Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Road trips: Reviewing the hockey experience in Florida - a visiting fan perspective

This year, I was able to mark several NHL rinks off my bucket list. In this post, I’m going to highlight two NHL arenas – BankAtlantic Center (Florida Panthers) and St. Pete Times Foruc (Tampa Bay Lightning) – as well as Germain Arena in Estero, FL (Ft. Myers area), home to the Florida Everblades. These reviews are for out-of-state fans attending games at these arenas.

If you're in Florida for a vacation, why not take in some hockey? The prices are good and there's two NHL and one ECHL team to choose from. March is perfect to combine hockey and spring training!

BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise, FL
Home of the Florida Panthers (NHL)

TeamFlorida Panthers
ArenaBankAtlantic Center
One Panther Parkway
Sunrise, FL 33323

Seating capacity for hockey: 19,250.

However, due to attendance issues, the team does cover some of the uppermost seating sections for some games. If a game is in-demand, they uncover more sections.
Cost of ticketsOne of the least expensive teams in the league, $16.50-$100+. The Panthers use a tier system; weekday/less in demand games cost less than weekend/high demand games (ie. teams like Detroit).

Check the team website for ticket promotions throughout the season, especially late in the season - just in time for spring break!
Ease of accessAirports:
Ft. Lauderdale (FLL/25 minutes)
Miami (MIA/40 minutes)
Ft. Myers/RSW (2 hours)

If you’re traveling in Florida, it’s just easiest to rent a car, because while there is public transportation, everything is pretty spread out. (This applies to all three hockey clubs reviewed here.)

Easy on/off access from route 869 (near junction of Rt. I-75, I-595, & 869)
Parking costsFree – included in ticket prices. Parking lot is sprawling, so note where you parked.
Practice Iceplex
3299 Sportsplex Drive
Coral Springs, FL
(954) 341-9956

Located approximately 12 miles north of the BAC via route 869. The Panthers hold many of their practices here, and practices are free and open to the public. In addition, most visiting teams also practice at the Iceplex. Call for schedules. (Practices probably easier option for opportunity for autographs.)
Pre-game meal options outside arenaThe upsale Sawgrass Mills shopping mall across the road has several restaurants located in/around it, including Bahama Breeze, Chili's, Grand Lux Cafe, P.F. Chang's, as well as fast-food options.
Local hotelsSunrise is an upscale suburban community; Atlantic beaches are half an hour east. The Crowne Plaza - Sawgrass Mills is within walking distance of the BAC (approx. 1-1/3 mi.)

There is also a nice La Quinta Inn - Sunrise (generally the cheaper option) about 3-4 miles south of the arena on NW 136th Ave.
Arena exteriorBeing a Southern market, you will find fans tailgating in the parking lot. Activities available outside arena, mostly for kids, pre-game. Limited outside seating/shade if you arrive early.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openThere’s a large mall (Sawgrass Mills) across the road.
Arena facilitiesATMs - See full list on the BankAtlantic website

Worth the look: There is a Panthers “Den of Honor” located near sections 117-119, which highlights the history of the Florida Panthers. 
Arena dining optionsA number of eating and drinking options including 3 food courts and 3 sit-down restaurants. They have a lot of variety in their food courts, at prices that aren't bad for arena food, so it's not a bad option to eat at the rink. (Loved the gyros!)

The Bud Light terrace is located on a mezzanine at the main entrance with great views out the front windows. Note: the drinking age in Florida is 21. Proper ID is required.

There is a bakery/cupcake stand near the front entrance, but they are very expensive (around $6). #NHLcupcakes
Team store(s)Primary team store located at main entrance; look for the panther mouth. Several smaller kiosks around arena. Lots of hats, puck, shirt and jersey options. Offers limited amount of items (ie. pucks) for teams other than Panthers.
Camera policyCameras without flash allowed. There may be size limits (although not listed on Panthers website), as I was asked about the size of my camera lens. (Probably restricted to under 6")

Video cameras are restricted from use.
SignsSigns allowed. No facilities on-site for signs; make your own at home.

Team website says no larger than 2’x2’, but if you have posterboard-sized signs, you should be ok.
Allowed to go down to glass for pre-game picturesYes. Fans were allowed all the way to front row unless of course those seat holders were there.

When facing the team boxes, the Panthers box is on the right.
Special notes“The Growl”, a game-day program, is handed out free to all attendees on game day. Nice compact magazine that makes a good souvenir.

It was a Panthers-Sharks game. My game companion had on a Panthers/Blackhawks NHL Helsinki (2009) T-shirt with a Niemi Blackhawks jersey. I was wearing a blue Blackhawks practice jersey. I couldn’t find my own FL/CHI Helsinki T-shirt, so I wore the one Blackhawks item I had in Florida colors, since Jack Skille had just been traded to the team.

