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Lightning fans in shorts, photo by Mike Keenan

Why Canadians Love Tampa, Florida

© by Mike Keenan

When our plane ( Silver Airlines from Charleston) lands in Tampa, a shuttle carries the passengers to the main terminal. The first voice we hear is Canadian as Steven Stamkos, captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team welcomes everyone to town.

A few nights later, from our boutique hotel, the Aloft, conveniently located downtown, we walk leisurely for 10-15 minutes to the Amalie Arena to watch Stamkos perform his magic in the battle of Florida, an NHL game featuring the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Amalie Arena, photo by Mike Keenan   Amalie Arena, photo by Mike Keenan    Bar, Aloft Hotel, photo by Mike Keenan    Downtown architecture, photo by Mike Keenan    Downtown architecture, photo by Mike Keenan    Jose Marti Statue, Ybor City, photo by Mike Keenan

Monument Park, photo by Mike Keenan    Monument Park, photo by Mike Keenan    Restaurant, Oxford Exchange, photo by Mike Keenan Steinbrenner Field , photo by Mike Keenan    Steinbrenner Field , photo by Mike Keenan    Yankee Alex Rodriguez photo by Mike Keenan

It's amusing to watch fans wear hockey sweaters and shorts on their way to a game. Tampa is in a battle with the Montreal Canadiens for the best record in the Eastern Conference, and the Panthers are desperately trying to get into the playoffs with scant games remaining in the season.

I am impressed with the arena and the team as well as owner Jeff Vinik's notable marketing initiatives. The squad plays like their GM, BC native Steve Yzerman, appointed Detroit captain at age 21 and now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. They are quick, excellent skaters, gritty, smart and never let up. Their fast-paced, exciting style produces consistent sellout crowds of 18,800 fans in one of the nicest arenas in the league where there doesn't appear to be a bad seat.

During the game, there are warm tributes to soldiers, police, health initiatives, community volunteers and, of course, the fans themselves, all performed in positive fashion. If I lived in Tampa, I would seriously consider season's tickets.

Amalie is where Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Billy Joel all played to sold-out crowds and unlike the Leafs, where Tampa Bay won the 2004 Stanley Cup, defeating Calgary in the seventh game. Tonight's contest is a close struggle with the home team scoring the winning goal by Ryan Callahan with only two minutes left.

Sports Tourism flourishes in Tampa, and Canadian visitors can not only watch a top NHL team but also Major League baseball's spring training. At Tampa's Steinbrenner Field, we witness a Big Apple battle between the resident New York Yankees and the visiting New York Mets, a contest the Mets win handily 7-2 after two long homeruns and solid pitching.

Reserved parking at Steinbrenner Field is full an hour before game time, so we park ($10) across the street at the Raymond James Stadium, home of the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From there, we walk across Dale Mabry Highway on a bridge right into the stadium.

Steinbrenner Field (formerly Legends Field), was built in 1996; it holds 11,026 people with an addition in right field built in 2007. It serves as the home of the Tampa Yankees, the New York Yankees' affiliate in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, and is the Yankees' spring training home.

This 31 acre complex features a number of amenities including luxury suites, an all-inclusive dugout club, the unique Walgreens party deck, a Yankees pavilion for entertaining, the largest Yankees gift shop in the southeast, and much more including Monument Park, where the greatest Yankee icons are honored. I take a quick trip down memory lane as I examine the plaques for each storied player from Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle to Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre, retired numbers accompanying each pane.

For history buffs, the dimensions of the field precisely mimic that of the old Yankee Stadium, and the scalloped grandstand facade (frieze) is also meant to invoke the old ballpark in the Bronx. When built, it was the first spring training stadium to include luxury suites.

On this day, the sun is quite strong and the stands are full of thirsty patrons. Beer sells for $8, water for $4. Because the regular season is not far off, the opening pitchers play a full four innings, but the Mets prevail. It's a comfortable stadium, but during the day, bring lots of sun tan lotion and wear a hat.

Just south of the Aloft hotel, directly across from the University of Tampa, is the Oxford Exchange where I am told the likes of former Yankee,
Derek Jeter, attend for power breakfasts. We enjoy a tasty meal there but no Mr. Jeter. Nonetheless, I recommend the experience because the Exchange, a former horse stable, not only houses a remarkable restaurant but also a shop with a curated collection of home decor pieces, vintage finds and gifts designed to delight as well as a bookstore voted one of the best in the Tampa Bay area.

Before flying home, we take a quick streetcar ride to Ybor City just northeast of downtown. It was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and populated by thousands of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and Italy. For the next 50 years, workers in Ybor City's cigar factories rolled millions of cigars annually. The neighborhood has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District, and several structures are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is well worth a visit however short, but sadly we bid adieu to Tampa's warmth and head north - prepared for a colder clime and plenty of yard work!

Photos By Google Images

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Life In A Day: Tampa Bay:

Your Florida Vacation Destination

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.

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Mike Keenan
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