“We are so spoiled,” she said to me from across the bar, cold pint in front of her, husband to her side. This woman has been a friend of mine for years. Having been raised a Sabres fan (and her hubby a Hab), their extended time in Tampa Bay turned them both into Bolts aficionados. How could it not?
Season ticket holders for years, she knows her hockey. In fact, she’s the only person I know who plays fantasy hockey… and wins her league.
She, along with the countless others living in the Tampa Bay area, have been witness to one of the most breathtaking runs in professional sports history. The ride we have all shared has been nothing short of inspirational, for the Tampa Bay Lightning stand on the verge of a third, consecutive Stanley Cup.
I’ll admit to not being the biggest hockey fan as a child. That has long since changed. Despite having grown up in New York, my folks never watched the sport. I never skated, at least not on ice.
Having lived in Tampa for the first Cup run back in the early 2000s, I went to a few Stanley Cup Finals games, but they were lost on me. With absolutely no disrespect meant to that first Tampa Bay championship team, what happened back then and what’s happening now are entirely different animals. What we are in the middle of is otherworldly if not magical, a constantly recurring state of pinch yourself delight.
The perfect storm first brewed in Tampa in 1992, when Phil Esposito thought a hockey franchise could survive, if not thrive in Tampa Bay. Talk about foreshadowing. Jeff Vinik bought the team in 2010. That same year, former Red Wing great Steve Yzerman was named General Manager. I remember thinking to myself, this can’t be a bad thing.
In 2016, ESPN the Magazine ranked the Tampa Bay Lightning as the best run franchise in all professional sports. They somehow calculated fan interaction with ticket prices to determine which teams were the most accessible to their fan base. The Bolts turned up number one. They even let season ticket holders into the locker room to pose with the team’s top star for a photo shoot. How many teams do you know let that happen?
That was seven years ago when this franchise was voted into the top spot. There’s no way that number could possibly have subsided.
What this team has done, on the doorstep of a third Stanley Cup is nothing short of historic. Their 11 consecutive playoff series wins now ranks third best in NHL history. Professional sport has not seen a threepeat since the 2002 Lakers and not in hockey since the early 80s Islanders. Those opportunities are left for legends.
So much had to happen to get to this point. In fact, it came very close to not happening at all. There was a time where fans questioned whether we should retain an aging and popular Ben Bishop in lieu of this young unfamiliar kid named Andrei Vasilevskiy, and no, I no longer need to spell check that name. That once unfamiliar kid now boasts a .991 save percentage is his last eight series-clinching games. There was a time when a talented yet aging and injury-prone Canadian was thought to leave the Lightning for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Steven Stamkos will one day have a statue bearing his likeness outside Amalie Arena.
This was a talented and promising young team that lost the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. Their future seemed bright. They then regressed, missing the playoffs altogether two years later and getting swept in the first round two years after that. After those downfalls, this was a town that gossiped rumblings about whether their soft-spoken head coach Jon Cooper was the right man for the job. He now ranks 13th in all-time playoff coaching wins. Four more wins puts him in the top ten.
This was a team that routinely dealt with injuries to key players. Yet the franchise, from ownership to management to coaching to those on the ice never lost sight of the goals they set for themselves. This team has and continues to practice patience.
The entire bay area has been along for the ride.
There are a million reasons why this team is so beloved by nearly everyone in the community. You can hear it in the way they speak about each other. Their head coach shakes his head in disbelief at the will that his players muster. They in turn praise the man who helped lead them this far. The locker room hails Vasilevskiy as the best player in hockey and, to be fair, he’s already mentioned among the Mount Rushmore of hockey goalies (He’s only 27). In turn, Vasy humbly credits his teammates for the defense they play. In an elimination game, the New York Rangers could only muster 21 shots on goal. The Lightning defense, and goaltending, is stifling. On the opposite end of the ice, their offense can score on you in droves.
For those of you living outside the Tampa Bay area, I can assure you that there are few people in this region, who aren’t and haven’t been 100% behind this squad, from going to the games, to watching them, to knowing and revering the players, to wearing their gear, to hugging and crying and high-fiving with each glorious moment they have graced us with along the way.
I see it in their faces and feel it in their embraces. This team has forged relationships. It’s provided us with countless hours of entertainment along this historical if not incomparable run.
It’s not over yet. There are four wins left to make their mark. Regardless of what happens these next two weeks, I can tell you for a fact that these last seven years have been exhilarating and unforgettable.
This, sports fans, is how you run a franchise and yes, we are spoiled to be a part of it.
For now and forever, Go Bolts!