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When you think of hockey, Florida does not come to mind. Yet two of the sport’s most successful teams come from the Sunshine State, and are set to enter into next week’s playoffs as a pair of the NHL’s most feared clubs

Illustration by The globe and mail

When you think about hockey, places like Toronto and Montreal, Boston and Detroit, come to mind. Storied teams with more Stanley Cups among them – 54 – than all other NHL clubs combined. Proper winters, cold and long.

Hot and humid, Florida does not come to mind. It is where snowbirds retreat to get away from winter. White shoes and shuffleboard more than skates and slap shots.

Yet two of the sport’s most successful teams come from the Sunshine State. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the past two Stanley Cups and begin pursuit of another next week. In 40 years, no team has won three straight.

On the Gulf Coast, the Lightning have had a head start but the Panthers, who are based on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale, have narrowed the gap. They were the best team in the regular season and enter next week’s playoffs as one of the NHL’s most feared clubs.

Over a recent stretch the Panthers won 13 straight games and outscored their opponents, 64-33. The Lightning ended the streak with an 8-4 thumping in a contest that generated 90 minutes in penalties.

Because of scheduling challenges during COVID-19, they played 22 times in a calendar year, preseason, regular season and postseason included.

“They are our interstate rivals and we know them really well,” Aleksander Barkov, Florida’s all-star centre and captain, says. The Lightning eliminated the Panthers in six games in the first round last year. “We hate each other and you can see it in our games.

“They bring out the best of us and we do the same with them. We want to be better than they are.”

There was a time when the prospect of an NHL team in Florida was considered folly. When Phil Esposito suggested putting a team in Tampa three decades ago people thought he was a lunatic.

“I had many conversations with stupid people in Toronto who said, ‘How the hell do you play hockey in Florida?’ ” Esposito, who is 80 and does radio commentary during Lightning games, says. “I’d tell them, ‘You know we play indoors, right?’ ”

Former NHL player Phil Esposito co-founded the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and served for six years as president and general manager.Bruce Bennett/AFP/Getty Images

With help from his brother Tony, a fellow Hall of Famer who died last year, Esposito co-founded the club in 1992 and served for six years as president and general manager.

“It was my greatest dream and the greatest thing I have ever done in hockey,” Esposito says. In their debut season, the Lightning played in a 10,425-seat exhibition hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Before the first home game, Esposito told ushers to eject anyone that threw an object onto the ice. That night Chris Kontos scored four times in a 7-3 victory over the Blackhawks.

As hats rained down, ushers hauled out people who tossed them.

“I forgot to mention what a hat trick is,” Esposito says.

The club played in a domed baseball stadium in St. Petersburg for the next three seasons and in 1996 moved into the newly built Ice Palace, now called Amalie Arena, in downtown Tampa.

A statue of Phil Esposito stands in front of the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.BRUCE BENNETT/AFP/Getty Images

The Lightning have had 274 straight sellouts in the rink that seats 19,092. According to the NHL, it leads the league in attendance this year.

“The Florida market was never like Montreal or Toronto,” says Vincent Lecavalier, who played for the Lightning for 14 seasons. “Fifteen years later, everybody here follows hockey. We never imagined anything like this.”

Lecavalier was on the Tampa Bay team that won its first Stanley Cup in 2004. He still lives in Tampa even while working as an adviser to the Montreal Canadiens.

Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are the only players in franchise history to have their numbers retired. The banners hang from the rafters.

“Tampa Bay has developed into a powerhouse organization,” St. Louis, the Canadiens’ interim coach, says. “Theirs is a model franchise. It is a great example of how to build a winner.”

Over the past seven years, the Lightning have a pair of Stanley Cup wins, another appearance in the final, a pair of Eastern Conference final losses, and a first-round elimination.

Above, the Tampa Bay Lightning gather under a banner celebrating their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins before a game at Amalie Arena in October, 2021. Below, Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos hoists the Stanley Cup after the Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars to win the 2020 Stanley Cup final.Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

In that season – 2018-19 – they went 62-16-4 and won the Presidents’ Trophy. Their 128 points are the most a team has earned in more than a quarter-century.

Their club is built around veterans who were first-round draft picks – centre Steven Stamkos in 2008, defenceman Victor Hedman in 2009 and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in 2012. The latter won the Vezina Trophy in 2019 and is so revered that one of his game-worn jerseys is being sold for US$3,500 in the team’s souvenir shop.

The Panthers are likewise led by a number of first-round picks: left wing Jonathan Huberdeau in 2011; Barkov in 2013; and defenceman Aaron Ekblad in 2014.

