This week, thousands upon thousands of Tampa Bay residents will embark on a journey. It’s a journey that most have taken before, but no one has completed it in 15 years. There have been tales told, of people from other North American cities getting to the end, and that provides the hope that propels these people to keep trying.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here again. The Tampa Bay Lightning will open up their first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Lightning fans have witnessed the greatest team in franchise history play out a record-setting regular season. All that’s left to do is win the Cup.
This is a time of excitement for hockey fans, a time where the sport is at its best. More importantly, it’s a time where everything is still possible. Normally I join in that excitement, but this year feels different. It feels bigger.
Growing up in Tampa, I’ve developed a deep connection to this town. For 20 years I’ve called it home and poured my heart and soul into it. Sadly, that faith and support hasn’t exactly produced any tangible return on my investment, at least not in the world of sports. That’s why this year is different. It feels like this is now or never. Let me explain.
* * * *
My earliest hockey memory is of a parade. Dave Andreychuk rode down Main Street USA, Stanley Cup overhead, flanked on either side by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Afterwards, Andreychuk had an autograph line, where he signed a puck for me. That puck remains on my dresser, one of my proudest possessions. The irony is I have no conscious memories of him playing.
I was five when the Lightning won the Cup in 2004, so I don’t remember any of it. I tear up everytime I hear Dave Mishkin’s call of those last ten seconds, but that is more of an emotional attachment through osmosis. There are flashes in the following years; a John Tortorella press conference here, an away-team fan takeover there. For some reason Michel Ouellet and Johan Holmqvist stick out in my mind.
I also remember spending quite a bit of time attending morning skates, tagging along with my father after Saturday skating lessons or soccer games. My favorite thing to do was walking around the front rows around the Forum, collecting loose pucks that the players had shot into the stands. At one point I had about 30 in my room. I’ve lost about half of them since then, giving them away to friends or losing them to the black hole in my carpet. But those that remain are sitting on my dresser too.
I consider the start of my fandom to be the 2008-09 season because that's when I have connected memories. I remember the “Seen Stamkos?” campaign, I remember the Barry Melrose debacle and I remember Mark Recchi and Jeff Halpern being shipped out, much to my disappointment.
I was in Sunrise a few years later, when Steven Stamkos scored his 51st goal. I had been so good, staying quiet while sitting next to my father in the press box, but when Stamkos shot into the empty net with 13 seconds left in the season, I was unable to stifle the yell. I got glares but what did I care; Steven Stamkos had just tied for a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy and I was gonna be happy about that.
2011 was my first taste of playoff hockey, an experience that, at the age of 12, doomed me to the reality in which I reside eight years later. I was in attendance for Game 3 and Game 4 against the Penguins, both losses. Game 4 went to double overtime, but my grandfather had decided to leave after the first frame of OT because it was a school night. We listened to James Neal's game-winner on the radio driving down Adamo Drive.
I watched Game 5 at my Afi’s (which is grandfather in Icelandic) house, an 8-2 pummeling that returned hope to my young, innocent soul. That hope was vindicated in the next four days, when Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim combined for two nearly identical goals that won the series for the Bolts. Moore swept the puck behind the net, then spun a forehand-pass behind his back to the waiting Bergenheim, who scooped into the open side of the net. The Game 7 version was the first cognitive moment of jubilation that I can remember. Not to say that I didn’t have a happy childhood, but this feeling, this explosion of relief mixed with belief and elation, it was something I had never experienced before. It’s a feeling I only get when watching sports, and once when I opened my ACT scores.
The two moments I remember from the second round came in Game 2 and Game 4. I missed the first period of Game 2 because my mom had taken us to Disney that night, but I was back in plenty of time to watch Randy Jones fling the puck up to Teddy Purcell, who sent a backdoor pass to Vincent Lecavalier for a quick overtime winner. Then, in Game 4, Martin St Louis’s late-3rd period goal, scoring with under 4 minutes to ice the game and series. Marty takes a pass at the blue line, drives Washington’s Jon Carlson back and zips a shot blocker side off the post and in. Two more moments of pure jubilation.
But with jubilation comes heartbreak, which is what happened when Boston’s Nathan Horton scored late in Game 7 to send the Lightning home in the Conference Final round. I flew too close to the sun and got burned. My heart broke, but it didn’t have a lasting impact because I was too young to comprehend the stakes. Or maybe my innocence remained, shielding me from the dark forces I was playing with. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t last much longer.
