August 22, 2008
Picture it: You stroll away from a wedding reception or a garden party, looking for a secluded location to decompress. Something odd catches your eye: A giant, silver Airstream trailer, its aluminum exoskeleton catching glare from the sun above. It beckons you -- hell, it literally has the red carpet rolled out for you -- so you approach it and swing open the door.
At that moment, you feel as though you've landed in Oz and the colors have overtaken you. Lush, cherry wood finishes on nearly every surface, save for the granite countertops. Ostrich seating made for sinking into. Five televisions tuned to the sports you were sadly missing during that drab party. A large, pantry-sized humidor glows in front of you with boxes of wrapped tobacco.
A hostess saunters up to you and offers a cigar. You accept, as she effortlessly cuts it and lights it. A sense of serenity settles over you as you take a seat, take a drag and take it all in.
Suddenly, you begin to wonder what it is you're actually smoking ...
No worries: It's fine tobacco, but it's still a surreal scene. That's what Neckar and Andreychuk are aiming for: Transporting luxury in a mobile home to places where cigar smokers are banned, shunned or criminalized.
"It feels like they're inside a nice, upscale cigar lounge," said Neckar, who along with Andreychuk is a co-owner of Mobile Cigar Lounge, a self-explanatory new business based out of Tampa, Fla. "We try to treat people the right way and make them feel special inside."
There is, of course, a rich tradition of cigar smoking in hockey; it's mandatory for some players after winning the Stanley Cup. The same was true for Andreychuk and Neckar back in 2004, when they helped lead the Lightning to their only championship.
"Me and Dave would always smoke cigars," said Neckar. "The day we won a Cup, we smoked lots of them."
Neckar started smoking when he was a defenseman for the Ottawa Senators, back in 1994.
"I pretty much try everything," he said. "I'm not one of the guys who says, ‘I'm gonna smoke two cigars for the rest of my life.' You always find different shapes, new tastes."
The Bolts were practically an informal smoker's club; players like Neckar, Andreychuk, Brad Lukowich and Freddy Modin. "It's been three years now since I finished playing here in Tampa. I believe eight to nine guys really liked to smoke cigars," said Neckar. "But it's getting harder and harder to find a good place."
Over the last several years, smoking bans in the United States have skyrocketed. In 2003, Florida enacted a smoking ban that targeted "workplaces." In fact, Neckar said many of the Lighting players had to celebrate their Cup by lighting cigars in a parking lot.
The law bans smoking in all enclosed, indoor workplaces including restaurants but allows exemptions for stand-alone bars where food is "incidental" to alcohol sales, tobacco shops, bowling alleys and certain hotel areas.
Cigar aficionados like Neckar watched similar and more stringent bans span across the nation. "If you look at LA or parts of California, you can't even smoke in some of the parks," said Neckar, wondering if there's any way to turn the tide. "Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, he loves cigars, right?"
In locales like Tampa Bay, Neckar said life was getting downright uncomfortable for cigar lovers. "You know how hot it gets to be here. You don't really enjoy it. You just sweat," he said.
"I'm not saying, 'Go ahead and smoke in a restaurant.' There's lots of kids there. But they should have something for the cigar smokers."
So Neckar, Andreychuk and partner Juan Guillen decided to give them something.
Guillen had been in the cigar industry for some time, and slowly developed the concept of a transportable cigar lounge that could be taken to special events, like a catering option. Think of it as a moon bounce for adults ... only with more flat screen TVs and bar hostesses.
The Mobile Cigar Lounge launched in January, and has been used at events like the Outback Pro-Am golf tournament, where it stayed for four days. "You're basically renting an environment from us, to provide for your guests," said Shawna Neckar, company president. "Some people don't understand. They think we're a traveling cigar store."
Cigars are for sale in the lounge, from high-end Rocky Patels to mid-range smokes to, they hope, the owners' own line of smokes in the near future. There's an "open cigar bar" option for renters as well. If liquor is provided by the renter, then it can be served -- think about how a limo works in that regard, and you've got it.
As for the rentals, they begin at a minimum of three hours and rent hourly. Ten cigars are included with the rental; and depending on the package, the "Cigaristas" will be there too.
"She's in there to pamper the guests. She's actually cigar-educated," said Shawna Neckar.
Who rents the Lounges? Shawna Neckar said they've quickly developed packages for "groom's parties," ladies' nights, poker nights and other general events. One option they're working on this fall: NFL Sunday packages, an "ultimate tailgate" deal advertised on the company's Web site.
The goal, according to Stan Neckar, is to provide the kind of relaxed vibe smokers feel they've been deprived of in most public settings.
"They don't really have to talk to anybody. We have five TVs. You can watch the football game, or the stock market. Just stay in there for 20 minutes and party."
Twenty minutes? How fast are they burning those sticks?
"That would be a small cigar, yeah."
Neckar said he's gotten calls from Los Angeles, Toronto, New York and Chicago asking about franchise opportunities following the company's initial publicity campaign.
He also recently received another kind of inquiry. "I just had a call from the Czech newspaper if I was going to play again," said the NHL veteran. "I said no."
Neckar isn't playing hockey: His final game came at the age of 30 in Sweden, playing in the 2005-06 season. He retired battling groin issues and was diagnosed with Diabetes.
But Neckar is still watching hockey; like the developments with new ownership in Tampa Bay. "I think they put a good team together. I don't think it'll be worse than last year," said Neckar, who takes joy in seeing his community blossom into a hockey town. "Things have changed so much. I was happy to see the kids playing street hockey. Before I moved here, you'd always see kids with the baseball bats."
He's also keenly aware of the new KHL over in Russia, a league the Czech native said would be tempting for many of his countrymen -- if ultimately a second choice at best.
"I think they have a good League. But NHL is always going to be NHL," he said. "For me, and even for the young players overseas, they're always going to see NHL as the best League. I don't think the NHL needs to be worried."
But most of all, Neckar is still talking hockey: Inside an Airstream trailer, filled with TVs, hostesses, dark woods, fellow cigar aficionados and, sometimes, he and his partner Dave Andreychuk.
"Sometimes people really want to see you, and they start talking about the Stanley Cup," said Neckar.