Winning a family affair
Brad Richards knew that Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals -- win or lose -- would be one of the benchmarks of his young life.
Having left his close-knit hometown of Murray Harbour, Prince Edward Island, to chase his hockey playing dreams at a very young age, Richards knew that he did not want to experience the thrill of a lifetime without family around.
So, he put out the phone calls and received an overwhelming response. Twenty-seven friends and family from PEI heeded his call and undertook the time-consuming trek from Canada's Maritimes to Florida's West Coast. Another pair, including one of Richards' closest childhood friends, made the trek from Wisconsin.
"It makes it so special that they were willing to get on the plane for that," said Richards, noting that his entourage had to get to nearby Halifax and then switch plans in Newark, N.J., before finally landing in Tampa -- an all-day proposition. "I wouldn't have wanted them to miss that and they didn't want to miss it either, which made me so happy."
Richards was even happier after the Lightning defeated Calgary that night, eking out a taut 2-1 win at the sold-out St. Pete Times Forum. As his team celebrated the Stanley Cup that came with that win, Richards celebrated the moment with his mom and dad, all three waving to the more than two dozen other close friends on hand.
But that was just the most public in a litany of family celebrations on that magical first Monday of June. Each Lightning player, it seemed, had a child or another loved one that they wanted to have see and touch the Stanley Cup almost more than the player himself wanted the trophy.
Defenseman Brad Lukowich was one of the first ones to return to the locker room after captain Dave Andreychuk had placed the Stanley Cup in the middle of the floor, leaving it for family and friends to enjoy while the players finished their celebration with the raucous crowd.
He immediately scooped up 13-month-old daughter Michaela and placed her in the bowl atop the silver chalice as wife Cara caught the scene on her camcorder. Eventually, Michaela tired of all the fuss and began to cry.
"That's all right," Lukowich cooed soothingly. "We'll have plenty of time with (the Cup) this summer."
That cleared the way for Darren Rumble's children to take pictures with Stanley as Rumble stood to the side, beaming proudly. That scene was followed by Cory Stillman's three children hamming it up around the Cup before Andreychuk, who had waited 22 years for this moment, celebrated with his family.
Youngest daughter Brooke was placed inside the Cup, while older daughters Taylor and Caci flanked the trophy as their mom, Sue, snapped of a few pictures for posterity. Then, it was her turn to join in as she knelt down to kiss the prize that her husband had single-mindedly chased for over two decades.
Ben Clymer, a reserve for most of the postseason before jumping into the playing lineup late in the Finals, was overwhelmed by the display.
"It sends chills up my spine," said Clymer, 26. "Twenty-two years in the League and on a bunch of successful teams, but never this. Now, he has it and he can enjoy it. I'm only 26, but I guess you can say I've waited 26 years for this -- in a different way. But, we would have done anything for him, he's been everything for our team."
That sense of family, not only among the players, but extending to the front office and the support personnel did not come accidentally, said defenseman Nolan Pratt. Instead, it was nurtured through the actions of GM Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella.
"It starts with Jay Feaster and John Tortorella," explained Pratt. "Family has always been first for those guys. They make sure we have the time to be with our families and give us a lot of days off. For everyone tonight to have their families here is just an unbelievable thing."
Eventually, however, the close-knit family of Lightning players, allowed to mature almost untouched for the last three years, needed some time to itself to reflect on its accomplishment.
So, the players' families were asked to leave the delirious dressing room, this hours after the Cup was first claimed. They understood, realizing it was time for the Lightning family -- the players, the coaches, the trainers and the broadcasters -- to have a few minutes to savor their victory.
"No matter what happens, we will always walk together," said Martin St. Louis, the team's leading scorer during the regular season.
According to Richards, it was an emotional get together that lasted just a few minutes. A few players made speeches and they shared some stories and laughs for the final time before taking another team picture in the center of the dressing room.
"We had the whole room to ourselves," said Richards. "We just ran around, played the music we liked to listen to and had some laughs. If I could rewind that night, that's the time I would go to and play. It was so special to me, something I will never forget."
How could he, with both his old PEI family and his new Tampa Bay Lightning on hand to celebrate the most magical of nights.