The local fans were great – got a lot of “welcome to Florida” greetings; several people wanted to ask me my opinions about Skille as he had just arrived and only played one game so far; and a few people told me they were from Chicago but lived in Florida now. Overall, a friendly, welcoming crowd.

Hockey is still a “fringe” sport in Florida, so the fans tend to be pretty die-hard for the local teams. They can tell you quite a lot about current and past players for the team.

Expect to hear cowbells in the audience.

Pre-game show includes skaters from local schools and some Jumbotron/arena video/light presentations. Could use a serious revamp to their pregame show to help get crowd amped for games. (Keep the skaters; improve the video/music.)

The Panthers have Ice Dancers who are cheerleaders, not ice girls. They have performance platforms at the ends of the rink where they do dance routines, and they did a routine on the ice during one of the intermissions.

The team owners are accessible and enjoy connecting with fans. With Dale Tallon now at the helm as GM, expect to see a lot of overhauls to increase not only the quality of product on the ice, but the entire game experience as a whole. It's an exciting time to be a hockey fan in Florida.

Follow the team owners on Twitter:  @PanthersYormark and @StuSiegel
Good experience for families?Yes. The Panthers are trying to ensure their rink is a “family friendly” experience, ranging from their mascot to fan involvement to the entire experience.

“Hockey Paradise” by Seven Williams and the Brandt Brothers

St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, FL
Home of the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)

TeamTampa Bay Lightning
ArenaSt. Pete Times Forum
401 Channelside Dr
Tampa, FL 33602

Seating capacity for hockey: 19,758
Cost of tickets$30-$100+. You can sit in the 100 level for as low as $65.

Tampa Bay does run ticket promotions on their site, and you can often buy their game tickets via sites like StubHub for STH face value (or less). We got 2 tickets for center ice, low-300s, for a sold-out game for under $60 less than a week before the game, via StubHub – and that was including the site fees/shipping costs.
Ease of accessAirports:
Tampa (TPA/20 minutes)
Orlando (MCO/90 minutes)
Ft. Myers (RSW/2.5 hours)

The arena is right off FL Rte. 618 (toll)/Crosstown Expressway.

The #8 bus (HART) runs closest to the arena, but several bus routes get close enough for walking distance.
Parking costsParking garage directly adjacent to arena is about $14. Pre-purchase your parking ticket online to be able to use the parking entrance closest to the arena (located between the garage and the arena).

Parking lots are available in the blocks around the arena for as little as $5.
Practice facility Brandon Ice Sports Forum
10222 Elizabeth Place
Tampa, FL 33619
(813) 684-7825

Practices at the BISF are open to the public. Located 15 minutes SE of the main arena. Check the Lightning site for a list of practice times/sites.

Practices at the SPTF are not open to the public.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaA couple restaurants directly across the street on the north side of the arena.

A number of restaurants in the neighborhoods NW of the arena; we at at Gilligan's (corner of N. Morgan and E. Washington), which was decent bar food.

There's several restaurants and an IMAX theatre in the complex just east of the stadium (adjacent to the cruise ship docks).
Local hotelsEmbassy Suites Downtown and Marriott Tampa Waterside within 2-3 block walk; Hyatt Regency Tampa and Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk within a few blocks. The SPTF is adjacent to where cruise ships dock, so there are several hotels in the area but most cost $150+/night.

The Embassy Suites and Marriott Tampa Waterside, as well as the Sheraton Sandy Key Resort in Clearwater Beach (approx 45 min away) are partners with the SPTF so you may occasionally find ticket packages with the hotels.
Arena exteriorLarge plaza between the arena and the parking structure was very busy pre-game with a live band, vendors, and various activities for fans to take part in, including a small rink for kids to play ball hockey.

Not sure if any tailgating goes on in Tampa – didn’t see any.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openIf there’s anything going on outside the rink (band, etc) – otherwise, not much to do in walking distance. Small plaza/park across street on south side of arena.
Arena facilitiesATMs

Note: Guest Services (section 101) has a program called “Tag a Kid”. You can register your children, and they will receive a wristband with your seat location, so if for any reason you get separated, they can return your children to you.
Arena dining optionsAn upscale dinner buffet (reservations required) is very popular. There is also an indoor/outdoor sports bar open before and after games; as well as one other sit-down option. Variety of concession stands.
Team store(s)Smaller than most team stores. Has a lot of jerseys, hats, T-shirts. May find more merchandise with the online store. Not sure if there was any larger store within the arena than the one we saw close to main entrance from plaza. They also had a vendor out in the plaza w/ good selection.
Camera policyCameras must have lenses under 6” and lenses should not be detachable. Video taping prohibited.
SignsAllowed; bring your own - no facilities to make signs.
Allowed to go down to glass for pre-game picturesYes. We were allowed to stand in the front row pre-game.

