As the NHL continues to understand the ramifications of the Atlanta Thrashers' metamorphosis into the new Winnipeg Jets, the re-signing of Steve Stamkos by the Tampa Bay Lightning was a major victory for hockey in the South.
Let's face it folks: Sun Belt hockey has taken some blows. Four of the five remaining teams south of the Mason-Dixon line ended up in the bottom 20 of NHL attendance in 2010-11. The other, the Lightning, were near the bottom in attendance before a hike toward the end of the season due to a competitive hockey team who pushed them to 17th.
As the self-described champion of southern hockey for Bleacher Report, including articles on Why the Thrashers Move was bad for the NHL and Why Southern Hockey is Important, I care about the subject deeply. It's not one I care to reargue in this article, so we won't go into those dynamics here.
First and foremost, as someone who covers (and roots for) the Tampa Bay Lightning, I don't want to see the Lightning as the one southern-based franchise that sort of, kind of worked.
The support of the Lightning isn't doubted in league circles. The team's performance at the gate following their Stanley Cup run are testament to the fact that not only can hockey work in Tampa but can flourish.
Yes, I know that support for the Lightning has waned in recent years. I know that there are reports floating out there that the franchise has lost as much as $25 million this past year. While I'm not going to completely dismiss that possibility, I don't know how accurate that report is.
Even in their worst seasons, Tampa Bay never lost that much money. Further, not only is owner Jeffrey Vinik investing money in the team, he's also putting several millions into refurbishing the team's arena, the St. Pete Times Forum. That doesn't sound like a guy losing that kind of money in a season.
The problem has always been a stable ownership situation in Tampa.
When the Lightning were born, their first owner, Japanese company Kokusai Green, were absentee owners attending only two or three games the seven years they owned the franchise.
The company struggled with the debt service for the hockey team, and the collapse of the Japanese economy forced a sale.
Inspirational speaker and insurance tycoon Art Williams, Jr. purchased the team in 1998. Williams had no knowledge of hockey and was often the butt of jokes because of his thick southern accent. He was extremely important though, as he made the Lightning financially viable by spending his own money to clear the debt left by Kokusai Green.
Williams made a fool out of himself at the 1998 NHL Draft when announcing Vincent Lecavalier as the team's No. 1 overall draft choice, calling him "The Michael Jordan of Hockey."
Perhaps realizing he was in over his head and losing more money than he thought he would, he sold to Palace Sports and Entertainment a year later, ushering in the Lightning's most successful period in franchise history.
Multiple trips to the playoffs and a Stanley Cup had the town hockey crazy, coining the name "Hockey Bay USA" and the phrase "Stanley (Cup) needs a tan."
In 2008, PS&E sold the franchise to the OK Hockey Group, led by Saw producer Oren Koules and Canadian real estate mogul Len Barrie. Koules and Barrie dismantled the Stanley Cup champion franchise, fired head coach John Tortorella and general manager Jay Feaster, hired ESPN analyst Barry Melrose (then fired him early in his first season), repeatedly attempted to trade captain Vincent Lecavalier after signing him to a salary cap killing 10-year contract and ended their tenure feuding over control of the franchise and struggling to make payroll.
In 2010, Boston billionaire Jeff Vinik purchased the franchise, and since that moment the Lightning have turned into a model franchise.
Now, this article is about Steven Stamkos and why his signing was vital to the NHL's success in the south.
Had the Lightning lost Stamkos, it may have been the death blow for the franchise in Tampa Bay. It sounds strange that so much would ride on retaining a single player but understand where this fanbase had come from.
After the comedy of errors that was the ownership of OK Hockey Group, the fanbase felt betrayed. The players and coaches they loved, who raised the Cup and brought honor to the Lightning crest, were jettisoned for subpar replacements.
The 2010-11 season made a tremendous impact for Lightning fans. Not only did they begin to trust Vinik, but they also trusted general manager and NHL legend Steve Yzerman and new coach Guy Boucher. The hockey team immediately returned to respectability and sustained those good vibes with an extended playoff run.
The fans were excited about the changes in the uniform—although I still think their home jerseys make them look like the Southeast Toronto Shazam's—and the upgrades to the arena for this coming season.
All this positivity would have been completely undone had Steven Stamkos been lost. You don't give up one of the best young hockey players in the NHL.
The negative response from the fanbase would have been loud and resounding. More over, it would have been a clear signal that financially the Lightning cannot afford to compete.
Joining Dallas as perhaps the most viable southern franchises, for the NHL to see that type of instability in Tampa Bay shortly after losing the Thrashers would have been bad news.
Thanks to Stamkos' signing, not only does the team's repair of relations with the Tampa Bay fanbase continue, the fears of instability are eased and a draw for the gates of Florida and Carolina will benefit when the Lightning come to town. Casual fans who wouldn't otherwise attend a Panthers or Canes game may make the plunge to see one of the best players in the world.
Having one of the game's top players in one of its most southern cities helps the league market the game to this region.
In the end, the Lightning had no choice but to sign Steven Stamkos, and the NHL is better for it.