Toronto considers itself to be the center of the hockey universe. Montreal is home to the most Stanley Cup champions in history and treats hockey with a reverence more appropriate for a religion than a sport. Detroit assigned itself with the moniker of Hockeytown in 1996, then bought the rights to the trademark three years later. But none of them have the best home ice advantage.
Tampa Bay? The city didn’t even make the top 10 list of then-ESPN writer Craig Custance’s ranking of the best hockey markets in the United States two years ago.
But when it comes to the best home ice advantage in the National Hockey League, recent statistics indicate Tampa Bay benefits more from playing at home than any other team in the league.
Going into this season, the Lightning had won nearly 45 per cent more games at Amalie Arena (142) than it had in enemy territory (98) over the past six seasons. That’s the greatest differential in the NHL over that span, with only the Philadelphia Flyers within eight per cent of Tampa Bay in that department. The average National Hockey League team won 20.9 per cent more home games than road games during that time.
That trend has already continued this season, with the Lightning posting victories in each of its first two home games while dropping its lone contest so far on the road.
Three Reasons Tampa Bay Has The Best Home Ice Advantage In The NHL
So why would the Lightning be such a difficult team to beat in its own rink? Here are three theories as to why the Tampa Bay Lightning has the best home ice advantage in the National Hockey League.
1. Fan support
You may not think of Tampa Bay as a hockey hotbed. But not many fanbases support their team as loyally as Lightning fans do.
Tampa Bay has ranked among the top 10 in NHL attendance in each of the past five seasons. Sure, it helps to have reached a Stanley Cup Final and two Eastern Conference finals during that span. But the Lightning also missed the playoffs in two of those years, yet reported 100% capacity each time.
Those attendance numbers aren’t simply due to the millions of Canadians who migrate to the Tampa Bay area each winter. Year-long residents in the community have built a strong attachment to their team ever since current owner Jeffrey Vanik purchased the team in 2010. That’s when Tampa Bay management set out determined to market the team better within the city, improve the game-day experience and increase its season-ticket base. Rewarding fans through initiatives like jersey giveaways and discounted prices at concessions for season ticket holders were just one reason the Lightning was ranked the #1 pro sports franchise in North America by ESPN’s Ultimate Standings in 2016.
Yes, there are other cities in the National Hockey League who have larger fan bases. But there’s a pressure that comes along with playing in hockey-mad markets such as Toronto and Montreal (the Canadiens rank third-last in winning percentage differential between home and road games since 2011). In Tampa Bay, where Lightning players have been known to be able to go out to the movies or walk along the beach without being swarmed or even recognized, players can simply play naturally and freely, rather than worry about meeting the crowd’s lofty expectations.
2. The Beach!
The 82-game National Hockey League regular season is a grind, with teams traveling as far as 50,000 miles in 2015-16. Tack on training camp that begins in September and the Stanley Cup playoffs that end in mid-June, and you can understand why NHL players might want to grab some R&R whenever they can.
There aren’t many better places to do that than Tampa Bay, one of the top tourist destinations in the United States. Amalie Arena is essentially located along the water, four miles away from Davis Islands Beach. And if visiting players have an off-day in Tampa Bay, gorgeous beaches in Clearwater and Sarasota are both within an hour’s drive.
Even if the opposition doesn’t get out to the beach while visiting Tampa Bay, those mid-70s temperatures are a welcome reprieve from the cold winters up north. Considering that 19 of the 31 NHL teams in the NHL are located north of southern Ohio, it’s pretty understandable why many Lightning opponents may not completely have hockey on their mind when a trip to Tampa Bay appears on their calendar.
Not convinced that balmy temperatures could be a distraction for visiting teams? The Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings, two other teams who play in warm-weather markets, are two of the other three teams in the NHL who have won over 35 per cent more home games than road games in the past six years. NHL players may be professional athletes, but they’re also human beings.
One other reason the Lightning enjoys the best home ice advantage in the NHL is the number of teams that visit Tampa Bay on either the front or back end of a back-to-back situation. With the Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Carolina Hurricanes as the only teams within 700 miles of the Lightning, the NHL often schedules visits to those cities as tightly as possible to make road trips more efficient.
In 2016-17, nearly half of the Lightning’s home games (18 of 41) were against opponents who had either played the previous night or had a game slated for the following evening. While the benefits of facing a fatigued opponent that traveled the previous night are obvious, it can also be an advantage to play teams who have another game the next night because they may rest their top goalie for the following game or limit the ice time they give their stars.
The Lightning fattened up last year on visiting teams that had played the previous night, going 7-1-1 in that situation:
- Beat Philadelphia 4-2 on Nov. 23
- Lost to Toronto 3-2 (overtime) on Dec. 28
- Beat Carolina 3-1 on Dec. 31
- Beat Anaheim 3-2 (overtime) on Feb. 4
- Beat Ottawa 5-1 on Feb. 27
- Beat Carolina 4-3 (overtime) on March 1
- Lost to Arizona 5-3 on March 21
- Beat Dallas 6-3 on April 2
- Beat Buffalo 4-2 on April 9
Though the Lightning didn’t fare as well against opponents playing the front end of a back-to-back in Tampa Bay (the hosts went 3-6 in those nine games), they did catch a nice break in their February 21 game versus the Oilers. Knowing it had a visit to Florida on deck the following night, Edmonton gave number one goalie Cam Talbot one of his nine nights off that season. With backup Laurent Brossoit in net for the Oilers, Tampa Bay easily prevailed 4-1.
There are louder arenas and more hostile crowds in the NHL than Tampa Bay. But you can’t argue with results.
Despite missing the playoffs three times in the past six years, the Lightning has racked up 23 or more home victories in each of those seasons (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when Tampa Bay went 12-10-2 in its own barn, compared to 6-16-2 away from home.)
The Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues are the only other teams in the NHL to win at least 23 home games in all of those years, and they’ve combined to post 13 100-point seasons and claim four Stanley Cups during that span.
Whether it’s due to crowd support, the beautiful weather, scheduling advantages or something else, it’s difficult to debate that Tampa Bay enjoys the best home ice advantage in the NHL.