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Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Steve Griggs high fives a fan at the Ice Sports Forum on Sept. 17, 2011.SCOTT AUDETTE

At their temporary home in Florida, the Toronto Raptors have a strong ally in Steve Griggs, CEO of the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, with whom they may eventually share Amalie Arena.

Griggs is a Toronto native and was one of the Raptors’ original employees 25 years ago.

Long before he worked his way up to a CEO job with an NHL club, Griggs, then fresh out of university, was the Raptors’ first director of ticket sales and tackling the challenge of selling Canadians on a quirky expansion basketball team playing in the cavernous SkyDome.

The Raptors are the only NBA team starting this season outside of their home city, forced to relocate because of Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions about crossing the U.S. border. Griggs hopes he will have two teams playing at Amalie Arena this winter. Whenever the NHL season starts, the Raptors and Lightning may share the downtown Tampa venue, which is managed by the Lightning and has been largely empty since the pandemic hit in March.

The Lightning CEO is engaged with the process, from fitting the arena for basketball and new health and safety measures, to communicating with the Tampa Sports Authority and selling the Raptors in the Florida market. Griggs not only understands the roots of the Raptors’ We The North mentality, but he can also draw on a long list of experiences tackling sports business challenges.

Griggs said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas called on behalf of his fellow MLSE-owned team and reached out to the Lightning about the idea of the Raptors playing in Tampa. The request was relayed to Griggs, who began communicating with the Raptors vice-president of basketball operations, Teresa Resch.

“I was excited. That’s my first team, so this is full circle for me,” Griggs said in a phone interview from Florida. “I’m from the original group, so as one of the OG’s I will be a good steward of the brand, we’ll take good care of them and then when things get back to normal, we’ll send them back to Toronto in good shape.”

The number of fans allowed in the arena it still to be determined. Griggs, who joined the Lightning in 2010, said they will utilize the club’s database of fans in their outreach to sell Raptors tickets. They also hope to gain insight from speaking with the Toronto Blue Jays, who draw well with snowbirds during spring training in nearby Dunedin.

To get ready, Amalie Arena has made health and safety renovations, such as sanitation stations, plastic shields, touchless-purchasing technology and upgraded HVAC systems.

The venue has held many college basketball events, including early round NCAA men’s tournament games, three women’s Final Fours, and conference tournaments.

“We do have a passionate college basketball base here in Tampa,” Griggs said. “Hopefully it will translate for professional basketball.”

Griggs has been following the Raptors since he left the club in 1999, especially their run to last year’s championship. He said Jurassic Park has been a source of inspiration for the area outside the Lightning’s arena, known as Thunder Alley. He was to attend a 25-year reunion for Raptors staff, but it was postponed by the pandemic.

Griggs grew up just north of the city and attended A.Y. Jackson Secondary School. He played hockey at Wilfrid Laurier University from 1988 to 1992 while getting his physical-education degree. Then he earned a masters in athletic administration at Ohio University and landed a gig right away working on the 1994 FIBA World Championship, held in Toronto.

There he worked with Raptors founder John Bitove, who hired him to work for the new NBA franchise.

Bitove recalls a young sales staff cold-calling people to sell Raptors tickets. Griggs always had a friendly competition with David Hopkinson, someone else who has built a successful career in sports. He is the president of team business operations for Madison Square Garden Sports.

“When you sold a pair of tickets you rang this bell we had in the office, and they were the two guys always racing to sell the most tickets,” Bitove said. “Steve was a ball of energy, and the bell was ringing a lot.”

In the Raptors’ first four seasons, they had a record of 90-206 and didn’t sniff the playoffs. Selling the early Raps inside the SkyDome took real creativity. Griggs remembers selling $5 season tickets with a media guide thrown in and selling others through Shoppers Drug Mart.

Griggs reported to Michael Downey – today the president and CEO of Tennis Canada – who was then the Raptors VP of sales and marketing.

“Steve had a phenomenal willingness to learn, a great attitude and work ethic, and was the poster child for that saying ‘hire for fit, and train for skill’,” Downey said. “He was out there talking to every NBA franchise to learn from them. Plus he needed to get creative because SkyDome was not a great venue for basketball, and to have people keep renewing their season seats for basically five years until we moved to the Air Canada centre – that was very difficult.”

Griggs took a lead role in transitioning the Raptors and Leafs to the ACC (now Scotiabank Arena) when it opened in 1999. He went on to build a reputation for effectively moving teams – and their season ticket holders – into new stadiums. He did it in his next two jobs as well, for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

Bitove and Downey were among the first to contact Griggs and wish him good luck and congratulations on this latest project – moving his old team into a new temporary home.

The Lightning played to the 2020 Stanley Cup title without a single home game, playing in the NHL bubble – first in Toronto and then Edmonton. Amalie Arena could only hold some watch parties with a small number of physically distanced Lightning fans. The last major event inside was a March 12 concert with classical musician André Rieu.

Basketball will bring it to life again soon. The NBA season tips off on Dec. 22. The Raps open preseason Dec. 12, on the road against the Charlotte Hornets.

The Raptors began training camp Tuesday at Saint Leo University, 53 kilometres north of Amalie Arena. They will set up a practice facility in a Tampa hotel ballroom, an idea they got after seeing the league do it in the Orlando bubble at Walt Disney World. They are appealing to the NBA about helping to ease the financial burden of playing away from home. The league has a discretionary fund once used by the New Orleans Pelicans when they played in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina.

“Having Amalie here, the convention centre, the two hotels downtown on Water Street, were really big draws for us as far as the flow and how the day-to-day would work for practices and games,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said. “Having the sunshine, having some Vitamin D I think is a boost not just for the players, but for the staff, who are also making a huge sacrifice to come here.”

Griggs is there to help wherever he can.

“We have prepared multiple seating manifests based on social distancing and the percentage of seats that we can sell in the building after we get the approvals from our medical-advisory team, government officials and the NBA, so it’s fluid,” Griggs said. “I think it’s a real positive for Tampa’s community and it’s a privilege and an honour to have the team here.”

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