My favorite player growing up was Carl Yastrzemski.
Hailing from New York City but having spent formative years in Providence, Rhode Island, the Boston Red Sox became my favorite team. This was the late 1970s. Of all the Sox I could have chosen for my own, Yaz stood head and tails above the rest.
I had an autographed baseball from Yaz that I still have to this day. It made an impression on me. HE made an impression on me.
Which brings us to the subject of this post.
On a brisk (for Florida) Thursday evening, BCole and I took her youngest son to a Bolts home game. The city is still celebrating its back-to-back Stanley Cup championships (as we should) and the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to dole out great entertainment value and some even greater hockey.
With talent like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Andre Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Braden Point and the rest of the back-to-backers, I can assure you this run is not lost on Tampa Bay fans. We are loud, proud and pack Amalie Arena for every home game.
LeBrode, soon to be 13, had been to a Lightning game once before when he was much younger but didn’t remember it much. There’s nothing like strutting into a professional sporting event, especially at an impressionable age. Everything just seems bigger, more grandiose. It’s how memories are made and how sports fans are solidified. Watching him enjoy the game brought me back to my youth, where the game was all there was and everything else was secondary.
It wasn’t long afterwards that LeBrode gained a new favorite player thanks to a moment he will never forget.
Our seats for the game already down low, we snuck even lower as the minutes wound down. The Lightning had put things out of reach against the Vancouver Canucks. An empty net goal in the final minutes gave our beloved Lightning a 4-2 lead they would not relinquish. Considering the Canucks had only mustered two cheapies against the Big Cat, the likelihood of them scoring two in ninety seconds was minimal. Fans started to clear out of the stadium to beat the traffic. But not us.
Knowing the Bolts would return to the ice after the game to celebrate their three stars of the evening, taking one final curtain call, we snuck down right against the glass. The friendly security guard hinted the team would be passing out pucks so we got as close as we could. Steven Stamkos, Lightning captain and future Hall of Famer, was the first star of the night, having set the tone by scoring the first goal of the game. He skated around the ice and tossed a puck over the plexiglass to his adoring fans, both young and old.
Then came the second star of the night, the young Tampa Bay defenseman Erik Cernak, aka, LeBrode’s new favorite player. As Cernak approached the plexiglass, he spotted the young, wide-eyed LeBrode, giddy to be so close for his early birthday celebration. And wouldn’t you know it. Cernak tossed an autographed puck right into his hands.
As if by magic, LeBrode’s wide eyes became even wider. His smile was unerasable. It was all he could do to not hit the gift shop and immediately scour the room for a Cernak jersey. Big number 81 had made himself a fan for life.
Constantly repeating that Cernak was his new favorite player, it was a moment young LeBrode will never forget, and I mean never, all thanks to the smallest interaction from fan to child. It is how fans are made and remain that way for life.
We view games differently now than we did forty years ago. There was no 24-hour coverage or constant over-analysis of a player’s actions on or off the field of play. There was no social media for fans to interact with their idols or for players to, far too often, show their true colors. You got what you got when you got it, either on TV or in the newspaper the following morning. Players didn’t make that lasting impression unless you were lucky enough to see a game in person or catch them signing autographs until their wrists went sore, the most gracious ones understanding that doing so for a young fan could change the trajectory of their lives, making them feel special and with a single gesture, catapult their image into permanently unfettered status.
Some athletes still understand that. Some franchises still get that as well. That’s not to suggest Erik Cernak and the Tampa Bay Lightning do it any better than any other player on any other franchise but they did that Thursday night.
LeBrode will forever remember the night he caught that autographed puck from big #81. We were fortunate enough to see it happen right before our eyes: the very foundation of a fan. Thank you Bolts, Erik Cernak, LeBrode, BCole and the councilman for making it happen and for bringing me back to my youth in the process.
And as always, Go Bolts!