At the Rink: Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup Banner Ceremony Serves as Reminder of Normalcy During Unusual Year

Despite 35 years in the industry, VP of Game Presentation John Franzone still leads from the front

The National Hockey League was the last of the four major American sports to host a non-bubble regular season. As fans gradually make their return to the seats, how is that affecting in-venue productions and digital content? Similar to At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, and On the Hardwood, At the Rink will look at the operations of NHL organizations to see how their coping with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and adapting back to a sense of normalcy.

When the dust settled on last summer’s NHL bubble, the Tampa Bay Lightning were the last team standing as Stanley Cup Champions. The organization had the honor of raising the banner to the rafters in front of their fans…25 games after the start of the season. Despite the wait, the ceremony was a positive sign of the gradual return to normalcy.

“It was a long process, and normally it wouldn’t take that long, but like everything else during this time, we did the best we could,” says John Franzone, VP, game presentation, Tampa Bay Lightning. “There’s a cadence that’s been established where you win your championship, you celebrate, and you move on, but we’ve almost had to celebrate in bits and pieces.”

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Time to Celebrate: Fans Return for Stanley Cup Banner Ceremony on March 13

The franchise raised the Stanley Cup banner in front of fans on March 13.

The Lightning were able to experience parts of the pageantry that come with winning one of the hardest trophies in professional sports, including a boat parade in September and a small gathering of fans in October, but the bookend to a hard year’s work was put on ice for the first two months of the new season. Due to rising cases of COVID-19 in the area before the start of the year, the franchise made the decision to play their first 10 games without any patrons in the stands. At the same time, Franzone and other executives mulled over what to do with their first championship banner since 2003-2004.

“Back on January 13, we struggled to make the decision on when to do it,” he says. “They always say that championships are for the owners, rings are for the players, and banners are for the fans, but without fans, we had a lot of questions. Do we still do it? Do we wait until next season, but what happens if you don’t or do win it again?”

Contemplation and constant discussions led to the raising of the banner to about halfway to its apex on Opening Night against the Chicago Blackhawks — a move that would both recognize the team’s accomplishment right away while also leaving the ultimate satisfaction of seeing it hit the ceiling until fans made their return. The in-house crew worked alongside the team of NBC to create a unique, broadcast-based moment for fans to witness the unveiling at home. Two months later to the day, close to 4,000 fans made their way to 401 Channelside Drive to finally celebrate this heralded squad before a 6-3 thumping of the Nashville Predators. on March 13.

“We wanted to make it a fresh moment, so we asked [captain] Steven Stamkos to address the crowd, and he did it without a script and from the heart,” continues Franzone. “We revisited all of the video highlights from the championship run, so fans were able to relive it again. For the players, that was the last page before the book on the 2019-20 season closed.”

A New Way of Thinking: Team Makes Logistical, Production Adjustments for Home Games

The ceremony took place 25 games after the start of the season.

Aside from producing moments that are reserved for the champions, regular game days during the season have become a bit of a challenge. With COVID-19 restrictions and smaller crews that have been seen across the entire league, the Lightning are exercising all of their creative juices to make their in-game entertainment as interesting as possible. From an operational and logistical perspective, the crew is working in conditions that discourage close contact. It’s allowed for an extremely safe environment, but throws a wrench in some of the traditional fan interactions and activations.

“You’ve got to cook with what’s in the fridge,” says Franzone. “We’re not allowed on the ice and we can’t put a contestant within six feet of our host, so you have to rethink a little bit of what we used to take for granted in the normal days.”

From a production standpoint, these real-time, in-person spots are being reimagined in ways that accommodate the situation. For example, the team’s pregame show, Lightning Hockey Night Live, usually resides in the main control room at Amalie Arena. To account for social distancing, the program’s host was moved out of that space and onto a set that’s located in the lower bowl. Other aspects of the show that require a multi-person staff and coverage of the entire arena have also been difficult to capture.

“We tried to do a Simba Cam, but we’re short a camera and 17,000 fans,” he continues. “We’re used to having a kid every section, but when there’s one kid here and another across the bowl, it’s hard to get a shot to use.”

Although the pandemic has presented its fair share of obstacles, there are a handful of positives that have increased the production value. Since personnel aren’t allowed near the ice, Franzone is much closer to PA Announcer Paul Porter, who’s now stationed in the press level.

“Day by day, you learn something new,” adds Franzone. “We’re used to our PA announcer sitting right on the ice, but now he isn’t with the official scorer. It’s worked to our benefit because instead of having an intermediary, we’re talking directly to the scorer and getting [information on] our goals that much faster.”

House of Hoops: Toronto Raptors Find Temporary Home in Tampa

In-game elements include the USAA Standing Salute.

