Channelside ready for Lightning strike

Businesses hoping for big crowds for NHL return

TAMPA - The desperate thirst for NHL hockey will finally be quenched this weekend, as the first Tampa Bay Lightning game of the season happens Saturday.  And no place has been waiting longer than Channelside, which has suffered during the last four months of the hockey lockout.

"We are pumped," said Jeremy Yoder of Splitsville, a bowling bar and entertainment center.  "It's going to be a sprint to the finish.  We're just happy to see those guys get back on the ice."

Splitsville and other restaurants are planning for a big crowd for the sold-out game.  But they're also hoping to cash in on the numerous other events going on simultaneously in the Tampa area.

"People after the game are walking around, looking for a place to eat and drink," Yoder said.  "And you know, we're down here."

In addition to the Lightning game, Raymond James stadium will play host to the annual Monster Truck Jam.  Curtis Hixon Park is having the Black Heritage Festival, while the Florida State Fairgrounds is boasting the world's largest RV show.

The biggest event of the weekend is likely the Gasparilla Children's Parade, which can draw hundreds of thousands of people a week before the full Gasparilla extravaganza.

"We're excited.  It's been a long time waiting," said Phil Vassallo, General Manager of Tina's Tapas restaurant.  Vassalo is expecting a surge in business since the end of the holiday season, when the number of customers dramatically drops off in January.

"With hockey moving in, that's the number one thing we're geared for," Vassallo said.

Other restaurants and businesses are banking that the return of the Lightning games also means a rejuvenated interest in Channelside and downtown Tampa.

"Obviously we're hoping the community gets behind it and comes down here," Vassallo said.  

"It's a short season, so we're hoping for the best here."

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