Long before he was instrumental in bringing NHL hockey to a tropical paradise on the Gulf of Mexico, and long before there was a statue of him greeting visitors at the main entrance to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Phil Esposito was a goal scorer of some renown.
At a time when Wayne Gretzky was just learning to skate, Esposito ruled NHL rinks for the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and N.Y. Rangers, making a permanent mark in the scoring record books.
An hour or so before Boston College beat Ferris State University in the most recent NCAA championship game, Esposito held court with a few reporters deep in the bowels of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s home rink, reflecting on his days in the NHL as a player and an executive, and noting how much things have changed, for the better, with the growth of hockey in warm-weather regions like Florida.
“We’d play in Montreal and it would be 10 below when we went to the rink, and 12 below when we left the rink,” said Esposito, who served as the Lightning’s first president and general manager. “Here you go to the game and it’s 75. After the game when you leave, it’s 73.”
It was indeed in the low 70s with a bright sun heading for the horizon as fans from all across the nation streamed into the Forum to witness the culmination of the first NCAA Frozen Four contested in the South.
And for the members of the local hockey community, they didn’t need to see the hockey sweaters from college hockey’s “four M’s” (Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts and Maine) to tell the visitors from the locals. They just looked for red arms and faces.
“Many of the folks I met in the arena were college hockey fans wearing their home sweaters and enjoying the experience,” said Tim Madden, a vice president with Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida, and a Tampa resident.
“They commented on how much they enjoyed the special Florida flair for the weekend. A few probably should have done a better job reading the SPF levels, but a few sunburns and a lot of fun made for a great weekend.”
After hosting multiple Super Bowls and basketball’s NCAA Final Four, the Frozen Four was not an overly daunting event for the sports commission in Tampa-St. Petersburg. Still they did their homework, traveling to the event in more traditional hockey markets like Denver, Detroit and St. Paul, and learning what worked and what didn’t in those host cities. They took the best of what others had done, then added a distinctly Florida flair to the weekend.
That was evident when the four teams’ planes landed and players from BC, Ferris, the University of Minnesota and Union College were greeted on the tarmac by local youth hockey players offering a stick salute, and a steel drum band playing the music of the tropics.
On the night before the tournament, when the four teams traditionally gather at a hotel ballroom for a pre-event banquet, they instead took to the water. The Eagles, Bulldogs, Golden Gophers and Dutchmen boarded a yacht for a leisurely dinner tour of Tampa Bay, and watched the sun set into the Gulf.
“A few probably should have done a better job reading the SPF levels, but a few sunburns and a lot of fun made for a great weekend.
“We’re a community that prides itself on our hospitality and our ability to put on big events,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
“What we appreciate most is what we’ve heard from the student-athletes. We got comments from them that we helped create memories that will last a lifetime, and that was our intention and priority.”
They also worked to create a lasting effect on the hockey community in Florida. The Frozen Four made its first foray into the warm-weather states in 1999, in Anaheim. The reviews there were decidedly mixed, but a dozen years later there has been a wave of college hockey players from Southern California who say they were first exposed to the sport when the best in the game came to their backyard.
In the run-up to the tournament’s first appearance in Florida, organizers focused on the grassroots levels of hockey in the state, taking the NCAA championship trophy to more than 20 youth hockey tournaments throughout Florida and building interest not only in the Frozen Four, but in hockey as an air-conditioned year-round activity for Southern kids.
“It was a great introduction to college hockey for our Tampa hockey community,” Madden said. “I’ve been involved here with youth and high school hockey the last 11 years, and I’ve been a long-time Lightning ticket holder. It was nice to walk through the rink and see so many of the families we knew from youth and high school hockey and so many of the fans I’ve known from following the Lightning there, taking in the whole experience.”
For fans that traveled from all over the country to visit Tampa, that “whole experience” included a few uniquely Southern twists on the fun that they’ve come to know as a normal part of Frozen Four weekend.
Outside the arena on the massive outdoor plaza, there were live bands, kids’ games, street hockey, celebrities and sponsor giveaways before all of the games. The announcement of the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, normally done inside the arena, was moved to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, as members of the U.S. Armed Forces saluted Baker for his military heroics as a World War I fighter pilot after he was a hockey star at Princeton University.
A few blocks from the Forum at Channelside Plaza, the restaurants and open-air watering holes proved to be friendly territory for college hockey fans, who reveled in the chance to ditch their snow boots and winter coats and instead wear shorts and flip flops to and from the rink.
By the end of the weekend, reporters from across the nation – many of whom had been skeptical of the idea that college hockey could work in the land of alligators and beaches and theme parks – were singing the praises of Florida. One columnist for a national college hockey website went as far as to suggest that, like the College World Series that returns to Omaha every June, Tampa should be considered as a permanent host for the Frozen Four.
For the locals, who basked in the praise and the reward for their hard work in making the event happen, they hope the long-term effect will be borne out on college hockey rosters in the years to come.
There was one native Floridian – Union freshman defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, from suburban Fort Lauderdale – on the ice at the Frozen Four. The thinking is that with the help of events like this one, that number will continue to grow.
“Hockey players from throughout the state traveled to Tampa to be a part of it,” Higgins said. “Previously it was tough for them to visualize playing college hockey, but that week gave them a chance to see it up close and personal and see what it’s all about. I can see looking back one day and viewing this as a launching pad.”
And while Tampa is on the opposite side of the state from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, it’s clear that in Florida they know a thing or two about launching pads.
Jess Myers is a contributing editor to InsideCollegeHockey.com