An exclusive tour of the Tampa Bay Times Forum transformed the busy happenings within the arena brought in by the Republican National Convention into a summer vacation highlight for two Lightning fans from overseas on Monday.
And of course, leading them around the arena was none other than a Lightning legend himself.
Dave Andreychuk, captain of the 2004 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, led both Gareth Morris and his 16-year-old grandson, Jonathan, around all the important stops within the building, which underwent an approximate $40-million transformation last summer, before fielding their questions and sending them off with a few souvenirs to take back to the United Kingdom with them.
“It was fantastic,” Morris said. “We are so thankful for the opportunity to meet Mr. Andreychuk and see the arena in which the Lightning play, since they are one of the teams we follow back home.”
Morris added that every few years, both he and Jonathan take a trip to the United States while school is out during the summer months. Previous excursions set out by the duo included one to Washington DC, home of the Capitals, whom Jonathan, well aware of his surroundings, hesitantly admitted was a team he also followed. In fact, later this summer, Jonathan will embark on another journey that will have him represent Great Britain at his local hockey league’s European Championships tournament in Switzerland.
We are so thankful for the opportunity to meet Mr. Andreychuk and see the arena in which the Lightning play, since they are one of the teams we follow back home. - Gareth Morris
But when asked what brought them both to Tampa this year, Morris said that “we wanted to go somewhere with rollercoasters.”
And to see the home of the Lightning of course, which served as an added bonus during a stay in the Bay Area that also included trips to Busch Gardens, a Tampa Bay Rays game, and the Orlando theme parks of Epcot and Universal Studios.
While the pair’s trip was scheduled for merely two and a half weeks, the planning that went into the Forum visit actually proved months in the making.
Morris first reached out to several members of the organization back in February with hand-written letters sent from across the Atlantic. The recipients of the Lightning then responded via email to make the request come to fruition.
Morris and his grandson arrived at the Forum during the morning, where upon their arrival, Andreychuk greeted them and welcomed them to the arena on behalf of the organization. Before the tour kicked off, however, each were required to get credentialed as a precautionary measure in compliance with the RNC with special passes, which allowed each to move freely about the building.
The guests traveled their way upstairs from the main entrance through what they said felt like a maze, finally arriving at the Bud Light Party Deck which overlooks the city of Tampa skyline. Morris and Jonathan were just as impressed with the view from the top as they were to find out that the deck measured 10,000 square feet and once upon a time housed Thunderbug during the team’s 2004 Cup run when it was still serving as merely an unused rooftop.
From there, Andreychuk led them a few feet down the corridor of the 300 level until they arrived at the digital pipe organ, which brought the Times Forum back to the days of old time hockey due to the traditional aspect it gives the arena. Also of interest to the guests were the photos of both current and past Lightning players adorning the walls, one of which featured Andreychuk raising the Stanley Cup.
“I love that Cup,” Morris said.
While the luxury suites, for the most part, were either locked or occupied by construction workers, Morris and Jonathan still managed to catch a glimpse of one to get a feel for what it is like to witness all the action of Lightning hockey up close and personal.
Keep in mind that on the previous stops throughout the tour, Andreychuk had already mentioned that the entire renovation process had been privately funded by Mr. Vinik, so as the tour continued and he revealed all the other areas that also had been upgraded, it wasn’t until close to the end that Morris and Jonathan realized the magnitude of the project, not to mention the dedication of Mr. Vinik himself to front the cost of the effort.
The next stops included the Firestick Grill, main concourse level and finally the west plaza and new grand entry way, near which Morris and Jonathan both posed for a picture alongside the bronze statue depicting Lightning founder Phil Esposito.
The highlight though, as Jonathan said, was purchasing his very own customized Lightning jersey in the new team store, which he brought home with him to England, as well as some autographed 8x10 pictures from Andreychuk that Morris said had him “over the moon.”
“We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves,” Morris said. “Seeing and hearing about the arena was fascinating, and we wish the Lightning the best for the upcoming season.”