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Re-icing the Rink

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  • | 10:01 a.m. August 20, 2010
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A lot more is riding on the skates of the Tampa Bay Lightning this season than the opportunity to win another Stanley Cup.

Misfortune has hit the National Hockey League franchise over the last several years. An ownership change that proved contentious factored into less-than-champion caliber play on the ice rink inside the St. Pete Times Forum, and a faltering economy has further hurt ticket sales.

Signs of distress can be easily seen around the downtown Tampa arena, in the form of vacant bars and restaurants right across Channelside Drive. Nearby upscale hotels are also awaiting a resurgence since the Lightning's championship season six years ago.

Now a new season of promise is solidifying, with Boston money manager Jeff Vinik taking over ownership of the Lightning in March and making two key front-office additions. Steve Yzerman, former Detroit Red Wings player and executive, was quickly hired as the Bolts' new vice president and general manager, while Tod Leiweke, current CEO of football's Seattle Seahawks, will soon move to Davis Islands as CEO and part-owner of the Lightning.

Under the name Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment, all three men pledge to build a winning organization with new players and fan favorites, including veterans Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. They also promise to make the organization a more integral part of the community.

“I envision a day when the Lightning will regularly play in front of sold-out crowds at the St. Pete Times Forum and be recognized as one of the leading corporate citizens in Tampa Bay,” Leiweke said upon being introduced July 28 as the Bolts' new CEO.

From initial appearances, the new principals will be a pleasant contrast from the Lightning's prior owners. Film producer Oren Koules and real estate developer Len Barrie reportedly spent too much time and energy bickering between themselves, not enough supervising their NHL investment.

Yet even through two seasons of disappointment, some of the Lightning's key sponsors say their relations with the front office haven't been soured. They express excitement about the prospect of the team's new management and what an improved 2010-11 season will mean for their own business.

“Our relationship has been very steady and the communications have been great,” says Jeff Weinthaler, general manager of the Embassy Suites Tampa-Downtown a few blocks from the Forum. The 360-room hotel opened amid the Lightning's previous short-term ownership and remains an active sponsor.

Weinthaler's hotel has gone through an ownership transition of its own, with hotel investor Robert L. Johnson buying the four-year-old property for $77 million in April. Upgrades are currently planned, including new flat-screen televisions in all rooms, upgraded Internet access for guests, new carpeting in first- and second-floor common areas, and improvements to an elaborate indoor fountain.

The hotel gains business during Lightning season as fans of visiting teams — and sometimes the teams themselves — stay there, along with attracting restaurant, lounge and parking business from local fans. But Weinthaler points out the biggest driver: “You've got to win in order for people to come back.”

Winning is priority one with the Bolts' new ownership group, especially after the team finished at or near the bottom of the NHL over the last three seasons. Leiweke cited bringing back winning and pride to the entire Tampa Bay community as their top priority.

“We're going to do everything we can to fill this building and we're going to do it with a reverence to the game of hockey,” he said. “If you do this business right, you can make a difference in the lives of people.”

Those efforts could benefit both ends of the Gulf Coast, with the minor-league Florida Everblades signing on as a Lightning affiliate for the coming season. The East Coast Hockey League club plays at Germain Arena in Estero.

Meanwhile, three empty bars across the street from the Forum that used to house The Outpost, Hot Tuna and The Hut are awaiting new owners or tenants. Those properties are currently used for parking during games and concerts, but appear to be abandoned at times when events aren't happening at the arena.

When the economy boomed and the Lightning was winning, the separately owned properties were considered for redevelopment into luxury condominiums or retail supporting the Forum. Now the buildings appear to be sliding into further disrepair and phone messages left with owners were not returned in recent weeks.

A Stanley Cup run could change that.


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