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Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star Game: Gary Bettman and Jeff Vinik discuss nuts, Bolts, and pirates

Recently, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman joined Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, CEO Steve Griggs, Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Ken Hagan Commissioner, and Tampa Bay Sports Commission Executive Director Rob Higgins to talk about the NHL All-Star Game and some of the challenges that will need to be dealt with to host event the same weekend as the city’s annual “Gasparilla” festival. These dignitaries met for a press conference soon after the official announcement that the 2018 NHL All-Star Game and attendant festivities would be held in Tampa on January 28 and 29.

Mr. Griggs introduced Mr. Vinik, who thanked the community and Lightning fans for their support, and then spoke about the transformation of a Lightning organization he  described (charitably) as “off-balance” and “irrelevant within the community” seven years ago, to one that is now worthy and capable of hosting one of the NHL’s highest-profile events.

Mr. Bettman followed with some remarks that illustrated the strides taken by the Lightning, alluding to a site visit he made prior to construction beginning on what would come to be known as Amalie Arena:

I remember coming here in 1993 when  the team was playing in the fairgrounds and I had just become commissioner. We pulled up to the fairgrounds building (Expo Hall) and there was the Zamboni in the parking lot, because there was no room for it inside, and players were stretching outside on the grass and I scratched my head and said, ‘this looks like it’s going to be a lot of work to make this franchise successful’…

We went through some lean times, erratic times, unbalanced times if you will, with respect to ownership, until Jeff (Vinik) appeared in my office one day… and I also think back to the early days in the early ‘90s, and I would come here to where the building was supposed to be, and there wasn’t an arena and the ownership at the time either couldn’t afford or didn’t have the ability logistically to get it off the ground.

Every time I would show up, none of these buildings were here and it was just a vacant lot. And for my benefit, I learned in retrospect, they would rent a bulldozer and they’d have just one person moving dirt around so I would think the building was just about ready to break ground.

Mr. Bettman went on to address the over-300K person, drunken elephant in the room, the Gasparilla festival which will be taking place simultaneously.

We’re going to be working with the people at Gasparilla to take our event and their event and figure out what we can together to make both events more special than anybody has ever seen before.

While nothing specific was mentioned in terms of logistic plans, this basic sentiment was echoed by Mayor Buckhorn, Commissioner Hagen and Mr. Higgins. Mr. Bettman did introduce NHL Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer, who will be the league’s point person in the coordination between the two massive events. Mr. Mayer coordinated the all-star festivities held in Los Angeles last season, which was highlighted by the celebration of the league’s 100th anniversary.

Mayor Buckhorn did address what he feels are the primary concerns about these potential obstacles:

Traffic, ingress and egress out of the downtown area. I think obviously public safety is always at the top of that. Managing the flow of the people, coordinating the parade route… game night on Sunday will be fine. It’s just Saturday day and Saturday night that will be the most challenging.

But we’re going to deploy whatever resources we have and whatever assets we need to make sure this is successful. What I would submit to you is that it’s public safety, first and foremost. And then traffic management and crowd control.

Mr. Bettman was asked if there was any possibility that the winter Olympics could result in the All-Star game being postponed or cancelled:

None. As in no possibility. I think we’ve been about as clear on this subject as we can be. We made an announcement six weeks ago. I re-affirmed that announcement on Monday. We will be here, we’re looking forward to being here and the Olympics should not be a concern because we’re not going to be shutting down to participate next year.

When asked whether it’s too soon and/or too greedy to start planning to host the NHL Draft in Tampa (hey, who asked that genius-level question?), Mr. Bettman offered this:

I thought you were going to ask me the other question Jeff asks me every time he sees me, which is ‘what about an outdoor game,’ and that’s something, believe it or not, we’re going to consider at some point when we understand the weather patterns a little bit better and whether or not we can create an ice condition that’s suitable for an NHL game.

The All-Star announcement follows on the heels of Tampa Bay being awarded the Super Bowl that will be played in 2021. Following the NCAA National Football Championship in January, high-profile sporting events are becoming an increasingly frequent occurrence in the Tampa Bay area. Mr Higgins shared his thoughts on that:

I would say that both of those events (the All-Star game and Super Bowl) are actually events we’ve pursued for quite some time. We haven’t had an NHL All-Star weekend since 1999 and you heard Mr. Vinik talk about how he continues to ask Commissioner Bettman for not only that but other signature events. And getting our fifth Super Bowl has been eight years in the making…

I think it speaks to ‘Team Tampa Bay’. You look at the leadership you heard from today. Guys like Ken Hagen and Mayor Buckhorn and certainly Jeff Vinik. Without him, we’re not standing here today. Then we have our volunteers. We have the event venues, our hotels. Everybody is pulling in the right direction, trying to make these things happen. And I think that mentality, of putting the community first, has really paid big dividends for us.”

Everyone is familiar with all the recent and ongoing upgrades at Amalie Arena, but similar efforts to maintain and improve venues take place virtually everywhere, all the time. There are few (if any) truly outdated, “bad” venues in professional sports at this point.

You mention investments in facilities, and while certainly there are lots of arenas being upgraded, there aren’t that many arenas being invested in by their own owner. So what sets Amalie Arena apart is the amount of funding and resources Mr. Vinik has poured into it to make this a world-class facility, which allows a signature event like the NHL All-Star game to come here and be a great experience without dipping heavily into community resources.

We’re fortunate to be on a roll with the Women’s Final Four (NCAA basketball), the Frozen Four (NCAA Men’s Hockey), ‘March Madness’ (NCAA men’s basketball) coming back, it all starts with having a place to play. Without a state-of-the-art facility to play the games, these announcements simply wouldn’t happen.

Surprisingly (or not, depending on whose goofy opinion you agree with), the Amalie Arena freight elevator was never mentioned. There was only one member of the media present who might have been inclined to bring it up, but he’s too smart to do so.

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