Inside the Lightning’s cigar bar, among NHL’s top tickets: ‘Doesn’t get better than this’

TAMPA, Fla. – This is life.

A pure bourbon. A stogie to breathe. And Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

No doubt scores of hockey fans across the United States, Canada and around the world enjoyed Tuesday night’s Tampa Bay Lightning game against the New York Rangers with cocktails and cigars in hand, but there are only a limited number watching this the Amalie Arena could do before, during and after the Lightning ice leveled the best-of-seven series with a 4-1 win.

In one of the more unique settings in one of the National Hockey League’s 32 arenas to watch a game, The Lightning operates its very own private cigar club, giving Lightning fans and fans of other teams the rare opportunity to have a hockey game right outside their door to be enjoyed by them while seated on a leather couch or bar stool in front of a pair of glass panes on the suite level.

“I’ve been on the waiting list for three years and it’s not getting better,” said Lightning season ticket holder Danny Ayala, 39, as he let out a puff of smoke. “I couldn’t be happier. I’m in construction and this is 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 factory in Tampa. While many of the cigar factories are long gone, JC Newman still exists. Founded in 1895 by Julius Caeser Newman, it is the oldest family-owned cigar manufacturer in the United States. Led by JC Newman, the club is named Diamond Crown Cigar Lounge after the Diamond Crown brand was introduced in 1995 to celebrate JC Newman’s 100th birthdayth Anniversary.

Some of the guests who can visit the club and snag a premium cigar from the lounge’s humidor include former NHL coach Jacques Lemaire, former wrestling star Hulk Hogan, and many of the coaches of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia also has a cigar club, but you can’t see the ice from the inside.

If you’re a member of the Lightning’s two-story Chase Club in one of the arena’s end zones, you’ll have access to the cigar lounge, bourbon bar, premium wines, and numerous carving stations for a delicious pre-game meal.

But outsiders can also access the Chase Club via Ticketmaster.

Eddie Schuyler, 33, of North Jersey, and Ben Pearl, 32, of Jersey Shore are die-hard Rangers fans. Schuyler wore a blue sweater by Jeff Beukeboom, Pearl a white sweater by Artemi Panarin. You work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and are assigned to a Lincoln Tunnel.

They handle all non-police related emergencies i.e. fire, extrication, towing, hazardous materials and medical emergencies between the New Jersey Turnpike and 8th Avenue between 36th and 42nd Streets in Manhattan and the tunnel.

“Every day is a new day,” Schuyler said.

Rangers fans Ben Pearl and Eddie Schuyler spent $1,500 on tickets to the Chase Club and the Diamond Crown Cigar Lounge at the Amalie Arena.

At 8 p.m. Monday night, Pearl went online and discovered the Chase Club tickets. For $1,500 including fees, he bought the tickets that included access to the cigar lounge. Schuyler handled the flights and hotels.

“And we’re here 36 hours,” Schuyler said, laughing. “But we’re big Rangers fans and big cigar guys.”

“How could we miss that?” Pearl asked while tugging on his Arturo Fuente. “And everyone in here is so nice.”

John Jerger is a six-year Lightning season ticket holder from St. Pete. He is the client of Jeremy Krumwiede of Burnsville, Minn.

“Jeremy asked if I had tickets, so I said, ‘Come on down,'” Jerger said as he took a hit on his last JC Newman robusto.

Jeremy Krumwieder of Burnsville, Minnesota and John Jerger of St. Pete Beach, Lightning customer and season ticket holder.

When Krumwieder’s boss George deMenocal found out, the Rangers fanatic was on the next flight from his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, to Tampa.

“This is the best thing I’ve done in years,” deMenocal said. “Honestly. No one would invite another team’s fan like that, but it’s a blast. The energy here is great, the camaraderie, the fun of hanging out with these guys and smoking a cigar. Let’s just say, if New York would be host it probably wouldn’t be so welcoming.”

Jerger, who has smoked his fair share of Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta cigars and loves the Davidoffs and JC Newman selections he can get at Lightning matches, has a wine and cigar room at his home from which he watches Lightning street games, “but I’d rather be here any day of the week and watch a live game,” he said. “There’s just something about JC Newman. They have been in business for around 125 years and the machines they have in their factory are 100 years old. They still have craftsmen operating the machines and these machines are so old and so fragile and these people still know how to work them to this day. Watching them work is incredible.”

The Chase Club is just one of Amalie Arena’s many cool areas for watching Lightning games.

Years ago, when the aforementioned 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 restaurants and things to do. They built Channelside along the water, but there were few views of the actual water, which was odd, and in a few years many of the shops and restaurants were empty.

But Jeffrey Vinik bought the Lightning in 2010 and has spent the past 12 years working to completely revitalize downtown and the arena.

Channelside has undergone a major makeover and is now Sparkman Wharf, which is filled with restaurants and shops and opens fully onto the water with a beer garden, dining garden and live events venue. Restaurants are now everywhere, major hotels (including the brand new JW Marriott) and the Amalie Arena has become one of the premier venues for all sports.

The Lightning has 15,500 season ticket holders, a long waiting list and it’s clear that sponsors are strong. They have sold out more than 280 consecutive games.

The Lightning have won 10 straight playoff series, including two Stanley Cups, but even if the team experiences 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 put a lot of hard work into here, not only to make the team phenomenal, but we’ve created a really strong Lightning fan base that loves to come to games,” said Lightning President and CEO Steve Griggs, who helped found it from Minnesota Wild and joined Lightning in 2010 from Orlando Magic. “The brand itself has changed. I think you see it in our game showcase and everything we’ve done in the community.

“But our fan and guest experience is one of the best in the business.”

Jerger can only agree.

“Vinik made this area what it is today,” said Jerger. “It wasn’t like it is today when he came in and bought the team and revitalized the whole area. They’ve made Lightning games a must-attend event and Tampa a destination city.”

It was safe for Schuyler and Pearl, who spent a boatload of money to fly to Tampa.

But they still had a lot of fun and still believe in their team despite Tuesday’s defeat.

“I knew they had something special earlier this season when their special teams clicked,” Schuyler said.

“For at least the last 15 years, our power play has sucked,” Pearl said.

“But they added (Andrew) Copp, (Frank) Vatrano, (Tyler) Motte and (Justin) Braun to the close, and they were huge,” Schuyler said. “I’m telling you, we have a chance. Maybe we’re 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)

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