There are the little experiences of life and then there are the hockey experiences of life. This past season has been full of little hockey experiences for me. I've learnt to skate backwards without falling over, I played a game on Bell Centre ice and now over the last few days I've attended two playoff games in Tampa.
What made this particular experience even more special was that I wasn't there to cover a game as I've done in the past, I was there as a fan having purchased my very own tickets.
I was free to wear a jersey of my choice, cheer and soak up all that hockey in Tampa has to offer.
Growing up in Montreal, my family lived and breathed hockey. Not having cable until I was 12, we just had one channel on TV and for some reason hockey seemed to be the only thing on. But just because we were fans of the sport and we played the game in the streets and on the backyard rink, it didn't mean that we could afford tickets to see an NHL game.
To this day, buying a ticket to see a Montreal Canadiens game puts a huge dent in one's pocket. So when I made the decision to come down to Tampa I was thrilled to see how affordable game tickets were.
A Thunder Bay Ontario Dad had the same idea. I met he and his family in the hotel lobby. The family had just been on a trip to Disney and Dad decided to treat his wife and his three hockey-playing daughters to an NHL game. Tickets for five at a Maple Leafs game, the closest team in their hometown province, would also be a bit pricey, not to mention the 17 hour drive to Toronto. In fact, being in northern Ontario, driving to Minnesota for a Wild game would be quicker. As luck would have it, I happen to run into the Thunder Bay family down by the glass for the pregame warm-up. Dad had bought Lightning ts for his girls who had ear-to-ear smiles on their sun-burnt faces. This would be their first NHL game.
My own excitement grew as I first laid eyes on St. Pete Times Forum. My hotel room happened to have a view of the arena and music from the square outside the Forum lofted up to my balcony beckoning me to join the Game 3 pregame party.
Outside the rink, kids, who have probably never seen snow, enjoyed throwing snowballs at a mannequin decked in Bruins gear, while their parents enjoyed one of the many beverage options and live music. Many fans were also enjoying hand-rolled cigars, possibly made just around the corner in Ybor City. It's not in every NHL city you can enjoy the warm sun under the shadow of a palm tree with a beer and a cigar in hand before heading in to watch your favorite team.
For Game 3 I had selected a ticket close to the ice behind the Bruins bench. While my view was somewhat limited to the neutral zone and one end of the ice, the pace was much faster than from my usual press box view and I enjoyed watching the interaction between the players, coaches and officials. It was particularly interesting to watch Boston’s Mark Recchi give pointers to rookie Tyler Seguin and watch the referees discuss calls with Boston coach Claude Julien.
As you are aware Lightning fans, the Bolts fell 2-0 to the Bruins in Game 3, but it’s for this very reason why a playoff series is a best of seven.
Game 4 started out bright and early for me at 8 am as I ran in the Lightning-sponsored US Secret Service 5km road race leaving and finishing from St. Pete Times Forum. I didn't set any records time-wise, as I'm not quite used to the heat being from Quebec, but I finished. Coming through the Tampa Convention centre, I was never happier to see the Forum, knowing my pain would soon be over. The Lightning had already begun to set up for the game, so many of the kids who had raced and still had energy tried their best in the shooting accuracy drills and games.
My seat for Game 4 was located behind the net closest to the Lightning bench. I was seated next to 14-year-old Amanda and her Mom. The Tampa teenager native describes herself as hockey freak, which she says is a good thing. She's explained the game to all of her friends, who are now in turn all Lightning fans. Amanda first attended a game last season and has been hooked on the Bolts ever since. She's proudly attended all of Tampa's playoff games, sitting with her Mom in the same two seats. She told me her favorite players are Victor Hedman and Vincent Lecavalier, but she's got all of the players' names written down on her Converse sneakers, along with the names of Lightning-cheering friends.
Things were looking a little grim after the first period of Game 4, but after two goals by Teddy Purcell in the second period, the Forum came alive and so did the Lightning players. The noise in the Forum started to rival any the original-six team arenas as the Bolts mounted their comeback. Amanda and fellow friends from section 123 were on their feet screaming loudly as the Lightning took a 5-3 victory.
As we headed outside following the win, we were greeted by the sounds of 70s and 80s rock band, Cheap Trick. Most fans chose to stay for the tunes and I got pulled into a few pictures by some friendly Tampa fans.
I used to cover and watch a lot of games when I worked at the NHL, but watching this game as a casual fan, was an extremely unique experience. Lighting playoff hockey is definitely an experience I won't soon forget.
Thank you Tampa.