The Panthers are led by a number of first-round picks: (from left) Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad.Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

They also have a top netminder in two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrosvky, who was signed in 2019, and talented players acquired in trades in centres Claude Giroux, Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart, and defenceman Ben Chiarot.

Florida joined the league a year after Tampa Bay and played home games in Miami until 1998 when it moved to Sunrise, which is in the suburbs west of Fort Lauderdale.

They have not enjoyed the same success as their rivals but have finished ahead of the Lightning in the Atlantic Division the past two years.

Florida reached the Stanley Cup final in its third season but lost in four games to Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche. The Panthers have not won a series since then.

They made two of the league’s biggest moves at the trade deadline this year in acquiring Giroux and Chiarot.

A long-time Philadelphia captain, Giroux spent 14 seasons with the Flyers but asked to be traded to the Panthers because he liked their chances for the Stanley Cup.

He is 34 and has reached the final only once in his career.

“You think he is motivated?” Bill Zito, Florida’s general manager, asks. “He came here to win.”

Zito is nearing the end of his second season with the club. He played hockey at Yale, earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and became a player agent.

Prior to becoming the general manager of the Florida Panthers Bill Zito, left, played hockey at Yale, got a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and became a player agent.Wilfredo Lee/The Canadian Press

“I thought we’d have some success but I can’t tell you I thought we were going to have this kind of year,” Zito says in his suite at FLA Live Arena.

He grew up in Milwaukee and at 15 years old became the batboy for the Brewers.

“Harry Dalton took me under his wing,” Zito says, referring to the architect of the Baltimore Orioles dynasty during the 1960s and 1970s and of Milwaukee’s American League championship team of 1982. “I would go into his office every day to do my homework.”

When Zito was still a teenager, Dalton asked him if he wanted to be the general manager of a baseball team. Zito said no. “I told him I wanted to be a hockey GM instead,” Zito says.

The Panthers have drawn an average of nearly 15,000 spectators at their home games, which is better than in years past. Three and a half hours away, Tampa Bay has built up the most loyal fan base in the league.

The Lightning is owned by Jeffrey Vinik, who also owns a piece of the Boston Red Sox. He once managed one of the world’s most valuable mutual funds and dug into his pockets to finance what had been a cash-strapped franchise.

The Panthers have drawn nearly 15,000 spectators at their home games, which is better than in years past.Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press

He paid US$170-million for the team in 2010. According to a 2021 estimate by Forbes magazine, its value has increased to US$650-million.

Vinik invested US$100-million to upgrade a building that is one of the NHL’s best. He tore out seats and luxury suites to install a massive pipe organ. Coils manufactured by Tesla were placed in the ceiling to shoot lightning bolts during player introductions and each time the team scores.

“The building didn’t have a soul,” says team president and CEO Steve Griggs of the original arena. “You’d walk in here and didn’t feel any energy.”

Griggs, originally from Aurora, Ont., joined the Lightning’s parent company in 2010 as chief operating officer, moving up to his current position in 2015.

When he came aboard, the club had 2,000 season-ticket holders. That number is now capped at 15,000.

For the past decade the team has given away US$50,000 at every home game to local non-profit groups. Through the Community Heroes Program, US$25.7-million has been donated thus far.

The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate their 2021 Stanley Cup win with fans during a boat parade held in Tampa, Fla. Below, players Alex Killorn, left, and Nikita Kucherov parade the Stanley Cup around on a jet ski.Mike Carlson/AFP/Getty Images

“They have converted every possible fringe fan to being big supporters,” says Dave Mangione, who established Hattricks Tavern six months after the Ice Palace opened nearby. “These are people who previously were never involved.

“Hockey took a little bit to grow in the area, but now it is the sport of choice in Tampa.”

Before moving to Tampa, Griggs worked for the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Wild, Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs.

Last summer he returned to Ontario and brought the Stanley Cup with him. His mother, 80, drank Molson Canadian from it.

Outside Amalie Arena, a statue of Esposito graces a plaza known as the Thunder Alley. It is packed before and after games.

“This has become a good franchise,” Esposito says.

“I told Jeff Vinik he has fulfilled every dream I had. At the beginning, people said I had no vision and I had no plan. They were so wrong.”

The Lightning celebrated winning the past two Stanley Cups with boat parades. A dive team was on hand in case the trophy was dropped into the Hillsborough River. Just this past Monday, the team attended the White House for the first time in franchise history after the 2004-05 lockout robbed Tampa of its first chance of attending, while the pandemic put paid to a possible visit after its 2020 championship success.

In Sunrise, the Panthers dream of similar success. Six weeks ago nobody gave them a chance to overtake Colorado for the Presidents’ Trophy, a title they clinched for the first time in franchise history on Thursday night.

“We feel like this is our time,” Huberdeau says.

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