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OTF Travel Diary: Tampa Bay

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While visiting the folks, I decided to pay a visit to the channelside arena for the first time this decade. And folks, you might want to consider being the thunder at some point. It's a good life.

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The last time I went to Tampa was when the team was earning their way to Steven Stamkos. It's safe to say that the Bolts have seen better days since my last visit, and so has the downtown area itself. Tampa still has the features of "Old Florida" hanging around, and if you like cigars and coffee, there are few places better.

Since we haven't done one of these in a while, I figured I'd share my story. It's Sunday. Whatever. I'm also including some comments from my travel companion, Christina.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS:

The family lives in an outpost near Orlando, which is only a 1.75 hour drive from downtown Tampa. So a drive to go explore wasn't too much to ask. And while the Magic aren't terrible and the Jags are better than they have been, neither of them play hockey.

THE TRIP

Driving through 275 isn't terrible, but Tampa sneaks up on you if you're not careful. The only soul-crushing part of the trip was finding parking. I figured you'd be able to find parking abundant around downtown during the afternoon. I was wrong; too many places have monthly parking reserved. But the aquarium garage was easy and not a bad walk away from the building. You get these little bizarre chipcoins to keep with you, and if you visit one of the channelside bars/stores, you supposedly get a discount on your parking.

THE PREGAME

Dan: As we all know, hockey fans on the road arrive way too early and drink all day. That's how it works right? First we went to this gringo Mexican place, and I had something called "EL DIABLO". Amazingly enough, it was more subtle than other things on the menu.

There's isn't a ton around the Amalie Arena compared to Nashville (still better than St. Louis, for the record). Luckily, Tampa has a streetcar system that can take you from the arena area to Ybor City.

Ybor City is loaded with dimly lit bars, cigar shops, and the places smells amazing. The scent of tobacco and coffee is everywhere. The only thing missing was a fleet of 1950s cars and some overly aggressive police.

We found a brewery in Ybor: Tampa Bay Brewing Company. And of course their Cuban sandwich is friggin' amazing.

By the way, the street cars are properly decorated.

Christina: Tampa is a beautiful city. It’s humid as hell and people love to drink, which is exactly what I look for in a city (if I’m too drunk to care about humidity). If you get there early enough, you have your run of restaurants and bars, and if you’re willing to pay $5.00 round-trip for the electric trolley (totally worth it!) you can amble on over to Ybor City to have some margaritas, beers and some really delicious Cuban food. And if you’re into cigars, they have those in spades. I’m not a smoker, but it’s still pretty cool to see a shop full of people rolling those babies. And the smell of coffee and cigars is delightful.

Dan: The best part about a good urban streetcar system: you can have that "extra one". That was kinda nice. Amalie Arena has an amazing plaza (Thunder Alley), where you can buy ridiculous Coronas in a can and enjoy a cover band. There's a screen the size of an RV facing the arena in Thunder Alley, statues of Phil Esposito, Dave Andreychuk, and a gigantic Lightning bolt sculpture.

Christina: My favorite part of Thunder Alley was the big screen where they display the games for everyone who’s not inside. I originally thought that this only happened during Playoff games, but word from a couple of friends who are locals and who gave us some of the inside info afterward, the Lightning do this for every game. THAT is an organization that wants people to come inside the building. And even if they can’t, it’s all "come down to the arena, buy some overpriced Corona (Really? $10.50 for a can?), which by the way, you’re totally going to buy, and enjoy the game. Maybe next time you’ll come in and have more fun with us." That works way better just a banner of a handful of beautiful, beautiful men in gold, IMO.

Dan: The team store was easily accessible, but after a new blue shirt was purchased we left searching for better drink options. We stumbled upon this awesome little pagoda with a circular bar that had plenty of drafts and bottles, and had this view:

It didn't suck.

Finally, we were ready to Be The Thunder.

THE ARENA

Christina: The feeling of being in Amalie Arena is hard to explain. It’s both open and crowded, big and intimate. For a night before Christmas, there sure were a lot of people there for the game; more than I expected, honestly. If we’re going to compare it to Bridgestone, which of course we are, there were things I liked better and things I didn’t.

Tampa > Nashville
  • The concourses are a little roomier for one reason: in several places around the arena, there were sections with tables and seating to get people off of the concourse after they get their food and drinks. The chairs were nice and hip and actually looked comfortable.
  • Not only is there standing room on the balcony under the monstrous organ so you can watch the game practically from the heavens, there’s a full bar there.
  • THERE IS AN OUTSIDE PATIO BAR ON THE THIRD LEVEL AND IT’S SO NICE
  • The seating bowl is symmetrical, which is not something that I thought would be a big deal, but it kind of is. Sitting in the lower bowl, the rest of the arena looms overhead. It felt so much bigger than Bridgestone, but also somehow more close together, and much more intimate. The oval shape gives the game a much appreciated hockey hug, which I loved so much. Arena shape cannot be understated.
Nashville > Tampa
  • Nashville’s concourses are much more open. I like that you can stand at the railing in some places on the third level and look down to the first floor. I LOVE that literal wall of windows, and missed it while walking by Amalie's bright white cinder block walls.
  • Chicken and waffles sandwich.