When facing the team boxes, the Lightning box is on the left.
Special notesArrive a little early to enjoy live bands and activities on the plaza.
Visiting fan experience notesHad a great time here. Crowd was very mixed here – probably about 2/3 Lightning fans, the remaining 1/3 a mix of the opposing team, and a whole spectrum of jerseys from across the NHL. Staff was very friendly and welcoming. Actually got a number of compliments on my Blackhawks shirsey (T-shirt jersey). Had my Suomi jersey on, too, but was warm enough in the rink I wore it around my waist and showed off the Hawks.

Good pre-game video presentations. (On a scale of 1=slide show; to 10=United Center, about an 8.) Fans really excited for the game; lots of coordinated cheering/nicknames.

Only complaint – a guy with a vuvuzela sat a section or two over, and he blew that thing a lot. If there’s any more annoying sound in the sporting universe, I can’t imagine it.

Tampa uses three Zambonis. Two are regular; the third isn't really a functional Zamboni, it's designed so several people can sit in the hood area. People get to ride with a couple of the cheerleaders and a guy weilding a T-shirt cannon.

Good experience for families?Yes. Tampa has activities clearly designed to encourage people to bring families to the rink.

Germain Arena, Estero, FL
Home of the Florida Everblades (ECHL)

TeamFlorida Everblades - ECHL team affiliated with both Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL) and Carolina Hurricanes (NHL).

The team also is affiliated with the Charlotte Checkers (AHL), Norfolk Admirals (AHL), and Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
ArenaGermain Arena
11000 Everblades Parkway
Estero, FL 33928

Seating capacity for hockey: 7,181
Cost of tickets$12-34

Tickets are only available through the arena's box office or Ticketmaster. (No method for season ticket holders to re-sell their tickets online.)

Games tend to be better attended "in season" when the snowbirds are in town, December-March, and may sell out on Fridays or Saturdays, or for special events like "Pink in the Rink".
Ease of accessAirports:
Ft. Myers (RSW/20 minutes)
Tampa (TPA/2-1/2 hours)
Ft. Lauderdale (FLL/2 hours)

Exit 125 off route I-75. Follow signs to arena.
Parking costs$5, cash only.

Back of the ticket is good for a discount at the RSW airport parking lots.
Practice facilityGermain/same.

Practices are open to the public, and held most weekdays, 9-11:00-ish a.m.; call (239) 948-7825 to find out if practice is being held that day.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaMiromar Outlets, located on property adjacent to the rink, has several food options.

There are also a few free-standing restaurants around the Outlets, and on the other side of the highway close to the nearest hotels.
Local hotelsEmbassy Suites and Hampton Inn both have locations on the other side of the highway from the arena. (Hampton is generally lower priced than Embassy.)
Arena exteriorThis is an ECHL arena also used for concerts; it also has a practice rink where rec leagues play. Nothing particularly fancy here.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openOccasionally may have a local radio station with a booth set up outside, or some pre-game band/entertainment. Otherwise, head next door to Miromar.
Arena facilitiesATMs

As this rink is also used for rec leagues, there is a pro shop on-site.
Arena dining optionsVarious food stands around the arena, typical burgers, hot dogs, etc.

There are two sit-down restaurants, one on ground level; and one upstairs (Breakaways sports pub), look for elevator near main entrance/pro shop. A few players usually go upstairs to the bar/restaurant after the game.
Team store(s)Main store located near main entrance. Selection of jerseys, T-shirts, etc. - is also a pro shop, so they carry skates, sticks, etc.

During games, smaller kiosks around the arena concourse. One table has discounted merchandise, and another sells a variety of jerseys including NHL selections.
Camera policyAllowed. Not sure if any restrictions. (Probably less than 6" as typical for most rinks.)
SignsAllowed; bring your own - no sign-making facilities.
Allowed to go down to glass for pre-game picturesYes.

End of rink closest to parking lots is the home end.
Special notesUpper seats are noticeably narrower than lower level. If you need extra seat space for any reason, pay for lower-level tickets.
Visiting fan experience notesAlways have a good time at Everblades games.

Like most ECHL rinks, the crowd is very mixed. You see plenty of people wearing team jerseys (and being the ECHL, there's lots of special edition jerseys to make jerseyspotting fun), but you'll also see a lot of people wearing jerseys for NHL or AHL teams as well, with a wide spectrum of teams represented. Expect to see a lot of Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning jerseys mixed in with the Everblades ones, as this team is an ECHL affiliate for both.

Active fan base, knows their players. Lots of kids on game nights. (This is, after all, the prime hockey action for at least 2 hrs in any direction.)

If you like to do photography, and would like to capture the pre-game player introductions, I would recommend getting seats within the first half dozen rows off the glass at the far end; the team enters the arena to a light/smoke show between sections 113-114; excellent views/shots of the players entering the ice from 118-120.

Team has cheerleaders and their mascot, Swampee (an alligator, of course) who patrol the stands throughout the game.
Good experience for families?Yes. Due to the much lower cost than NHL games, is popular for families (vs. driving to Sunrise or Tampa). Always plenty of kids in attendance.

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