Right now, life is good as a Tampa Bay Lightning fan. Over the last 20 years, the Bolts have appeared in five Stanley Cup Finals, winning three, while making it to the Eastern Conference Finals eight times. Amalie Arena is rocking every night, and there is no mistaking that Tampa is a hockey town in 2023.
The Arizona Coyotes, meanwhile, can not say the same thing, and while it may make sense for the NHL to cut its losses in the desert and run to a new market, the success of the Lightning are the exact reason why they refuse to.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Never gonna give you up
At the annual Gary Bettman conference prior to game one of the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday, he was asked about the situation in Arizona. The Coyotes are having to play in Arizona State’s arena, and an effort to build a new one just failed a vote from local taxpayers.
It follows a string of failures from the franchise, and many NHL fans keep wondering when the league is going to end the missey and pull the plug.
But Bettman had the following to say when asked why the league won’t just pull the plug:
"“It’s a terrific market, there are a lot of sports fans there, it’s a growing market, it’s one of the larger markets in North America and I think the club and its fans have been in situations that have been unfortunate and maybe they’re a little bit a victim of circumstance. If we can make something work, we’re at a stage now where the league, ownerships, and teams are strong. We are in a better position to resist moving that we were 20 or 30 years ago.”"
The translation is that if you build it, they will come. And to this point, Arizona hasn’t built it.
But to Bettman’s point, if the Coyotes ever do figure it out as a franchise, the fans are going to show up.
Look no further than the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example of this. Almost no one in this town knew what hockey was when the Expo Hall doors were first opened up. Even after winning a Stanley Cup in 2004, attendance had dropped to 15,000 fans per game, the 10th worst in the league, during the 2009-2010 season.
Being owned by Oren Koules and Len Barrie was a huge culprit, and had the duo kept the franchise past 2010, it’s entirely possible the hockey world looks at Tampa today as it does Arizona.
But after the sale to Jeff Vinik, it’s not an accident that Tampa has become a model franchise for the rest to follow.
So Bettman’s hope is that if the stadium situation can get figured out and the right ownership group can be put in place, Pheonix is the 10th largest metropolitan area in the United States, and fans will find their way to Coyote games.
Because as Tampa has shown, even if you are not a “hockey town,” if you put a quality product on the ice, people will be hooked once they start watching it.