Dan: The entrance we went through had a very cool Lightning staircase, but then we were stuck being herded through a long security line because everyone wants to go through that entrance. I can't blame them.

There's only one real complaint to be had about Amalie Arena: the concourses are kinda narrow. It was built at a time when arenas weren't built asymmetrical and didn't have those grand concourses like the one at Bridgestone. But while you're waiting to shift through a mass of people, you can observe some of the badass photos of Tyler Johnson standing in front of a mean looking cloud that's about to wreck some poor tree/boat.

The seats are fine, the legroom was okay, and the acoustics were swell. It wasn't as loud as Bridgestone, but the music didn't feel as loud either. The lower level has these awesome little gathering places in all four corners where you can meet up, set your food/drink down, and not depend on the screens the game. By the way, their scoreboard is amazing. The arena lighting has computerized spotlights that add a lot to the experience, and can do cool little things like simulate a fighter jet flyover after the anthem.

Let's talk about that organ. It's massive. It's loud. And while the pipes are a facade, they at least look better than something you can buy at a hardware store.

And what's also cool is that you can watch the game from up there and have the best view of the game. There's even more arena chatter coming up later.

The Tesla coils are fun to watch, but I wish we heard their awesome goal horn that sounds like a cruise ship's a bit more. Of course the Bolts pounded Columbus 5-2 last night, so I picked the wrong game for that feature.

Paul Porter has been the Lightning public address announcer for a long, long time. And he sounds like a cool old guy from Florida, especially when he's announcing a Tampa Bay goal.

THE GAME OPS

Dan: It's serious business. The have an in-game host that's worthy of a TV broadcast. The game itself is treated like a TV broadcast. During the intermissions, you'll see AHL highlights, analysis from their TV crew, and things like that.

Speaking of, here's their TV hosts doing their thing:

Christina: Dat gigantic scoreboard tho. That was both startling and pleasant. But if we’re talking ops… I really appreciated their keeping the GET LOUD techno to a minimum. There was a lot of classic rock, which was fun and felt so… correct for that area of Florida. The graphics were fine, but nothing to really write home about.

One thing I really liked, and this is weird: they displayed the words to the National Anthem on the screens during the singalong. Just a quick note about that anthem: having watched a few Lightning games on the ol’ TV, I know that the anthem doesn’t normally go…. as… slowly… as… it… did… that… night, but because of the slow pace, the singalong was non-existent. Kind of a bummer. But people tried. I know—and like—that the singalong is trying to be a thing in Nashville too, and this is something simple which would maybe help.

My VERY MOST FAVORITE THING was the Tesla coils that hang suspended from the ceiling and shoot lightning whenever the team scores. Going in, I knew they existed, but didn’t realize they were on opposite sides of the ceiling, so I was kind of hoping they would do that thing where they shoot electricity at each other, but no dice. That’s fine, they are still freaking badass.

Note: My friend got to set off the coils once, and it apparently isn’t a huge Dr. Frankenstein-style electricity lever, but just a button. Just a plain old button. And apparently the ops people are super strict about when exactly you press it. So hopefully your reaction time is good if you ever get the chance.

I don’t know. The coils are awesome to see in person, and I would be content to watch them all day. But as an participation experience, I’d rather crank the intermission siren at Bridgestone.

Dan: Just like in St. Louis, there weren't many camera segments or "Let's get a fan to do something on camera" segments- they did do quite a few music videos for different things. But for the most part the atmosphere was very organic and natural. When your team goes 1/10 on the power play, forced cheering wouldn't have played well.

As a whole, it felt much more like a hockey game. The game operation folks and the arena itself made it feel a bit more like a sporting event with legit NHL athletes that you're paying to see as opposed to a loud place to take your kids. I'm not saying that Nashville doesn't try to sell hockey, but they're not trying to sell hockey like Tampa Bay does it.

Christina: And Tampa doesn't try to sell hockey the way Nashville does. In all our time in the arena, I do not recall a single TV timeout or intermission where they tried to sell us ticket packages. If a hockey game is supposed to be a desirable night out, it much more palatable if it's not marketed as a package deal.

