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While other Sun Belt clubs falter, Tampa is a hockey town

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Phil Esposito swells with parental pride when he sees the Tampa Bay Lightning chasing the Stanley Cup in an arena largely packed with Florida fans who have converted to his beloved game.

The Hall of Famer who co-founded the franchise 23 years ago realizes just how unlikely it was for this team in this city to reach this magical moment. Outside the sold-out Amalie Arena, thousands more brave the June humidity to watch playoff games on an oversize screen, gathering around a bronze statue of Esposito in the plaza.

Every bit of it never fails to amaze the two-time NHL MVP.

“I did a lot of things in hockey as a player, but there’s nothing that can compare to this,” Esposito told The Associated Press. “This, to me, is my greatest thrill. If you’ve had kids, you know what I’m talking about. I gave birth to this team. I gave every penny I ever had in the world. I even sacrificed a marriage because of it. To be in Tampa to see this, it makes me so happy.”

While Sun Belt hockey teams from Phoenix to Miami struggle to stay solvent or relevant, the Lightning are alive and thriving. Their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final is the next peak of a revival under owner Jeff Vinik, whose money has fueled the cold-weather sport’s growth in a warm-weather town.

A franchise with a few incredible highs — including a 2004 title — and many more years of weird lows is now stable and entrenched in the Tampa Bay area. With renovations to the arena, an aggressive approach to community involvement and a first-class product on the ice, the Lightning are even better off than when Dave Andreychuk raised that Stanley Cup 11 years ago.

“When I first got here, let’s face it, this franchise had some really down times,” said Andreychuk, now the Lightning’s vice president of corporate and community affairs. “But we had a commitment, and we saw the opportunity here. We’re still in a market where it’s new to a lot of people. That’s fun for me, but we’ve built something here. People realize what we are.”

The team’s revival culminated with an Eastern Conference title and a showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks, but general manager Steve Yzerman’s success is the foundation of a larger project.

Vinik has spent freely to provide top-notch experiences in every off-ice aspect of the Lightning, renovating its arena to world-class status — and even adding an impressive pipe organ that rocks its foundations. The Lightning do innumerable public appearances. They’ve started a high school hockey league and give out $50,000 community hero grants at every game.

It’s all paying off: The Lightning have said they’re barely losing money, which is never a given for a warm-weather hockey club. After dropping to an average of 11,510 fans in 1998-99, the Lightning have averaged at least 17,000 fans per game in nine of the last 11 years, including a robust 18,823 this year.

The Lightning’s work in the past decade has cemented their reputation not only in Florida, but around the sport. Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history and a 13-time Stanley Cup champion, moved to Sarasota, Florida, a year after Tampa Bay’s championship.

“Nobody in my area ever talked hockey, even living in a condo complex with five buildings and 400 people, but now there’s a lot of fans there,” Bowman told the AP. “I think it’s because they had a good run in the playoffs there, and now there are more rinks. The kids are starting to play, but it’s not so much about finding players. It’s about creating fans.”

So many hockey men — and goalie Manon Rheaume, who suited up for exhibition games in the 1990s — have failed where Vinik and Yzerman are succeeding. The Lightning’s first decade was an extended comedy featuring three arenas, empty seats, retread players, oddball owners — including one, Takashi Okubo, who never saw a game — and lawsuits.

The Lightning attracted weirdness from their very first home game at Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds: When Chris Kontos completed a hat trick, his godfather threw his hat on the ice — and was nearly thrown out of the building by an angry usher.

Everything changed in their 12th season of existence in 2004 when the Lightning shockingly assembled a championship team. When the 40-year-old Andreychuk lifted the Cup after Game 7, Tampa Bay was forever changed.

“This community won, and when those players come into this room, they know there’s been a championship won in that room,” Andreychuk said. “Not every city can say that. And all those young kids in ’04 that were watching, they’re now buying seats, and they want to be part of it. They’ve been fans since then.”

Brad Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy with Tampa Bay in 2004, believes the Lightning’s biggest advantage over the Panthers, the Coyotes and other warm-weather teams is that Stanley Cup title. Anyone driving by Amalie Arena can see the statue depicting Andreychuk raising the trophy.

Richards, now playing for Chicago, said Tampa “came alive with hockey.”

“We talked about that when we won, that it was something special to do in this market and that it’s probably going to last a long time,” Richards said. “I know friends here that have kids that play hockey and watched that Cup run, and they understand it when they go to games now. When I first got here, I’m not so sure they understood what was going on. Now they’re passionate. They know the height, and how special it is. It’s good to see this town back in form.”

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