* * * *
June 3rd, 2015, was a momentous day. I was a sophomore in high school and it was exam week, so naturally I was blowing off studying. After the day’s exam that I definitely got an A on, I went to my older brother’s graduation, which was taking place in Expo Hall. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but dream big. I was there for a high school graduation, one of the more mind-numbingly boring events a 16-year-old might attend. But my mind was fixated on later that evening. The Lightning were set to take on the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. And as I sat there tuning out Strawberry Crest High School’s salutatorian, I got this feeling of magic and amazement. I was sitting in the building where the Lightning played its first ever game, against the very same Blackhawks, a 6-2 win punctuated by Kris Kontos’ four goal performance. Just a few hours later, I would be sitting in a much different building, Amalie Arena, to watch the clubs face off on the game’s biggest stage. It just felt like it was all meant to be.
When Alex Killorn opened the scoring four and a half minutes into the game, batting a floated shot out of the air and in between his legs through a surprised Corey Crawford, the building erupted. To this day, it is the loudest thing I have ever heard. I hugged my uncle, I hugged this stranger next to me and I roared with excitement. Another moment of jubilation.
But that moment only lasted a few periods. Chicago came back to win that game, 2-1, and pushed the Lightning to the brink of elimination in Game 6. Like I fool I went out in public for that game, to Amalie for the team’s official watch party. I’d like to say I was optimistic, but for the first time in my life I carried with me a sickening feeling, a tugging in my gut that warned of the dangers ahead. It was right, and when the final buzzer went I collapsed. My mind shut down, my body shut down, and I sat there for what felt like an eternity, stunned beyond belief.
I have this theory that a person’s spirit is bound within oneself, tethered to the body by strings. There are a finite number of strings, and sometimes these strings can snap, snipped away by an invisible pair of scissors. One of my strings was snipped that night.
* * * *
I had a few more snips in the years to follow. Obviously, one was the following May, when the Penguins outlasted Tampa Bay in the conference finals. Another came when the team missed the playoffs the next season. I got dumped by my first girlfriend somewhere in between. A certain national soccer team (that is dead to me) failed to qualify for the World Cup.
There have also been a few highs, those moments of jubilation. I got to call my first sporting event on the radio. I saw Billy Joel live. My beloved Manchester City won the Premier League. The Icelandic national team (who actually knew what it was doing) qualified for the aforementioned World Cup.
But it all culminated a year ago this week. The Stanley Cup Playoffs were once again nigh and for once I was feeling really confident about the Lightning’s chances. The nerves ratcheted up after a less-than-convincing series win over the New Jersey Devils. Those nerves were instantly calmed through the stellar domination of the Bruins in the second round. The feeling of hope, of optimism had returned and I was ready for the conference finals. It was only Washington, right?
Those first two games were rough, as I’m sure you remember. Still, the hope held out and it felt like job done after Game 5. The Bolts played their best hockey of the series and seemed poised to punch their ticket to the Final with a win in Game 6.
That didn’t happen, and the tugging returned. It festered for the next day and a half, and as I walked through the doors into Amalie for Game 7, I knew I would be walking out a changed person. And I had a sinking feeling it would be for the worse.
My fear was confirmed when Alex Ovechkin scored a minute into the game, but a strong push in the rest of the period kept me from going off the cliff. After the second period? I am not exaggerating when I say I ran to the bathroom and violently threw up. It was if my body realized it was over and wanted to exhume any lingering hope. I laid on a chair in the concourse for most of the third, being unable to watch the horror unfolding in front of me. I’d been crushed emotionally before, but never had so many strings been snipped in one fell swoop.
* * * *
The next few days my mind was in a comatose state. I have no idea what I did or how I rationalized it, but eventually I climbed out of the hole because, well, I’m still here. I’ve moved past it, without really moving on. It still haunts me, bringing flashes of sorrow and anguish at random points in the day.
I only have one string left. I don’t know how but I can feel it. One more snip and my spirit will be broken beyond repair. Those are the stakes this time around, and I imagine I am not the only one. Last season changed me, pushed me to a pessimism that has scared me at times.
I don’t feel that tugging this year. Not to say that it won’t come later on, but right now the impending doom is not gathering on the horizon. I get the sense that all the heartbreak, all the trying times and snipping of strings, it’s all lead to this moment. The suffering will have been worth it; the jubilation will be so powerful that the fallen strings will reattach and restore the gleeful approach toward life.
As national writers have pointed out, the Lightning probably won’t win the Stanley Cup this year. Being the best team doesn’t matter, because the best team hardly ever wins. But I don’t know, I have a feeling it’s all going to work out. It better work out.
Because I’m not ready to find out what happens when you run out of snips.
Looking for more Tampa Bay Lightning coverage? Check out What the Lightning Can Learn From the Previous Five Seasons! Check back here for unique coverage throughout the playoffs!
Are you a Tampa Bay Lightning fanatic? We'd love to hear more about your fan experience. Register if you haven't already and leave your comments below! We'd love to talk more puck with you! Be sure to also check out our Sports Page for more coverage of Tampa Bay sports, including watch parties and fan gatherings, all here on 813area!