In his 20-plus years working in hockey, Rob Kennedy had never packed a glass panel from the hockey rink onto a team charter for transport to the destination city.
He'd stowed plenty of off-the-wall items in his career: A flat-screen TV, golf clubs (not shocking), home furniture (smaller items like a nightstand, not, say, a couch), guitars (you'd be surprised how many players and staff are musically inclined) and Christmas decorations (huh?).
For the two-month stay in the Toronto bubble alone, they'd bring four glove dryers each about the size of a dorm room refrigerator, an A/C unit, a hydrocollator and inflatable tubs for post-game recovery.
But an eight-foot tall pane of glass?
"Would it even fit through the plane's door?" Kennedy, the assistant equipment manager for the Tampa Bay Lightning, wondered. He checked the plane's dimensions with the Lightning's senior director of team services Ryan Belec, who secures the team's charter for every trip and supplies the charter company with the size and weight of the traveling party. Together, they determined the glass should just squeeze into the cargo hold.
"It's going to fit," Kennedy recalled thinking. "One way or the other, we'll make it fit. It's going to go with us."
Eryn McVerry, the Lightning's senior vice president of content and brand strategy, had her own nervous nights leading up to the team's departure for Toronto Sunday.
Would the glass break during transport?
What about the messages and signatures signed on the glass? Could they smear?
"In working with our operations team, they built kind of a holder for the glass, safely packaged and bubble wrapped, all pun intended, for the glass," McVerry said. "You're talking about differences in temperature it being in a cargo hold, so you just didn't want anything with the glass to either expand or contract or have any of the protective film smear the Sharpie signatures. None of that happened, thankfully. They took all the precautions necessary in order to keep the integrity of the glass and the signatures."
With these Stanley Cup Playoffs being unprecedented in the format and the emptiness of the arenas the games will be played in, the National Hockey League solicited ideas from member teams about how they could honor their fans while also bringing them into the playoff experience in a socially-distanced way.
The Lightning had an idea they had been kicking around internally. What if they had fans sign a panel of the glass that encircles the rink and brought that glass to the hub city? The glass could then be installed for a game as an outside-the-box way of showing the team the support they have back home from Lightning nation. And it would also be a cool visual on TV and in photos for the league and organization to showcase Bolts fans' excitement for what promises to be the most unique playoffs to date.
"'Be The Thunder' has been the marketing campaign, kind of the celebration of that relationship between the fans and the players," McVerry said. "And with 'Be The Distant Thunder' it was really about the fact that we're in such a unique time period right now with the pandemic. But social distancing doesn't mean social isolation. You're seeing people connect and you're seeing these new kind of communities. And so at the end of the day, it was like how do we find a way to bridge people together again?"
Hockey is unique in that it's the only sport that features a glass barrier between the players on the ice and the fans in the stands. The glass protects spectators from getting hit by line-drive pucks, in much the same we've seen glass crop up in new places during the pandemic - in grocery stores between cashiers and their customers, in restaurants to separate tables, at workspaces to keep employees safe - protecting the public from the air particles that may contain COVID-19.
"We wanted to kind of take that and have (the glass) be the symbol for what we're doing," McVerry said. "It's a natural part of hockey. We wanted it to be kind of this bridge because you're seeing that protective glass in the community, you're seeing that protective glass in the arena. That became kind of a natural bridge for us to say how do we connect them?"
The NHL was immediately receptive to the idea, even though it would necessitate them having to change out one of the glass panels before the Lightning played.
"They saw the vision and really helped us to identify three different areas on the glass that could make sense, even talking so much of like what would the shot look like from a camera angle where the glass is placed," McVerry said. "So they were very much a part of the process working and connecting us with hockey ops as well as NHL studios to execute this for Wednesday."
Two hours before the Lightning's exhibition against the Florida Panthers Wednesday, the glass was installed at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena, a couple strides away from the right circle face-off dot where the dasher boards start to turn to go behind the net. The signed glass was visible throughout the FOX Sports Sun broadcast of the game and in photos from the exhibition, including one particularly cool shot through the signed glass of the Lightning scoring one of their five goals.
"We saw them on the cameras from our room, we saw them putting it in," Brayden Point said after the Bolts' 5-0 win over the Panthers. "That's a nice touch. That's really cool that the fans took the time to put those messages out there. It's obviously tough to read them when you're playing, but now that we know that's there, we'll take a look at it. Just awesome to have that support and the fans took their time to go out and sign it. That's pretty special."
The organization wants to use the glass for future playoff games too.
"Our hope is to get the glass up for the round robin game on August 8 (against Philadelphia)," McVerry said. "This is where we will be launching our first television commercial related to kind of this relationship, even the things that separate us bring us closer together. And so you'll start to see some television commercials about this. You will also see our push to get (the glass) into playoff games. That's our hope."
Some of the messages written in blue Sharpie on the glass are the same phrases one might hear during the course of a game at AMALIE Arena.
"Bring home da cup!"
"We believe in you! Go Bolts!"
"We are the THUNDER"
"Lord Stanley needs a tan. Go Bolts!"
Over 400 people signed the glass at AMALIE Arena during the two-day signing window July 24 and 25. Registration for the signing events was announced on the Lightning's social media channels and was full within 30 minutes of that announcement.
Even Tampa mayor Jane Castor, an avid Lightning fan, added her signature to the collection.
"We obviously know we're going into a very strange situation, and I think any sort of mementos and little things, little tokens we can remember our fans by, remember our Lightning community by is going to just keep things real I think," Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "For us, it's going to be important for us to try to do that within ourselves, to keep that mentality that it's like a regular year. We have to recreate that same kind of atmosphere. Bringing a piece of our fans with us is certainly something that helps us out."
The Lightning players and coaches left a piece for their fans to enjoy as well. The team signed another glass panel with thank you messages for healthcare workers before they left, a panel that has since been installed at AdventHealth Tampa and is being used as a safety barrier at the emergency room front desk inside the hospital.
"The glass is uplifting for the staff because when they've had a rough day, they can look back and see a physical reminder of the Lightning's support," said Brandon Bougard, RN, AVP of emergency services at AdventHealth Tampa.
The organization is continuing to plan more opportunities to get the community involved, part of the build of excitement as the team gets closer to round one of the playoffs. Two additional glass signings took place at Sparkman Wharf and Armature Works this week. There's an 'All On Board' call for fans to sign car windows, driveways or their own window panes at home.
"We're going to be taking a lot of photographs of signatures and digitizing them, which we'll then repurpose those digitized messages in other media so fans can see their signatures digitally and socially as well as some out-of-home components we're putting together," McVerry said.
More reinforcement that even though Bolts fans are apart from the team, they're still a part of the team.