All Star Weekend crowds aren’t known for rowdiness and enthusiasm, but Tampa is different
There are certain expectations people have about exhibitions like All Star Games. Those expectations generally do not involve a crowd that sounds like a regular season crowd.
With All Star Weekend falling on the same weekend as Gasparilla, and with the Lightning sending the largest contingent of players to Sunday’s game, Tampa was never going to be a normal All Star host, and this weekend showed off the city’s uniqueness and its passion for hockey as a result.
The Lightning have hosted the All Star Game before, back in 1999, but nineteen years and a Stanley Cup later, it was a bit different this time around. Back then, Tampa was considered almost an experiment in the hockey world, the first Florida team and one of the southern teams that marked the league’s 1990s expansion and team moves.
In 2018, Tampa is no longer an experiment. Nobody is questioning the area’s hockey bona fides after an All Star Weekend that impressed in just about every way an All Star Weekend can. The building, the ice, and the atmosphere all around downtown Tampa wowed visitors and locals alike.
In this 25th season of professional hockey in Tampa Bay, it goes without saying that the market has proven beyond a doubt that it belongs in the league. The only surprising part of this weekend’s takeaway isn’t that Tampa is a hockey town, but that it’s so much of a hockey town that even people from the homes of the Original Six had to take notice.
“I love Tampa, but it’s weird, they have—“ was a line I overheard more than once in the press box, always an out of town or national media member who was impressed with the atmosphere and with Tampa in general. It was in relation to giant wine cellars, and to hockey fans who behave like people who grew up playing on frozen ponds. It goes without saying as well that Gasparilla had a hand in this impression.
One of the best parts of living in or near a city, perhaps the best part, is the local holiday. Local holidays are an excuse for people who live in cities to do two things: Demonstrate ways in which that city is unique, and drink a whole lot of beer.
Gasparilla is Tampa’s pirate-themed version, headlined by a parade along the water and the consumption of an awful lot of adult beverages. Like the majority of city celebrations, it is not for transplants and almost aggressively local. It’s about pirates, specifically one pirate who may or may not have existed but who we assume looked a lot like Bucco Bruce.
The players certainly loved the coincidence, checking out the parade on their own to the extent that they could. Pirate hats and other pirate-related gear was a staple of the event, to the point that shots of the parade started NBC Sports’ broadcast of the All Star Game on Sunday. Players also loved the weather, as even for Florida it was a warm and especially pleasant January weekend.
Saturday, then, almost played out like an advertisement for downtown Tampa. It was cloudy but it never rained, with temperatures in the comfortable seventies, with enough room to house the cars of hundreds of thousands of parade-goers as well as people going to the Skills Competition. The traffic wasn’t as bad as one might imagine, the perfect weather matched the atmosphere, and the infamous “Florida Man” stayed away. It was enough to remind everybody of the area’s potential, and its likely future.
The Gasparilla atmosphere emerged on Saturday, of course. Many of the fans were still dressed in their pirate garb, which led to a somewhat rowdy atmosphere as All Star Crowds go. This was not the collection of businesspeople and transplants that most star-based meetings have become known for.
The crowd was naturally Lightning-minded for the most part, with blue jerseys and All Star Vasilevskiy and Stamkos jerseys the most popular sights of both days. Stamkos might have gotten the largest ovations of the weekend, though Brian Boyle gave him a run for his money.
In some ways the weekend was, for Lightning fans, a celebration of the season they’ve had so far. Of course, it’s worth noting that a team’s only rewards for playing extremely well to this point are frontrunner status and All Star selections.
The other aspect of this was the further celebration of Tampa as a true hockey town, and not simply in the sense that it has a hockey team playing there or that the local team is in fact really good at playing hockey.
Lightning fans cheer at the right moments, as opposed to crowds that cheer mostly for big hits and hard shots on net. The crowd swells during a power play when the passing starts to open up shooting lanes, they erupt when penalty killing units clear the puck, and most importantly they cheer without prompting.
You can tell the cities that only have a passing love affair with a given team simply by following their arena’s prompting. If the fans start clapping because they are instructed to, perhaps they’re not following the game so closely. If people are only seemingly there to watch the highlights, that might not be a true hub for that sport. That’s where Tampa has really nailed the true hockey atmosphere.
More than that, even, Tampa has beaten the concept of an All Star crowd. This wasn’t the laid back field of corporate seats and travelers quietly taking in a game. Really, it wasn’t that different than the sellout crowds that have filled Amalie Arena all season.
The All Star Game became a sort of coronation of Tampa Bay as a strong hockey market, not just for the south or for Florida but for anywhere. It became the background tone of the weekend: Players being asked about Tampa and answering enthusiastically.
Some sports takeaways from All Star Weekend:
-The NHL Skills Competition is still the pre-All Star king. I would rather watch the NHL’s skills competition than the equivalent in the NFL, the Home Run Derby, or What They Once Called The Dunk Contest. Just for one example among many: The Fastest Skater event got me in the mood for the Winter Olympics. Now I can’t wait.
-Based on Sunday’s MVP performance, winning the Shooting Accuracy competition on Saturday night, and his dominant run through the 2016 Frozen Four, it’s starting to look like rookie Brock Boeser is at his best when he plays at Amalie Arena.
-Nikita Kucherov had a hat trick in the Eastern Conference preliminary, or semifinal, or whatever the first round of All Star Games on Sunday was supposed to be called. It was the first hat trick any Lightning player has recorded at home in 2017-2018. The fans obliged.
-While the new All Star format is a bit weird compared to actual hockey, it suits how these contests are always played. Defense is a critical part of hockey, but because of the nature of these events defense is always going to be a bit different in them. Might as well just go for a 3-on-3 event that leads to a lot of shots and a lot of saves. It’s a visually-pleasing format, although the concept of divisional All Star teams will still take getting used to.
-Brayden Point, who throughout the weekend seemed like he would not have selected himself to the Atlantic team, scored a goal and added an assist.
-The performance of Marc-Andre Fleury this weekend is another strong sign that the Vegas Golden Knights are more than a first half surprise or a good story. He won the goaltending competition on Saturday and was a force in the Pacific team winning on Sunday. It seems as though, starting with last year’s postseason, he has launched into a new gear.