Inside the Lightning’s cigar bar, among the NHL’s best tickets: ‘It doesn’t get better than this’
TAMPA, Fla. – That’s life.
A neat bourbon. A stogie to inflate. And Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
There’s no doubt that dozens of hockey fans across the United States, Canada and around the world enjoyed Tuesday night’s Tampa Bay Lightning-New York Rangers game with a cocktail and cigar in hand, but only a certain number have been able to do so overlooking the Amalie Arena. ice before, during and after the Lightning tied the best of seven series with a 4-1 victory.
In one of the most unique settings in any of the National Hockey League’s 32 arenas to watch a game, the Lightning sports its own private cigar club where Lightning fans and fans of other teams have the rare chance to enjoy a hockey game right in front of them sitting on a leather sofa or a bar stool in front of some window panes on the suite level.
“I’ve been on the waitlist for three years, and it doesn’t get any better than this,” said 39-year-old Lightning season ticket holder Danny Ayala, puffing out a puff of smoke. “I couldn’t be happier. I’m in construction and it’s a great place to network.
Tampa has long been known for its cigar culture, thanks in large part to Ybor City, five minutes from the arena. Vicente Martinez-Ybor immigrated from Cuba in the late 1880s and founded the cigar-making community in Tampa. While many cigar factories are long gone, the one that still exists is JC Newman. Founded in 1895 by Julius Caeser Newman, it is the oldest family-owned cigar maker in the United States. The club is run by JC Newman and is called Diamond Crown Cigar Lounge after the Diamond Crown brand was launched in 1995 to celebrate 100 years of JC Newman.e anniversary.
Some of the guests who frequent the club and can grab a premium cigar from the lounge cellar include former NHL coach Jacques Lemaire, former wrestling star Hulk Hogan, and numerous Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches. Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia also has a cigar club, but you can’t see the ice from inside.
If you’re a member of the Lightning’s two-story Chase Club in one of the arena’s end zones, you get access to the cigar lounge, bourbon bar, premium wine, and dozens of carving stations for delicious pre-game fare.
But access to the Chase Club can also be done via Ticketmaster, also for foreigners.
Eddie Schuyler, 33, of North Jersey, and Ben Pearl, 32, of Jersey Shore are die-hard Rangers fans. Schuyler wore a blue Jeff Beukeboom sweater, Pearl wore a white Artemi Panarin sweater. They work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, assigned to a Lincoln Tunnel.
They handle all non-police emergencies i.e. fire, extrication, towing, hazmat and medical emergencies between the New Jersey Turnpike and 8e Avenue between 36e and 42n/a The streets of Manhattan plus the interior of the tunnel.
“Every day is a new day,” Schuyler said.
At 8 p.m. Monday night, Pearl logged on and discovered the Chase Club tickets. For $1,500 including fees, he purchased the tickets, which included access to the cigar lounge. Schuyler handled flights and hotels.
“And we’re here 36 hours,” Theodora said with a laugh. “But we’re big fans of Rangers and big cigars.”
“How could we miss that? Pearl asked, taking a puff from her Arturo Fuente. “And everyone here is so nice.”
John Jerger holds a six-year season with the St. Pete Lightning. He is the client of Jeremy Krumwiede from Burnsville, Minn.
“Jeremy asked if I had any tickets, so I said, ‘Come here,'” Jerger said, taking a puff of the last of his JC Newman Robusto.
When Krumwieder boss George deMenocal found out, the Rangers fanatic was on the next flight to Tampa from his home in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done in years,” deMenocal said. “Honestly. Nobody would be so inviting to the fan of another team, but it’s great. The energy here is great, the camaraderie, the fun of hanging out with these guys and smoking a cigar. Let’s just say that if New York hosted this, it probably wouldn’t be as welcoming.
Jerger, who has smoked his fair share of Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta cigars and loves the Davidoffs and JC Newman picks he can get at the Lightning games, has a wine and cigar room in his house from which he watches the games Lightning Road, “but I’d rather be here watching a game live any day of the week,” he said. “There’s just something about JC Newman. They’ve been around for about 125 years old and the machines they have in their factory are 100 years old, they still have craftsmen to operate the machines, and these machines are so old and fragile and these guys still know how to work on them to this day. It’s incredible.
The Chase Club is just one of the many cool areas in Amalie Arena that make Lightning matches fun.
Years ago when the previously named Ice Palace was built, it was beautiful but hardly a palace. There were few frills. Downtown Tampa near the arena was also a ghost town.
There was the arena, a hotel, the convention center and the port. There were very few places to eat and things to do. They built Channelside along the water, but there were few actual water views, which was peculiar, and within a few years many shops and restaurants were vacant.
But Jeffrey Vinik bought the Lightning in 2010 and over the past 12 years has worked to completely revitalize downtown and the arena.
Channelside has had a facelift and is now called Sparkman Wharf, which is full of restaurants and shops and is fully open to the waterfront with a beer garden, dining garden and live event venue. There are restaurants everywhere now, there are great hotels (including the brand new JW Marriott), and the Amalie Arena has become one of the top venues in all of sports.
The Lightning has 15,500 season ticket holders, a long waiting list and obviously strong sponsorships. They have sold out over 280 consecutive games.
The Lightning have won 10 straight playoffs, including two Stanley Cups, but even though the team is going through a downturn that all teams inevitably go through, it’s hard to imagine the Lightning falling off the map since coming to a game and downtown Tampa has become such an event.
“We’ve worked hard there, not only to make the team phenomenal, but we’ve created a really strong Lightning fan base that loves coming to the games,” said Lightning President and CEO Steve Griggs, who helped start the Minnesota Wild and came to the Lightning from the Orlando Magic in 2010. “The brand itself has been transformed. I think you see it in our presentation of the game and everything we’ve done in the community.
“But our fan and guest experience is one of the best in the industry.”
Jerger couldn’t agree more.
“Vinik made this region what it is today,” Jerger said. “It was nothing like it is today when he came in and bought the team and revitalized the whole area. They made the Lightning games a must-attend event and Tampa a destination city.
💙 you Tampa pic.twitter.com/YWHwnNUNot
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) June 8, 2022
It was definitely for Schuyler and Pearl, who spent a lot of money getting to Tampa.
But they still had a blast and still believe in their team despite Tuesday’s loss.
“I knew they had something special earlier this season when their special teams clicked,” Schuyler said.
“For the past 15 years, at least, our power play has sucked,” Pearl said.
“But they added (Andrew) Copp, (Frank) Vatrano, (Tyler) Motte and (Justin) Braun at the trade deadline, and they were huge,” Schuyler said. “I tell you, we have a chance. We might be going to a parade this year, and it’s been 28 years since I’ve been to a parade. … We’ll be in Colorado next week.
(Photos by Michael Russo)