THE CONCESSIONS

Dan: Beer was expensive, and we were wise enough to combat this earlier in the day. They did have a Tim Horton's kiosk in the arena, which sold souvenir Lightning travel cups for $4.50. There were Outback's, PDQ's, a RumFish Grill, and plenty of food options along with other arena fare. The only deterrent I had was the cramped lines in the concourse. If you've been to Scottrade Center, it was about like that with a little less room.

Christina: I didn’t eat any food at the arena, but it looked like they had a lot of options. Most of them seemed to be legit restaurants, which was a nice surprise. Oh, yeah, THEY HAD TIM HORTONS KIOSKS!

The beer was so damn expensive. At Bridgestone, I might turn my nose up briefly at the beer prices, but I’ll still get my drink on. But at Amalie, you’re gonna pay $14 for a tallboy, and that’s some bull. I did not drink during the game, which was a travesty all around.

THE ACTUAL GAME

Dan: We sat next to a little old lady who had an adorable handmade bag with the Lightning logo depicted with rhinestones and the word "TICKETS" on it. She knew the game. I wanted to hug her.

The crowd was into the game, and seemed to study the game a bit more. Some of this may have been the fact that the team spent nearly a period's worth of time on the power play, but it was a very focused crowd. The exception was the Sticks of Fire group in the upper level, but we didn't hear much from them after the first few minutes. It was Christmas break, so I give them a pass.

While they lost valiantly to a Canucks team, the fans weren't too angry. A very nice "TAMPAAA" "BAYYY" call and response cheer broke out on the stairs.

Christina: The Lightning lost, which was a bummer. But the people watching definitely compensated.

The ushers were extremely talkative, and one of them high-fived us after Tampa’s only goal. She was SUPER into the game, which definitely added to that feeling I had that the city—the city as a whole—actually cares.

The little old lady with the bedazzled ticket pouch was amazing. The bag had the Bolts logo on one side and the word "Tickets" in rhinestones on the other. She was there by herself, in her little denim Christmas vest. She had binoculars that she used to watch both the game and the crowd. When the puck was stolen from the Bolts in a sloppy pass, the entire crowd groaned, and Sweet Little Grandma uttered a simple, quiet "SON OF A B****!" She was the best, and I miss her already.

THE POSTGAME

Dan: Amalie Arena has their own version of Tavern '96. It just happens to be on the third deck above Thunder Alley with abundant seating and a dance floor.

The music was a bit loud, but the seating was great and you have a good view of the skyline in Tampa.

Christina: Amalie Arena’s outdoor patio bar on the third level is called the Bud Light Party Deck, so you know it’s good. The titular beer was offered at $3 a pop after the game, other beers for about $6, and you could get food, which is always a plus. $3 beer was sort of an epiphany after the sticker shock of what they were selling inside. I don’t how long we sat out there, but at one point they closed up the bar, shuttering it, and just leaving everyone milling about with whatever refreshments they had left. I know they have to close the arena at some point, but if you’re going to invite everyone to come hangout at the awesome outside bar after the game, maybe stay open for a little while. It is possible this is a me problem.


EPILOGUE

Christina: In Tampa, The Lightning are A Thing. They are everywhere. And maybe it’s because the Bucs are terrible (but so are the Titans), or maybe because the Bolts made it to the Cup Finals last year, but there is a Lightning presence almost everywhere.

It’s certainly not that the town is completely painted royal blue, but when, blocks from the arena, Stamkos and Hedman stare into your soul as you walk down Channelside Drive from their vantage point as enormous window vinyls, you start to feel like it’s something special.

Bars hang "We are the Thunder" banners, stickers adorn locals’ mugs down at The Tampa Bay Brewing Company, which is a trolley ride away. There was definitely a sense of "this is our team" instead of "this is something you can do on a night out." *cough cough*

Dan: The Lightning do a great job putting on a product that's suited for their market. Tampa Bay is not a young sports market, and the fans are more seasoned than one might expect. It's a nice change of pace from Nashville, to be honest. The other extreme would be the presentation in St. Louis, which treats the crowd like a bunch of guys in their 50's that are angry it's not baseball season all year.

Compared to other sports in the area, the Lightning have a serious crush on their fans and take excellent care of them. The city loves them right back. The Embassy Suites downtown doesn't have anything to gain by hanging a massive "GO BOLTS" banner, but they did it. In fact, several places have that flair with the Bolts displayed publicly. Check out the building with the light panels forming a bolt.

That's a far cry from bars catering to fans from out of town that the rest of the city hates.

It's a combination of the Lightning being really good as of late, being fun to watch, filling the building, and the Bucs being terrible and polarizing. (Tampa/St. Pete is about 50% FSU territory, and Jameis isn't everyone's favorite player for obvious reasons) Whatever the recipe, the town looks to be crazy about it's hockey team.