Two hours before the third edition of the fan-favorite Q&A session Lighting Unplugged kicked off, a record-crowd of approximately 750 fans struggled to find parking spaces within the Barnacle’s parking lot in Brandon as if the venue was hosting a celebrity birthday bash.
In fact, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, one could say it did in a way.
Steven Stamkos couldn’t help but laugh.
The popular restaurant was deemed a fitting atmosphere for Stamkos to personally poke fun at his own expense, especially with the Lightning’s resident comedian Zenon Konopka joining him as a guest at Lightning Unplugged, the increasingly popular fan interactiveevent that drew its largest crowd to date in front of a standing-room-only audience.
Stamkos, who will celebrate a birthday on Feb. 7, was presented with an early birthday cake and a bag of his favorite snack, the hard-to-find ketchup chips native to Canada, after being asked about his diet.
“If I don’t play too well tomorrow night, you guys will know why,” Stamkos joked.
Not only were hundreds of Stamkos’ close friends in attendance, including his best bud Thunderbug, but Konopka even reversed the roles and got to know his friends a little better too.
After enduring half a season of wondering who his biggest fan was with the trademarked ‘Konopka is my fighter’ sign that is often displayed on Lightning Vision, the 29-year-old center finally met his match.
“Every year I choose one player to follow and who I decide is going to be my favorite,” Ashley Hartley, the creator of the sign said. “Zenon has not disappointed. He’s a great fighter and recently he’s been scoring goals too.”
Joining Thunderbug was the Lightning Mobile Marketing Truck and the Lightning Girls, who provided fans with free autographed giveaways and chances to win Lightning tickets as well as other team merchandise.
“I had never been to Unplugged before, but the format of the program is what initially drew me to come out to the event,” Valrico resident Lisa Sandoval said. “A lot of our guys are young and we don’t know much about them except what they do on the ice, so I enjoyed being here and getting to know them a little better.”
Sandoval was just one of many who learned fun facts about both players, such as why Stamkos chose to wear number 91 on his jersey, Konopka’s favorite thing about Tampa Bay, as well as his least favorite person to square off against in a hockey fight.
“When I came to Tampa, there was already a player here that had worn number 19 and I wasn’t going to take such a great player like Brad Richards’ number so I just flipped it around,” Stamkos said.
As for Konopka, Chris Neil tops the list of familiar foes when it comes to fisticuffs.
“I really don’t like him too much,” Konopka said.
While Stamkos also said that his laptop computer was his favorite personal belonging to bring on every road trip, he couldn’t help but crack yet another smile when incredulous fans opted instead for the now-infamous red Snuggie which made for humorous headlines through a picture on the team’s Twitter site.
“This is my first Unplugged event,” Tampa resident Brian Maholm said. “It was a lot of fun, it was good to see so many fans come out in support and I thought Lightning did a great job of marketing it on Facebook. That’s actually how I found about it.”
Unplugged is a staple of the Lightning’s “Together We Will” marketing campaign, bringing at least two Lightning players into the neighborhoods of Tampa Bay each month to family friendly restaurants and pubs.
“Lightning Unplugged represents the continued evolution of the new Tampa Bay Lightning and our desires to create more transparency to the team and our players for our fans,” Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Angelina Lawton said. “The Together We Will campaign is meant to be all-inclusive, drawing our fans and our players in one common direction. The goal is for our fans to associate with our players as people, giving them a glimpse of who the guys really are. Unplugged is merely one means for us to open ourselves up a bit more personally for the fans.”
Lightning fans can get more details about the next Lightning Unplugged, by visiting tampabaylightning.com, or by following the team at facebook.com/lighning.nhl and at TBLightning@twitter.com.