(cross posted at Loving the Lightning)
Friday evening, devoted Lightning fans traveled to the fifth event in the Lightning Unplugged series--featuring new owner Jeffrey Vinik and Lightning star Steven Stamkos--a few, that is. Perhaps Lightning fans didn't arrive in packs because the event was announced on such short notice, just two days before the event. Other factors might be the event taking place at the peak of rush hour, and downtown at the forum, rather than the usual neighborhood venue locations. Whatever the reason, people just didn't show up.
But if actions speak louder than words, the sparse crowd that trickled in early Friday evening is proof that admidst losing streaks and evolving management, Tampa Bay Lightning interest is waning.Brittany Zion, Tampa Bay's in-arena host, noticed it as well. After opening the event with a list of announcements, she walked to one of the St. Pete Times Forum workers and noted the crowd's "dead silence." To be fair, this was before the event started, but to be honest, the crowd made little improvement as the event progressed Friday's edition of Lightning Unplugged was a change of pace from other events this season. Hosted by Rick Peckham (Sun Sports), questions were required to be submitted in writing prior to the beginning of the event. Due to logistics or an intentional change, the tone was formal and quiet, a drastic difference from the fan's usual tone of being captivated by everything, and hanging on each word.
Vinik entered the arena, looking like the new kid in school--wide-eyed, innocent, and anxious to be a part of the team.
What does Vinik bring to Tampa Bay? He made it clear that he was interested in being the owner, not the coach. He stressed the "vital responsibilty" of being a part of the community, including giving back dollars and time, which he deemed as "extremely important." From his experience as partial owner of the Boston Red Sox, Vinik said that the success of the organization starts at the top, including values like great leadership, intergrity, honesty, and of course, having fun. Regarding the Bruins, Vinik answered that though he owned season tickets, he couldn't remember the last time he attended. As for partiality, he said, "I'm all Tampa Bay." All Tampa Bay, except for the accent.
One fan asked if Vinik planned on making any trades, to which he replied, "On no uncertain terms, I want to have great players on the ice." Vinik mentioned briefly covered strategies, including extensive research, and investing dollars in great players.
Why a hockey team? As a baseball owner, Vinik said his friends were surprised to hear that he was a hockey fan. Vinik said (thumbs up and eyebrows raised), "Baseball is okay. Hockey is great."
Vinik said, enthusiastically, "I thought about buying a sports team a few years ago." Since then, he spent a lot of time "shopping around" for a hockey team. Yes, shopping around. Vinik researched his purchase by watching every Lightning game this season, and $110 million later, he's the new owner.
Vinik was careful to play his cards right, and did his best to get on the good side of Lightning fans. The question for Vinik to name his favorite NHL player caught him off-guard, and after sputtering, he named the entire Tampa Bay Lightning team, admitting that it was the "politically correct answer."
Watching Vinik, it was clear that he was taking everything in for the first time. As he talked, and as he listened, Vinik scanned the crowd. From Friday's turnout, it's clear that he was looking for something more.
Lost in the focus of the ownership transition was the fact that Steven Stamkos was also participating. One fan asked about his summer training with Gary Roberts. Stamkos said, "I owe a lot of my success to him. He's fanatical...All the players know, It's time the fans know." Stamkos mentioned that teammate Steve Downie might join him and Roberts this summer for training.
Stamkos also mentioned playing against Steve Downie growing up, admitting that he saw Downie as a "pretty intimidating player."
Besides ketchip chips, does Stamkos miss anything else from home? Stamkos answered that most things were the same, but remarked that during the season, he did miss the occasional Big Mac.
Stamkos also discussed how he worked to develop his shot. At the age of nine, when having considerable trouble scoring goals, and he was enrolled in skating school. There, he attended one-on-one sessions with an instructor three times a week, shooting 200-300 pucks each time. Clearly it paid off, because today, Stamkos is tied with Sydney Crosby at 54 goals since February 17, 2009, just four goals less than Alexander Ovechkin (stat mentioned by Rick Peckham). Stamkos said, "I give all the credit to my dad for going out there and finding that."
As for play on the ice, Stamkos said, "We're running out of time...the sense of urgency's coming back." Regarding Thursday's loss against Washington, Stamkos said, "It's positive that we can play a close game with one of the best."
To the casual observer, Friday's crowd would suggest that fans have lost interest in an unremarkable team, but in truth, timing is everything.