by Ian Cunningham
The Tampa Bay Lightning Training Camp is officially under way!! After a day full of physicals and off-ice assessments, the team will travel to the Brandon Ice Sports Forum for their typical on-ice sessions and Blue/White games.
The on-ice workouts begin at 10 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. As always, the practices and intersquad games are free and open to the public. Parking is limited in Brandon so come early to catch all the excitement.
It will truly be a community affair with fun and games planned for all the spectators around the scheduled games and practices. Thunderbug, the Lightning Girls, and the Bolt Brigade will all be in attendance, welcoming fans back for another season of Bolts hockey.
There will be assorted food and beverages, along with Lightning Alumni signing autographs, contests, prizes, and the whole weekend will be emceed by in-arena host Brittany Zion. The Lightning are once again pulling out all the stops to welcome their fans and make them feel like part of the Bolts family. I for one, am very pleased to see this concerted effort to connect with the fan base. Tampa Bay is still not the hockey hotbed that the league had hoped it would be, even after reaching supremacy back in ‘04, lifting the Stanley Cup on home ice.
The key for the Lightning is to build off of social gatherings like this by maintaining a competitive team for the near future. Although the Bolts took home the Cup in 2004, the lockout hurt the team and the fan base more than anything else, hindering the Lightning from capitalizing on a captive audience the following fall. And now after a trip to the Conference Finals, the Bay area seems ready to embrace hockey, but they will still need encouragement. 41 home dates is a lot of butts to stick in the seats and the organization has a lot of work ahead of them.
The best way to bring in fans is simply to keep winning. But perhaps winning with style may be just as important to a fan base that is still, for all intensive purposes, warming up to hockey. Not to say that there are no die hards in Tampa, but they are vastly outnumbered by supporters of the Bucs or the Gators of the college football ranks. Cue Steven Stamkos, whose explosive offensive play could be the tipping point for the financial viability of this franchise. The best way to illustrate this point could be the revival of the Washington Capitals after acquiring Alexander Ovechkin in the 2004 draft. If the Lightning are to maintain relevance versus their pro sporting counterparts then a show must be put on, and Stamkos is the man to do it.
So, with a roster basically set in stone as camp begins, my number one concern would be finding a way to insulate the depth of the Lightning. Helping to ensure that Tampa can manage the rigors of a long season, thus remaining fresh for another stab at post-season glory. Steve Yzerman has done an excellent job of stocking the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL with NHL-ready talent that can be called up in the inevitable occurrence of injury throughout the season. And considering that the Boston Bruins took it all last year based on the difference supplied by their goaltending and bottom two lines - these signings could give the bottom six the necessary motivation to step it up that extra notch needed to succeed. The alternative being to be buried in the press box or the minors, an option that was not as readily available in last season’s run.
So enjoy the festivities this weekend, it will no doubt be a greatly entertaining affair. And take the opportunity to chat with members of the Lightning organization, such as office members and staffers. These people are true locals who are passionate about the game of hockey. I’m sure that their passion will rub off on you, because that what is so great about our game, the passion. There is no game around with the speed and intensity of hockey and it only takes a taste to get hooked. So get out to Brandon and soak it all in, because Hockey Bay is Back!