Two things stand out most to me about the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.
First is, I went to see three of those Finals games here in Tampa with my stepfather. He had the hook up on some primo seats. Not only did I attend those games in person, including the seventh and final game where each and every Lightning player hoisted the Stanley Cup around the ice for all us fans to see, but there was open bar and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
You see, I wasn’t much of a hockey fan back then. Sure, growing up partially in Tampa, I was rooting for the local team to succeed. But at that point, again, I was not much of a hockey guy. I was much more enthralled by the spread. All-you-can-eat oysters, sushi ‘til you burst and all the top shelf bourbon you could irresponsibly drink and didn’t have to pay for. For the baller on a budget, those club seats to a Stanley Cup Finals were far more exhilarating than the championship itself. I even went out afterwards to the neighboring party district. It was a nebbish celebration at best, no comparison to the fracas Monday night.
Here’s the second thing I recall quite vividly about those Finals. Back then, I was working at a trucking company running their operations department. One of the fellows we delivered product to ran a packaging plant in St. Louis. He was a DIEHARD Blues fan. Brett Hull was about to retire back then and the Blues, my colleague’s favorite team, had never won a Stanley Cup. They finally did in 2019. Even though I haven’t spoken to this gentleman in years and I for the life of me cannot remember his name, I thought of how jealous he was that I got to attend these games. While basketball, baseball and football had always meant the world to me, I thought of how feverishly he talked about hockey, how jealous he was that I, a chump who knew so little about the sport, got to attend THREE Stanley Cup Finals games, while he had none, and all I could do was talk about free oysters.
Things have changed since 2004.
I moved back to Tampa and have seen my fair share of Bolts games over the past seven years, which just happened to coincide with the Lightning’s gradual rebirth. I’ve gambled and lost, I’ve laughed and cried, I’ve cheered and I’ve suffered. I’ve built incredible friendships over that time but I’ve also watched a team grow year by year, intently, to the point of greatness.
I watched as an extremely talented and well-put together team made their second Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, yet lost to a Chicago Blackhawks team that was ultimately more talented. I watched again in 2016 as the Lightning would reach the Eastern Conference Finals only to lose to the eventual champions Pittsburgh Penguins. I watched in 2018 when they would again reach the Eastern Conference Finals… only to lose again to the eventual champion Washington Capitals. Always the bridesmaid.
And yes, I watched last year as the team with the best regular season record in hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning, got swept in the first round by the 8th-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.
It was a bitter a pill to swallow.
But what I loved about this team, and there was so much to love, was its resolve. Talented, loaded, committed, classy, well-run from top to bottom, in 2020 the Bolts came back and gave the entire town something to cheer about, reminding us that those within the organization were inconceivably more pissed off and vengeful about how this team has, dare I say, underachieved, i.e., not won a title.
As is the case with all championship teams, these Tampa Bay Lightning needed to learn how to win and sometimes it takes some hard, gut-wrenching losing to do that. Stanley Cups do not come easy.
This team that got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets last year counted down the days (422!) until they faced them again. Then they beat them, decidedly. Then they handled the Boston Bruins. Then the New York Islanders. And then in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Dallas Stars, in six beautiful games. In each series, they proved to be the better, the more determined and God bless ‘em, the more destined team.
And while, thanks to coronavirus, we Lightning fans did not get to attend the festivities live, or eat oysters on a whim, we celebrated and will continue to celebrate. For our time is now! While the town may not have received the influx of visitors it normally would have, Tampa still celebrates a hard-earned, long-time-coming championship for a franchise that from top to bottom has proven to be one of the best in professional sports, year after year.
I could say that in these circumstances, any town could use a championship but damn if this one isn’t ours. And gloriously so!
This team has brought us all along on a wild ride and I am so thankful to be part of it. As the tears rolled down my face and even long before that moment, I realized that with all my sports allegiances, this team is the one I’ve become most emotionally vested in, watching period after period, year after year… and was it ever damn worth it!
Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Lightning and to their fans for a championship so very well-deserved. You have made an entire town of rabid fans appreciate the work and sacrifice you put in.
To the Cup and the joy that it brought all of us. Lord Stanley…. Welcome home!!!
BRING ON THE PARADE!!!