TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Lightning aren't apologizing for wanting to fill seats for home games during the Stanley Cup Final with their own fans, rather than thousands hoping to root for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The team instituted a policy at the start of the playoffs last month of not selling tickets on the Internet to out-of-state residents, and the club has been hearing from fans of visiting NHL teams who feel slighted ever since.
''Detroit fans were upset in the first round. Montreal fans complained the next round, and New York fans joined in the next round. Now, Chicago fans are taking their turn,'' Lightning executive vice president of communications Bill Wickett said. ''Our fans love it.''
Through Game 1 of the Cup Final, which Chicago won 2-1 on Wednesday night, the Lightning have had 11 home dates at Amalie Arena and announced each one as a sellout of 19,204.
Fans who attempt to purchase tickets for Lightning playoff games on Ticketmaster.com are greeted by a message that reads in part: ''Sales to this event will be restricted to residents of Florida. Residency will be based on credit card billing address.''
It's also noted that fans purchasing tickets in two private clubs inside the arena will only be allowed to wear Lightning team apparel or neutral clothing while in those areas.
That restriction applies to about 1,400 seats, and Wickett said fans of the opposing team are offered a ''neutral'' shirt to wear over their team colors if they want to enter those club areas.
''That's 7 percent of the arena. There's 93 percent of the arena where you can wear whatever jersey you want,'' Wickett said. ''Our season ticket holders don't have a problem with the restriction. They like it.''
Some out-of-towners get around the policy by having Florida residents purchase on their behalf. Others obtain tickets through secondary ticket sellers such as Stub Hub.
A generous number of Red Wings, Canadiens and Rangers fans sporting team colors made their way into the stands during the first three rounds of the playoffs.
There were plenty of Blackhawks jerseys among the crowd for Game 1, too, and they were especially noticeable when Chicago scored twice late to stun the Lightning and take a 1-0 series lead. Game 2 is here Saturday night.
Tampa Bay is appearing in its second Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning won their only NHL title in 2004 and have developed a devoted following after having some difficulty filling seats early in the franchise's existence.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the ticket policy is a reflection of how far the Lightning have come since the years attendance was an issue.
''Tampa Bay has truly become a hockey market. You can see the passion, the excitement, the level of sophistication, even since the last Stanley Cup. That's nice to see,'' Bettman said during his annual state of the league news conference before Game 1.
''I believe that the Lightning are attempting to create as good a home-ice atmosphere as possible. The interesting thing is, they apparently have the luxury of knowing that the building is sold out even if they try to limit tickets,'' Bettman added. ''Having said that, any Blackhawk fan that really wants to get into the game can figure out a way to do it. It's not all that difficult.''
Interestingly, the Lightning compiled an NHL-best 32-8-1 home record during the regular season, when there was no ticket policy.
They're 5-6 at home since implementing the plan for the playoffs.