The path to the Frozen Four is often characterized as an unpredictable one.
This year’s edition has certainly proven that.
On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times Forum will host two semifinal matches. Union and Ferris State will play in one. Boston College and Minnesota will compete in the other. The winners will then face off in the championship game on Saturday. For the participating schools, the opportunity is the beginning of their very own fantastic voyage.
For the individuals responsible for landing Tampa Bay as the tournament’s host site, it’s the end of a long road that has been well worth the journey.
“We couldn’t be more grateful to the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee for giving us the unprecedented honor of serving as the Frozen Four’s first host in the south,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “Since the day we were awarded, our community has been extremely focused on creating an unforgettable experience.”
Truth be told, Higgins was tuned in long before that. The year was 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning had just won the Stanley Cup, and as it turned out, Higgins was about to score a huge victory himself.
Three days after the Bolts’ Game 7 triumph over the Calgary Flames, Higgins was appointed executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and tasked with the challenge of attracting amateur sporting events to what had just become the nation’s newest hockey hotbed right in the heart of Downtown Tampa.
As luck would have it, the Times Forum had just previously hosted the first and second rounds of the 2003 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball tournament, so naturally, Higgins sought out other annual collegiate sporting events and used his own sense of foresight to approach arena executives about potentially hosting one of several upcoming Frozen Four events.
“Basically, Rob was told by Lightning President and Tampa Bay Sports Commission Chairman Ron Campbell to think in unconventional terms and to be aggressive in pursuing us as a potential partner when it came to hosting events,” the Lightning’s Executive Vice President of Communications Bill Wickett said.
“So when he came to us suggesting the Frozen Four, it was somewhat of a lofty proposal. But, we had just won the Stanley Cup and were aiming to grow the game in the region, so Ron thought this could be a good opportunity to do something that no southern state had ever done before.”
That was true. A lot of this had never been done before. At least not the way Higgins and Wickett were about to do it.
The ice at the Tampa Bay Times Forum gleams with a fresh logo for upcoming tournament action. (Photo by Julie Dolak for TampaBayLightning.com)
In October 2005, both men contacted the NCAA during a trip to Birmingham, Ala., which at the time, was serving as the host site for the Southeastern Conference’s men’s basketball media day. But in order to submit a formal bid and have it be deemed official, a host institution had to be on board. Conveniently, the only one in any location remotely close to Birmingham was just a stone’s throw away in nearby Huntsville, home of the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
So, there they went, whimsically of course, to meet with the school’s athletic director, Jim Harris, who didn’t hesitate to support the cause. The next step in the lengthy process was then to submit a formal proposal to the NCAA.
After a few more conversations were held between both parties, representatives from the NCAA agreed to come to Tampa Bay to tour the arena and give the building a shot.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Lightning MVP Martin St. Louis
was waiting there to greet them with a juicy sales pitch.
St. Louis not only added a worthy degree of credibility to the presentation, but also could relate on a more personal level being a former standout college player at the University of Vermont. Just for good measure, he even brought along his recently-acquired Stanley Cup to a lunch meeting to help sway the decision in his side’s favor.
And boy, did it ever.
St. Louis’ performance off the ice proved to be just as good as one of many on it. The pitch sufficed so much to a degree that it made Tampa Bay one of six finalists competing for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 championships, with each of the remaining cities set to give one final presentation.
The follow-up session nearly went off without a hitch. That was until the committee started taking verbal slap shots at “Team Tampa Bay,” who had already come this far and by no means was going to back down now.
Just before Tampa Bay’s final sales pitch was in the books, one member of the selection committee asked Higgins if he and the city he represented would be willing to host the 2012 tournament. Without hesitation, Higgins reached into his briefcase and pulled out several hotel contracts he had secured in anticipation of the unexpected.
Seven years after setting out upon that unpredictable road, Tampa Bay is now set to host the 2012 Frozen Four.