Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup run fuels 'hockey hotbed' at Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex

ELLENTON -- It is about 90 degrees outside Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex a little more than 24 hours before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final will begin 40 miles north at Amalie Arena.

It is not hockey weather.

There's a now-famous game from the 1975 Stanley Cup when unexpected heat and a lack of air conditioning at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium forced the Bruins and Sabres to play in the fog and steam of the rink's evaporating ice. This muggy day in Ellenton is probably what the auditorium felt like that night.

But inside it's pick-up hockey season, and Norm Foster's bi-weekly game is underway. Most of the players, whose ages range from 19 to 73, have watched hockey in this part of the country explode over the past decade. Foster has been running games at Ellenton Ice since it opened in 1999, and the Toronto native has watched them grow from 2-on-2 without goalies to full-size games with line changes.

"This was like heaven," he said.

And amid the Flyers, Sharks and Sabres jerseys, maybe the best player on the

ice was the 19-year-old in a Lightning jersey. Max Mulholland moved to Sarasota from Michigan nine years ago, not long after Tampa Bay's first Stanley Cup victory, and he views this spring as a turning point. He has friends who have become Bolts fans, and his 15-year-old brother is thinking of starting the sport when high schools begin a junior varsity league this winter.

The numbers are starting to support the theories at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex. Attendance for the rink's public skates is up 60 percent on game days when Ellenton General Manager Tom Lindemuth lets people wearing Lightning apparel onto the ice for free, as are skating lessons.

It's too early to see a significant increase in sign-ups for recreational leagues, but "we see the indicators through the public skate," Lindemuth said. "We know it's coming. That's your bottom-line feeder program."

Growth also is inevitable in the high school game. In September, Tampa Bay's community hockey development department will begin the Lightning High School Hockey League, which will field at least 17 teams and feature a JV league.

To help incubate the sport's growth in the area, Tampa Bay also has donated 50 "official Lightning made starter sets" to Ellenton, which includes a hockey bag and full pads for players interested in testing the sport.

"There's just been more and more kids trying out the game," said Mulholland, who was the captain of the Sarasota Rampage high school team.

So much of the interest in the sport on the Suncoast comes from the number of transplants in the area, and it's evident from the sweaters on the ice during the most consistent pick-up game in Manatee County. Foster's game on Friday featured a Wayne Gretzky jersey from his Rangers days and a Joe Thornton sweater from his time in Boston. There also are players from the Czech Republic and Germany, and the games are most crowded when they can draw from the Midwestern or Canadian snowbirds who grew up with the sport.

Foster's games blew up in the early 2000s, right around the time Tampa Bay became a consistent Cup contender. During the summer, Foster gets to the rink an hour early and games, which cap at 30 players, can fill up within five minutes of his arrival.

Freddie Eaton, who is the hockey director at Ellenton, has coached in the area for 24 years and in 2014 he helped bring the Stanley Cup to Ellenton as part of Tampa Bay's victory tour. He's been one of the most prominent hockey voices in the area and said interest in this year's playoff run -- and the sport -- has totally eclipsed 2004.

He watched one game from Hurricane Hank's in Holmes Beach and told the bartender ne needed to turn off the music so people could listen to the game. "We're not coming up here unless you put your volume on," he told them. The bar relented and let Doc Emrick's play-by-play voice blare over the restaurant's speakers.

"They loved me," Eaton said. "Everybody at Hank's was like, 'Freddie, way to go!'"

This wouldn't have happened a decade ago. The 2004 season only planted the seeds. Eaton's theory is the teams the Lightning has played during its run have piqued local interest. Tampa Bay's four opponents -- the Red Wings, Canadiens, Rangers and Blackhawks -- come from hockey-mad cities with plenty of fans and transplants in Florida.

On Wednesday, Lindemuth and Eaton had to cancel the night slate of adult-league games because everyone wanted to watch Game 4. Lindemuth added a big-screen television in the snack bar in case people are around during games, and still he and Eaton were out of Ellenton by 8 p.m., about four hours earlier than an average Wednesday. They settled in for some hockey like so many others around Tampa Bay.

It was the third-highest rated Stanley Cup Finalsgame in NBC Sports Network history.

"There's so much more people involved and watching games," Eaton said. "It's a hotbed for hockey right now."