A full house of Tampa Bay Lightning fans turned out to watch the 2012 NHL Draft at Champp's at an official watch party hosted by the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Clark Brooks photo)
A standing room only crowd was on hand at Champp's Americana Restaurant for the 2012 NHL Draft watch party hosted by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.
The team also publicly unveiled a new logo and merchandise to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
The event was scheduled to begin at 6 pm, an hour before the start of the draft, but many fans who arrived as early as 5:30 were unable to be seated. Many left but most stayed, finding room to stand and watch the proceedings. Non-Lightning fans looking for a place to celebrate Friday afternoon happy hour were out of luck as every table was occupied by blue-clad Bolts fans.
"Obviously, we have a lot of Lightning fans who need a hockey fix. We just kind of came into this bar thinking we would be sharing it with Rays fans. It's turned out to be unbelievable," said former Lightning captain and current vice president Dave Andreychuk. Andreychuk was on hand to mingle with fans as well as participate in the radio broadcast, hosted by Rick Peckham, Chris Dingman and Bobby "The Chief" Taylor, taking place. The draft was shown on the restaurant's televisions and door prizes of t-shirts and memorabilia were given out. Current Lightning players Adam Hall and Teddy Purcell stopped by to mingle.
As much attention as all the festivities received, most fans were focused on the activity taking place at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, where the draft was taking place. As Andreychuk said, "This is Steve Yzerman's first real draft. He's coming in with all the pieces in place for the first time. Plus, with all the attention from the trades made at the deadline, acquiring all these draft picks, there's a sense of anticipation for sure."
A quick poll (measured by applause) conducted by Dingman just prior to the Lightning making their first pick (10th overall) indicated that the crowd was about evenly split between defenseman Cody Ceci and forward Filip Forsberg. When Yzerman strode up to the podium, dispensing with any awards show-style pleasantries, and announced the choice of defenseman Slater Koekkoek, there was a split second of silence follwed by an audible "huh?". A fan named Justin said, "I think it's an interesting pick. This was kind of out of nowhere. But we need defense so we'll just have to see how it goes. I am surprised we didn't take Forsberg. That's the kind of thing that can come back and bite you. But who knows? Maybe he'll still be available at 19 (the team's other first round pick)."
He wasn't, though. Washington took him with the very next pick. When the Lightning came up again at 19, they selected Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski. Another fan, Austin Perez said, "I like the pick. I'd like to say that we have a plethora of goalies now. You can't go wrong there. That's definitely been a sore spot the last couple of years. I think we're positioning ourselves well now though."
After that, the party ended and people headed home. It's hard to imagine how much bigger the crowd might have been if there had been the possibility of some local talent available in the draft. With NHL hockey now rooted two decades deep in Tampa Bay, how close is that to becoming a possibility?
Former Lightning all-star Brian Bradley thinks it could be soon. "There are kids right now being drafted from Florida. We had kids in the last few drafts, maybe not in the first round, but kids went in the later rounds with a chance to make it. Youth hockey has improved tremendously here in the last ten years."
Dave Andreychuk agrees. "Right now, we're trying to keep our Florida kids. We have talent that is leaving the state. I think the next step in hockey in Florida is developing the junior teams that are here. We now have a place for 16, 17 and 18 year old kids to play. We're working closely with them and definitely keeping an eye on what's happening there."