposito has stories about teaching his brand new arena security guards that they should not bounce fans for throwing hats onto the ice.

Canadian and Original Six fanbases sometimes have enormous chips on their shoulders about the fact that there's hockey in the south to begin with, and the league is certainly to blame for setting expansion markets up to fail. Perhaps pulling hockey out of failing Northern markets in order to start teams in the south set up an atmosphere of resentment, eh, Gary Bettman?

But in the 24 years in which the Tampa Bay Lightning has been in existence, a few things have made this unique Southern fanbase strong: first, and most importantly, winning a cup. Then there's gaining an excellent owner in Jeff Vinik, paying attention to the needs of a growing fanbase by growing their knowledge and love of hockey from the ground up, and investing in the infrastructure of Tampa Bay itself.

* * *

Snapshot of a fanbase during the 2015 playoff run

Channelside, the wide-open promenade near Amalie Arena owned by Vinik, was all set up for an outdoor viewing of an away playoff game. People came prepared for the summer heat with folding chairs, umbrellas in case of the inevitable surges of thunderstorms, sunscreen and coolers full of beer. They were dressed in shorts and baseball caps and the thinnest of team apparel to withstand the sun, but the tank tops had Tampa Bay Lightning logos, and soon Channelside was overflowing with blue and white.

The playoff game came onto the large outdoor screen. It was Game 6 against the Red Wings, in Detroit, and when Tyler Johnson's game-winning goal headed into the net, the crowd leapt to its feet and yelled as one. Tampa Bay had forced a game seven, and the crowd was ecstatic. Game 7 would be at home, and the arena would fill to the brim with fans in blue to meet them.

The clamor of demand for outdoor viewings of away games during the playoff runs soon became too large for Channelside to hold, and the viewing parties moved to a different downtown park. But the atmosphere was just as charged, and as the playoff rounds built in intensity, Amalie finally invited fans into the empty arena itself. The final game of the Stanley Cup Final found Tampa Bay Lightning fans sitting with each other inside Amalie Arena to watch Game 6 on the jumbotron, with not a single player on the ice.

What builds a fanbase strong enough that they will come and watch games together that are not even live? Winning games, for one. And an ownership that cares about the fans enough to make their experience at games excellent.

Initially drawn to the area to purchase the team in 2009, Vinik has since expanded his investment to the town of Tampa. In September 2015, he announced plans to commit a LOT of money (in the billion range) into the downtown area around his initial plot of land at Amalie Arena. His vision is to rebuild downtown Tampa Bay into a thriving district for the arts, medicine and sports, enriching the city for all of its residents. The nickname Southern fans have given it is Vinikville, and it's a loving one.

But does a Southern hockey fanbase make different decisions from a Northern one?

During the playoffs, the Lightning garnered attention when it adopted the same policies toward away fans that the Nashville Predators had. Ticket purchases were locked to Florida zip codes only, and out-of-state fans had to purchase from re-sellers or ask a handy Florida-living friend to purchase tickets for them.

One Original Six fanbase after another came through Tampa Bay for the playoffs last season, and one set of away-team beat writers after the other wrote strongly worded editorials about the policy. It was "insecure," or maybe "pathetic." It showed the immaturity of the fanbase that they'd try to keep away fans out of their arena, and was "petulant" and silly.

The club was unapologetic, however. The rationale was the same as Nashville's: the Lightning organization wanted to create an environment that was welcoming to their home fans, and given the years upon years of history and depth of each Original Six fanbase, the organization knew their own fans would be easily outnumbered and outbid by their guests, as they sometimes are during the regular season.

Did the policy work? Lightning fans themselves (especially ones that don't live in Florida) had mixed feelings about it, but the result was that the fanbase knew that the organization cared about their experiences at games. The policy has quietly gone away for the regular season. For example, in the most recent game in which the Bolts defeated Chicago, the building was full of Blackhawks fans. During the regular season, guests to the area are very welcome -- and "insecure" during the playoffs or not, the atmosphere in Tampa Bay is vibrant.

* * *

Snapshot of a fanbase, Bolts Family Carnival, Jan. 24.

There's a man in line waiting for Steven Stamkos' autograph. He held a Sarnia Sting jersey, carefully, in a clear plastic bag, and talked to a woman surrounded by what looked like a dozen little boys. The boys all wore the sweatshirts of a peewee hockey team.

"I spoke to my tax accountant this morning," the man said. "He mentioned that in Florida, 8.5 million is the same as the 10 million Anze Kopitar will get in California."

"Then he should take it," the woman answered, gripping a small, curious hand as it strayed toward the Sting jersey.

"Why is that Stamkos jersey orange and black?" the boy asked.

"This was from Stamkos' junior team. I'm going to get him to sign it."

This is a Tampa Bay Lightning fan, a member of the league's Southern hockey fanbase. Just like any other hockey fan, he's very proud, a little worried, and just as invested as the rest of the country in where the team (and Stamkos) is going next.