"Tampa Bay has been a great place to live and play from the day I got there. As soon as the season ended I knew it was a place I wanted to be." - Ryan Callahan on June 25th, 2014
Gee, that was awfully nice for Ryan Callahan to say. As a resident, it's always a pleasure to hear people say good things about the place where you live. But aside from the warm fuzzy feelings, a reasoned argument can be made that hockey players kind of have it made in Tampa Bay.
That's not to say that Tampa Bay is automatically the very best place to play for every player in the NHL. Certainly all 30 cities in the league are dynamic regions with unique aspects that make them stand out. Also, personal tastes, needs and wants are subjective and will vary person by person. You simply can't question the validity of a guy's stated desire to live and play in New York, Los Angeles or Winnipeg. You can question why a player wouldn't want to play in Tampa Bay for the already-Eastern Conference Champion while still up-and-coming Lightning. I don't work for any of the local chambers of commerce and as a long-time resident, I'm certainly familiar with some of the drawbacks that come with living here (Jeff Vinik is not the most influential businessman in town; whoever Bob of Bob's Barricades is). That said, the Tampa Bay area offers a pretty unique set of circumstances that a professional hockey player should find appealing.
ANONYMITY - There's a story from a few years ago about former Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier walking his dog near his Davis Island home. A car approached and Vinny braced himself. How many autographs would he have to sign or how many selfies would he be expected to pose in? As the car drew near, a passenger rolled down their window and said, "Excuse me sir, do you know where Derek Jeter's house is?" Vinny gave them directions, they said thanks and went on their way. The point being that hockey players are usually not recognized on sight around here. As Steven Stamkos once observed:
"I think that's the great thing about playing in Tampa is hockey isn't the mecca that it is here in Toronto and you can kind of go about your life and kind of get away from the game when you need to."
But it's not just hockey players. Locals are generally not inclined to make a big deal out of any celebrity sightings. The area has hosted Super Bowls and international film festivals. Movies and TV shows are shot here. Tons of celebs own homes and/or have family nearby. Presidents and other dignitaries come through all the time. It's not Hollywood, but seeing famous people out and about really isn't a big deal. Players can probably feel free to eat dinner out in public without fear of being harassed or weirdos hanging around outside of their home at all hours. They definitely won't get chased down the street by hordes of screaming fans like a scene from "A Hard Day's Night". On the other hand...
FAN SUPPORT - Forget what may have been said elsewhere; Tampa Bay has plenty of good, passionate and knowledgeable hockey fans. Amalie Arena is sold out more often than not. Even when the team isn't doing that well, pretty good crowds are the norm for every game. Granted, there are still occasions when there are more people cheering for the visitors than the home team but the organization has made attempts to change that behavior or curb it. Still, combine the fact that players can perform in front of over 18,000 enthusiastic supporters and then go out for a nice, peaceful dinner afterward without being hassled and that's got to be kind of nice.
MEDIA - We have two major daily newspapers, four television stations and two radio stations that cover sports on a daily basis, a handful of stringers that work for the wire services and a couple of exceptional blogs (ahem), all of whom are relatively gentle in their handling of the Lightning. Even the columnists who often make their livings by being kind of nasty usually reserve their true wrath for the Buccaneers. And the TV stations normally don't get heavily involved with the Lightning until the playoffs get close or something extraordinarily dramatic happens. Realistically, you're looking at four to six reporters at practices and maybe a dozen in the dressing room after games. Nothing resembling the frothing hordes that are found in other cities.
NIGHTLIFE - Let's face it, among those who really know, Tampa Bay's nightlife entertainment is pretty legendary. Not so much in downtown Tampa, although that's about to change, thanks to Jeff Vinik (undoubtedly with assistance from Bob's Barricades), but just a little bit outside exists a wide variety of adult leisure time activities. And I don't just mean the so-called "gentleman's clubs" (A BRIEF ASIDE: Any time I hear the expression "gentleman's club", I picture refined men in suits sitting in high-backed leather chairs politely debating the finer points of various social protocols over snifters of brandy. My understanding is that is not even close to what actually happens there.) Live music venues large and small, fine dining, comedy clubs, even a full scale casino. Those willing to take the brief jaunt across the bay to Pinellas County will find a jumpin' downtown scene in St. Petersburg. Granted, it's not all in one place like most urban areas but it's also not so spread out that it's hard to find.
DAYLIFE - Every hockey player's bio on every program and media guide ever published lists hunting, fishing and golf under hobbies. Other stuff too (sometimes) but always those three, like it's a rule or something. Tampa Bay is one of very, very few NHL markets that can offer all of those activities on a year-round basis. 36 holes of golf on a day off between home games in February? Deep sea fishing in January? Alligator hunting whenever it is that it's legal to do that? Not only totally possible but a fairly common occurrence (not the alligator hunting though; I'm sure coach Cooper would probably frown on that). And of course, there are always the beaches of Clearwater, St. Pete and Sarasota just a little bit south.
THE TAXMAN DOESN'T COMETH - Often mentioned as a perk for professional athletes who play in the state of Florida, it's true that there is no state income tax. While the extent of how much of a perk is frequently overstated (as illustrated recently by Clare Austin), a penny saved is a penny earned and anywhere between 40,000,000 pennies and 60,000,000 pennies is a whole lot of pennies.
YOUTH SPORTS - Again, don't let one disgruntled former employee's opinion sway you; Tampa Bay has outstanding youth sports programs. Youth teams in a variety of different sports from this area frequently compete in... and win... national tournaments. Players from those teams go on to be highly regarded college and pro prospects, especially in sports like baseball and football. The top notch quality of available tennis instruction for his kids was a key in Nikolai Khabibulin signing with the Lightning back in 2000. Hockey may not be at that level yet but it's still a relatively new pursuit and is showing noticeably marked improvement in the level of play on a yearly basis, especially since the Lightning organization appointed former GM Jay Feaster to address that particular need. And of course, because of the weather and the available facilities, these can be year-round activities. If someone has kids who they'd like to get involved in sports, there are a lot of places that can't touch Tampa Bay's youth programs.
Again, there are lots of fine areas among the 30 that comprise the National Hockey League, and a few of them even share some of these same attributes. But Tampa Bay is the only one that offers all of them.