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Florida Panthers center Tomas Kopecky Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE (Timothy T. Ludwig/US PRESSWIRE)
Florida Panthers center Tomas Kopecky Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE (Timothy T. Ludwig/US PRESSWIRE)

Paul Waldie

Winning hockey and $4 tickets bring Florida fans out Add to ...

Tickets can be had for as little as $4 (all currency U.S.) and football will always be king, but there are signs hockey is making something of a come back in Florida.

After years in the doldrums, Florida’s two NHL teams are not only winning again, they both have owners who actually seem to care about their fans.

In Tampa, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has just spent $40-million renovating the St. Pete Times Forum. The new features include a giant pipe organ, padded seats, cup holders and special coils that shoot lightning bolts from the ceiling when the team scores. Vinik, a hedge fund manager, paid for the upgrades himself and has said he won’t seek reimbursement from Hillsborough County, which owns the facility.

Vinik also owns part of the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool soccer club in England but he has said hockey is his first love. He’s been showing his love to fans ever since he bought the Lightning in 2010 for about $100-million. He started by wooing hockey great Steve Yzerman to become the Lightning’s general manager. Yzerman quickly hired up-and-coming coach Guy Boucher, brought in goalie Dwyane Roloson and shored up the defence with Eric Brewer. Together with established stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, the Lightning came within one win of making the Stanley Cup final last season.

“Mr. Vinik has done so much for Tampa and for hockey,” Lecavalier said before the Lightning beat the Winnipeg Jets 1-0 on Saturday. “It’s definitely a world-class organization and I’m proud to part of it.”

Fans have taken notice as well. The Lightning have had near capacity crowds for each of their five home games so far this season and on Saturday the arena was packed, noisy and excited.

“It has really been a full change,” forward Ryan Malone said. “When you go out, even now to the grocery store, you see the effects in the community and people come up to you. … Hockey is coming back. The guys who were here in 2004 when they won [the Stanley Cup]said it was a crazy hockey atmosphere and I think it has definitely been that way since our playoff run last year.”

Further south, the Florida Panthers sorted out their ownership a couple of years ago, leaving local businessmen Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel in charge. This year, they launched a massive overhaul of the team, introduced a new flashy marketing program and hired coach Kevin Dineen. The club hopes those changes, along with the NBA lockout and the sagging fortunes of the Miami Dolphins and University of Miami football program, will help attract new hockey fans.

The Jets play the Panthers in Sunrise Monday.

“In light of the marketplace right now, this is our opportunity to grab the attention of casual sports fans – who we haven’t been able to penetrate,” club president Michael Yormak told reporters before the team’s home opener on Oct. 15.

The Panthers created a local buzz by bringing in 16 new players, including Ed Jovonovski, for his second tour with the team, Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg and Jose Theodore. And while the team’s home opener against the Lightning wasn’t quite a sell out, it was considered one of the most exciting in years, ending with a Panther victory in a shootout.

Best of all for the Lightning and the Panthers – they are winning. The Lightning are 5-4-2 and the Panthers 6-4-0, giving both teams 12 points.

There are still many challenges ahead. Florida’s economy is sluggish and the housing market stuck, leaving many fans strapped for cash. Tickets are also not hard to come by.

Barely three hours before the Lightning-Jets game on Saturday, some tickets were going for as little as $5 on various Internet ticket sites. Tickets for the Panthers-Jets match Monday were priced as low as $4. By contrast, the asking price for the cheapest ticket to the Panthers’ game in Winnipeg next month is $119.

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