NHL Hockey in The Sunshine State
There was a time, not all that long ago, that the very notion of NHL hockey in the state of Florida would've drawn looks of incredulity and raised eyebrows amongst fans of the game. Skating? Hockey? Indoors? In Florida? Never! Such an idea would've been summarily dismissed, laughed off as nothing more than the daydreams of an overactive imagination. People in Florida don't want to watch a sport commonly associated with sub-zero temperatures and snow. They would rather spend the day at the beach swimming and tanning or at very least, watching football or baseball outdoors. Right?
Fast forward to the present and NHL hockey is alive, well and booming in the state of Florida. The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning have established themselves in the NHL and have in turn helped establish professional hockey in the southern states. Both teams are presently enjoying an upswing in popularity as fans continue to support the established fan favorite players on either team (Tampa: Martin St.Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Florida: Bryan McCabe, Steven Weiss) as well as the newer additions (Tampa: Steven Stamkos, Florida: David Booth) who've helped to re-energize both teams and their fans.
The Florida Panthers were part of an expansion to the NHL in the early 90's. H. Wayne Huizenga, then owner of the Blockbuster Video franchise, was awarded an NHL franchise in December of 1992. The Panthers, along with California's Anaheim Mighty Ducks, were then part of an expansion draft and officially ushered into the NHL. Filling their roster with some notable names from around the league, the Panthers went on to enjoy one of the most successful season of any expansion team in NHL history, narrowly missing the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Eventually, in the 1996 playoffs and only their third season in the league, the Florida Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals. They were defeated by the Colorado Avalanche in an intense, hard fought series but they had succeeded in cementing the popularity of NHL hockey in Florida.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were brought about by the competition between two parties - two former NHL all-stars, the Esposito brothers Frank and Tony, and their competition, the owners of a now defunct NHL team, the Hartford Whalers. The Esposito brothers ended up successfully outmaneuvering their rivals and the Tampa Bay Lightning were introduced to the league on October 7, 1992. During their early days, the club was partly owned by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The team made headlines during the exhibition season when goalie Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game, making the first of two NHL appearances versus the St. Louis Blues. The Tampa Bay Lightning would not qualify for the playoffs for the first time until the 1995-1996 season, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the opening round. Years of financial and administration problems would follow, finally lifting in the 2003-2004 season when they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and won, defeating the Calgary Flames in a tight seven game series.
Presently, both teams are enjoying a surge in popularity due to improved play and an ever widening fan base. The Lightning drafted Steven Stamkos in the summer of 2008 and he has quickly asserted himself as one of the premiere offensive talents in the league, scoring 51 goals in just his second season as a pro. The resultant media attention has had a positive effect on both the Lightning and the Panthers by earning both teams more fans. Indeed, the sport of hockey and the NHL's presence in Florida are here to stay.