During the second intermission of a Tampa Bay Lightning home game against the Colorado Avalanche, Kelli Yeloushan disarms just a little.
Contestants in an on-ice contest are slipping about trying to unravel (and don) frozen t-shirts. Yeloushan, 35, is normally steely and even goes on long game-day runs to keep her mind in check, but right now she’s cracking up because one of the shirts spent more time in the freezer than the others, making it more difficult to crack open. The infectious laugh warms the cold air at the ground level of Amalie Arena. It’s a simple pleasure, inked into a behind-the-scenes agenda sheet impossibly packed with cues that need to be executed within the course of an NHL game.
Before the puck drops, Yeloushan spends a couple hours in at least a dozen huddles with about 30 different staff members. She walks the inside, outside and in-betweens of Amalie Arena several times while also managing to eat a good-luck chocolate chip cookie. Ice operations manager Tom Miracle has already slipped Kelli her second piece of Dubble Bubble (another ritual).
"It has been incredible to share these bands and to have them really embraced by the fans — it is hard to imagine doing anything else.”
It wasn’t always like this. In 2009, Yeloushan started at the franchise as an intern. Today, the Tampa native born in St. Joseph’s Hospital is the team’s live events manager, tasked with making sure fans are being entertained before, during and after the games. She is in charge of Fan Fest and even plans and executes away-game watch parties like the borderline rave the team threw at Curtis Hixon Park during 2015’s Stanley Cup Finals.
And thanks to Yeloushan, the entertainers featured at games and special events are often local bands.
Ownership was shaky at best back when Yeloushan started, with the team struggling on ice and fans wanting something new. But last week, ESPN The Magazine ranked the Lightning no. 1 on its ultimate franchise list. The club landed in the top 10 in six of eight criteria, including ownership, players, affordability, fan relations and stadium experience. The Green Bay Packers, Golden State Warriors and even the Chicago Cubs sit below the Bolts. It’s safe to say that Jeff Vinik (a hedge fund manager who bought the franchise for $170 million in 2010) and his staff have completely turned things around. While there’s a hockey team at the center of that designation, Yeloushan’s advocacy for local artists has played a big part in enriching the fan experience.
Yeloushan, who graduated from Sickles High School in 1999 before getting an art degree from USF, first slipped local music into the mix in 2010 by sneaking in Tampa alt-pop outfit GreyMarket to replace a cover band. By the time the Lightning were back in the playoffs, she’d managed to get DJs Lesage and Casper — co-founders of Ybor City’s Ol’ Dirty Sundays party — to be inside the arena spinning four turntables for over 19,000 hyped fans. Alt-country heroes Have Gun Will Travel and instrumental powerhouse Poetry ‘n Lotion are just two more of the many acts that have performed for fans.
“To play for Lightning fans is an honor,” says Mugabe Tenn, frontman for Tampa reggae outfit Tribal Style. Tenn, 37, was born in Jamaica, where they definitely don’t have hockey, but his band gave something back to the team’s fans, too. “People who never heard of us loved it and could not believe we were local,” he adds.
Denny Umphreys, who plays drums in world-pop six-piece Dropin Pickup, has played five times including a sold-out playoff game against the Detroit Red Wings (no. 44 on ESPN’s list). The 24-year-old Tampa native has played ice hockey since preschool and is the kind of fan the Lightning, who were founded the same year Umphreys was born, hoped they were cultivating all this time. He remembers walking up to the arena as a kid and seeing the live music. Lightning shows have expanded Dropin Pickup’s fan base and increased support as the band gigs behind a new LP, released in September. “I never thought I would be playing the same stage 10 years later,” says Umphreys.
There was never any doubt about bringing local artists in front of fans according to Yeloushan, who says friends have always asked why she won’t leave for another city.
“I believed in [Tampa Bay] then for the same reason I do now,” she says. “The people, the raw talent, the culture. Some have said it doesn’t exist but I have known for a very long time that it always has.” That commitment comes at a price. She misses her son during the season, but it helps that he’s as big of a hockey fan as she is. They message each other during the game, and he attends when he can. “I can remember when Hunter was younger and waking him up in the morning after a game night. His first question was always, ‘Who won?’ followed by ‘Who scored?’,” she says, adding that the organization is supportive by giving her flexibility to never miss school activities or soccer games.
For now, the Lightning are focused on making another run at the Stanley Cup, but Yeloushan remains focused on the fans and local artists, while also taking moments for herself every now and then.
“It is easy to get wrapped up,” she says about the hectic agenda. “However, every time I look into the audience, on the bench, or at the Thunder Kid standing next to his favorite player, I am reminded of why I do this. It has been incredible to share these bands and to have them really embraced by the fans — it is hard to imagine doing anything else.”