A pair of professional teams based in Toronto, the MLB’s Blue Jays and the NBA’s Raptors, have had a tough time getting to play games in their home country. While the Blue Jays start their season in Dunedin, FL at their Spring Training facility, the Raptors have set up shop in Tampa at Amalie Arena. The venue is accustomed to hosting a diverse collection of events throughout its 24½ year history, including concerts, the Arena Football League, NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments, the NCAA Frozen Four, professional wrestling, boxing, and rodeo. Since Tampa Bay doesn’t have a club in the NBA, this is the first time that Vinik Sports Group (the arena’s operator and owner of the Lightning) has to balance two simultaneous seasons.

“It’s a challenge, specifically for our operations group who have to turn the house over from hockey to basketball or basketball to hockey,” says Franzone. “Early on in the process, they weren’t schooled in this, so for some facilities where they have might have a four-to-six-hour turnaround, it was getting done in eight to 10 hours.”

While the venue’s operations team continues to smooth out their workflows, the game day experience is pretty much straight forward. During Raptors home games, Franzone’s staff is helping Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment’s Director, Game Presentation Anton Wright; Manager, Game Presentation Kyrie McBride; and Specialist, Game Presentation & Talent Management Daniella Orsi with their videoboard show.

“They build their own content in Toronto, ship it down, and our Daktronics operator interacts with them to make sure that all of the content is loaded, prepped, and rehearsed,” he says. “[Senior Production Systems Engineer] Deni Brave is also taking care of their technical needs. It’s been interesting to see game presentation from a basketball standpoint, because we’re typically not exposed to it, so it’s been great to work with them.”

Away From Amalie: The Chirp Digital Show, The Wrap Around on Bally Sports Sun Entertain Fans at Home

A look inside the control room at Amalie Arena.

Even though some fans are able to grab tickets, others are unfortunately still not able to make their way to the venue. In an effort to connect the entire community together, the franchise is working tirelessly to develop content that caters to all fans. This concept all started during the team’s sprint to the Cup in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles. While the team was battling it out miles away from home, the production staff was busy with four live shows on any given game day, including The Morning Skate Show from the locker room in Tampa, a second-screen experience, a watch party for 1,500 fans in the lower bowl (which were simulcast on the exterior LED displays in the plaza), and a post-game show for their regional sports network.

Now, through the team’s social media platforms, digital channels like their website, and linear television partners like Bally Sports Sun, fans are being entertained before and after game night as well as on off days. On the digital end, the team is engaging their younger audience with The Chirp: a 10-to-20-minute live stream hosted by Jeremiah Woodward and Seth Kush that incorporates highlight videos and fan-submitted comments and questions via Twitter. On linear, in-game hostess and web reporter Caley Chelios is at the helm of The Wraparound: a morning show-turned-magazine show that discusses the general topics that are happening around the league and where the Lightning are positioned in those conversations. Some segments include “Beat to Beat”, where beat reporters explain the current status of their respective teams, and “The Breakaway”, where fans are taken outside of the venue walls to take in the sights and sounds of Tampa and hear from former players and other familiar faces.

“We started with little nuggets from last year’s postseason and now we’re applying them to reach folks in different ways on different channels,” says Franzone. “We want to populate our social channels with more content and we’re making strides to get there, but it’s been interesting to see how we’ve evolved.”

The Ones Who Get It Done: Notable Names of Lightning’ Production Team

Franzone, who is working his 35th year in the sports-video-production industry, is a standard-bearer for those aspiring to become a success professional in game presentation. Beginning as an intern with the 1986 World Series Champion New York Mets, he spent the next decade in the Bronx as the Director of Video Operations for the New York Yankees, which also included the 1996 championship-winning team. After making a quick stop at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex, he helped build the in-venue operations for the then-new Tampa Bay Devil Rays expansion team in 1997. He took a 23-mile drive to the northeast in 2008 and has been with the Lightning ever since. While his pedigree and knowledge has set him apart in this profession, he still takes the time to learn new tricks of the trade that translates to other areas in the organization.

“We’ve been tasked with generating content specifically for social media, and that’s been a real learning curve for me because you’re thinking outside of your comfort zone,” he says. “You have to consider that something that plays in the lower bowl doesn’t necessarily work as well on a smaller screen or a phone. You need to think a little more and ask yourself, ‘Where is this feature going to be seen and how can we most efficiently produce it?’”

For an already-talented individual that keeps getting better, Franzone has cultivated a farm system that has produced some of the best talent that is gracing control rooms around the nation, including Philadelphia Flyers’ Senior Director, Event Presentation Tina DiVilio, who was once a volunteer and part-time member of the Lightning staff. His current staff is filled with other star-studded people like Manager, Game Presentation Stephen Frey; Motion Graphics Coordinators Felicia Sablan, Darlene Sanchez, and Stephen Nash; and Tina’s sister, Coordinator, Game Presentation Lucy DiVilio. And as a person who’s risen through the ranks himself, he understands and values the work of the team that he continues to lead from the front.

“Nearly every one of them either started as a volunteer, intern, or part-time employee, and now they’re on our full-time staff,” concludes Franzone. “I’m most proud of being able to develop individuals that advance towards the impressive positions that they have right now.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning will make their return to Amalie Arena to face the Florida Panthers on Thursday, April 15 at 7 p.m. ET.

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