The Frozen Four: Tampa Bay Gets Ready To Welcome College Hockey

The Tampa Bay region has made quite a reputation as a destination for major sporting events.

There have been Super Bowls, a World Series, a Stanley Cup Finals, an NCAA Final Four, and an ACC Basketball Tournament, not to mention three major professional sports franchises in a market that had none until 1976.

It’s been quite a run for Tampa Bay, but now the region is getting into something completely new. It’s the Frozen Four and it comes to the St. Pete Times Forum with the semifinals on April 5th and the finals on April 7th.

What’s the Frozen Four? It’s college ice hockey’s version of basketball’s Final Four. What makes it special for Tampa Bay is that the event, which sells out almost instantly, has never been played south of the Mason-Dixon line.

College hockey isn’t just rare in Florida, it simply doesn’t exist. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) will host the event in Tampa since it is the nearest Division I college hockey team. The decision to come to Tampa has sparked concerns in the college hockey world, but a lot of thought went into procuring the event.

The journey toward Tampa started in 2004, just after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup and, for a brief time, turned Tampa Bay into “Hockey Bay.’’ The moniker didn’t last, especially since the National Hockey League almost immediately went on strike, wiping out the 2005 season, but two men decided to strike in their own way while the iron was still hot.

They were Bill Wickett, executive VP of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. The two knew that attracting college hockey to Florida wouldn’t be an easy task. But knowing that openings for the Frozen Four from 2009-2011 were up for grabs, Higgins and Wickett figured they would go for it. The thought of filling the Forum for two nights featuring mostly snowbirds from places like Maine, Vermont, Michigan, and Minnesota – the typical college hockey hotbeds – meant not only prestige for Tampa Bay, but also some big bucks pouring into the region.

"We knew that we had a great facility and hockey was really big after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup,'' Higgins says. "We knew we had to be aggressive, but we also knew that there was a real passion for hockey. Bill said if we were aggressive enough we might get lucky.''

Step one was finding a college to host the event. UAH was the closest to Tampa, so Wickett and Higgins reached out to UAH to gauge the interest. It was a positive connection. UAH coach Chris Luongo, who wasn’t a part of the original team that won the bid to bring the tournament to Tampa, says that he and UAH have formed a close bond with Tampa even though he admits his team has very little chance of being a participant.

"From what I understand, the city of Tampa came up and put on such a great presentation that it was hard to deny them the tournament eventually,'' Luongo says. "The NCAA is going to put a great team together to put on a great event and the interaction I’ve had with Bill and Rod has been great. We feel like we are part of Tampa for the next year.''

Luongo says he expects at least 100 volunteers to come to Tampa that week and he’s had plenty of requests to help. The university will provide staffing, set up information booths and do whatever it takes to promote the Frozen Four, not to mention his own hockey program at UAH.

"It’s a great situation for us,'' Luongo says. "It will put us on the map and help us with recruiting. We are proud to host the Frozen Four no matter how far it is from our own campus.''

Once Higgins and Wickett landed a host school, it was a matter of convincing the NCAA that the South could host a national hockey championship. There was never any doubt that the Forum was a sufficient facility and that the four schools that reach the Frozen Four will be northern schools with fans looking to escape the snow. But would Tampa support it?

The NCAA didn’t flock to Tampa, so Team Tampa flocked to the Frozen Four each year, setting up information booths, wooing the NCAA, hosting receptions, and did everything it could to convince the NCAA that hockey can make it in the South.

Higgins and Wickett escalated their case to the NCAA since they had time on their hands with the NHL strike. Higgins called for a meeting with Wickett and they laid out a game plan. They put in bids for those 2009-2011 dates but Washington D.C., Detroit and St. Paul got picked. That left 2012. The UAH-Tampa effort went into high gear. The team started securing hotel contracts working on other details. They got a lot of help from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, who was part of that 2004 team that won the Stanley Cup. St. Louis had been to the Frozen Four as a player at the University of Vermont.

"I thought it was important to bring college hockey to the South so people here can see what college hockey is all about,'' St. Louis says. "I think it is a great destination for college hockey fans who can come to Tampa and go to the beach between games.''

"It would have been tough without Marty St. Louis,'' Higgins says. "He helped us out and made contacts and helped put us over the top.''

The event will be a boon to the Tampa Bay economy. Higgins says he expects to fill more than 15,000 hotel rooms. In 2010, when the Frozen Four was held in St. Paul, Team Tampa set up a booth at the host arena and distributed more than 2,000 brochures about the Tampa Bay region. Higgins says he expects the games in Tampa to bring in more than $20 million in spending in the Tampa Bay region, not to mention the fact that it will showcase the region to the Northeast and Midwest where the vast majority of visiting hockey fans now live.

"There are more than 48,000 hospitality employees in this community,'' Higgins says. "This is their bread and butter. This event will give us free ways to promote Tampa Bay.''

It also helps that the Forum underwent a $35 million renovation, not just for the Frozen Four, but also for the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Higgins is now working with Tampa Bay region golf courses, Busch Gardens and other local attractions to make the visitors feel at home. He says it is just another way to validate college hockey in Florida.

"We have had seven years to plan for this,'' Wickett says. "We are putting our best foot forward. We have been to every Frozen Four since we put in the bid and we think we know how to do it. This is a big thing for Tampa and not just for hockey, but also for the ability to bring so many people to Tampa. We’re looking forward to showing the doubters that we are a hockey city and can make this work.''

Jeff Berlinicke of Tampa is a freelance writer who has spent much of the last 16 years covering professional sports all over the Southeast United States. When not rooting for his favorite teams, he often can be found listening to Bruce Springsteen or teeing up on local golf courses. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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