As I walked toward our jet ready to start my first ever road trip with the Tampa Bay Lightning, or any professional sports franchise for that matter (I landed my first full-time sports gig in July of 2013), I was accompanied by television play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham and television color analyst Bobby “the Chief” Taylor.
“When Erin Andrews made her first trip…” the Chief began. Yet that was all I needed to hear…
Former Lightning feature reporter turned ESPN and now Fox Sports broadcaster, Erin Andrews, has become a staple for young women pursuing careers in sports journalism, and I was starting my career with the very same organization she had years before.
From that point on I knew it was going to be a momentous journey, filled with the rich history that permeated through three of the “Orignal Six” cities in the National Hockey League.
Finally situated and ready to take off, I eagerly awaited our arrival to the first stop on the road tour and of course it was not without a host of surprised faces and comments about my presence on the plane.
The team was going to a city that has a lot of history and ties with the Lightning organization, albeit a lack of actual games played there (only 32 entering the 2013-14 season).
For starters Bolts’ vice president and general manager Steven Yzerman’s presence in the Motor City is always newsworthy. Yzerman’s significance to Detroit is obvious, being he had a long career on and off the ice there, but an outsider may not realize the size of his impact until they see “Steve Yzerman Drive,” where the Red Wings arena is located.
“The Joe,” as it is called, oozed history. From the worn and tattered, but very classic, arena itself to an impressive locker room that displays the Red Wings success from the top of the walls to the carpets. As the Lightning arrived at Joe Louis Arena, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock was holding his pre-game media scrum from Detroit’s dressing room.
The Bolts may have had an ugly 1-13-1 record all-time in Detroit, but Tampa Bay had begun a new era that even the well-respected Babcock recognized. The Lightning were tied for first in the Atlantic Division and had won three straight, as well as six over their past seven contests heading into the game.
Valtteri Filppula was also making his return to Detroit for the first time since being acquired by the Bolts in the offseason. Filppula, along with the rest of the team, had something to prove for the franchise and I would be sitting first hand in one of the oldest press boxes in the league to watch.
The Red Wing’s captain, Henrik Zetterberg, netted a goal early in the first to put the Lightning down 1-0, but the Bolts evened the score quickly. Steven Stamkos then gave the Lightning a 2-1 advantage, but Zetterberg struck again late in the third period to force overtime.
The Red Wings had lost four straight games at home, including three in the extra frame or shootout, and with 1:09 to spare in overtime Teddy Purcell silenced the crowd and handed Detroit their fifth consecutive loss.
The victory put the entire Bolts’ team on an unbelievable high heading into Boston, the next stop on the trip. Though they had lost two straight in the month of October to the Bruins, there was blind optimism this time around, as the team looked ahead to a Veteran’s Day matchup at TD Garden.
Yet the optimism quickly vanished to outside Lightning critics at the end of the game, and perhaps it had little to do with a 3-0 whitewash handed to Tampa Bay that afternoon.
Late in the second period something was visibly wrong with superstar center Steven Stamkos. After back checking Boston’s Dougie Hamilton, Stamkos’ right leg collided with a goal post. He tried to come back to his feet twice, but failed and collapsed to the ground in anguish, fists punching the ice.
The entire crowd at TD Garden went silent – not a good sign when it is not the home team, but the opposing team, that is suffering the woes.
Those in the pressbox watched helplessly with the rest of those in attendance, as Stamkos, one of the league’s most dynamic and widely recognized faces in hockey throughout the world, exited the ice on a stretcher. It was a dismal prognosis, as I was informed later on the plane that we would be sending out a release that Stamkos had suffered a broken right tibia and would be undergoing surgery in Boston.
On the plane not one, but two seats were vacant. It is custom for a team to leave on of the athletic trainers behind if a player cannot complete a trip due to a trip to the hospital. Assistant athletic trainer, Mike Poirier, remained with Stamkos, who underwent successful surgery the very next day at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Stamkos’ girlfriend also flew up to the hospital to meet the injured star and Bruins head coach, Claude Julien, paid him a visit. Boston captain Zdeno Chara reached out to Stamkos via text message, sending him well wishes on behalf of the entire Bruins organization.
There was barely time to process the significance of that moment before it was wheels up and on to our next destination…Montreal.
One of many NHL players favorite cities to visit, it was going to be my first time too, but it was hard to fathom how the team was going to pick up the pieces in the absence of No. 91.
With Canada as the epicenter of all things hockey, no one knew what type of picture the plethora of French-Canadian media was going to paint and there were so many questions to answer like, “Where were the Bolts to begin?” and “Could they possibly pick up the pieces?”
Spending the day at Bell Centre was an experience it itself, from watching the game from a press box suspended above the ice (like some sort of gondola) and hearing the fans whistle, their way of “booing” something they disapproved of, the experience was eye opening.
The anthem singer in Montreal sung the Canadian anthem in French and switched to English midway through, as the entire NHL patiently waited to see if the Lightning could pull off the ultimate upset in the face of adversity. A Lightning goal five minutes into the divisional matchup, made it seem that maybe they could, but Montreal native Daniel Briere pulled off the late-game heroics in his first game back with the Canadiens in nearly a month since suffering a concussion.
The Bolts and Habs were heading to overtime, the game tied at one.
The Lightning eventually ended the game on top 2-1, but the win was not as significant as the way in which it was done.
The team later told the media it was a character win and about finding ways when there does not appear to be any.
And just as quick as it had started, the six-day trip had come to an end on a bitter cold morning at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. It had intended to be a trip surrounded by division matchups and history, but ended somewhere completely different.
It had brought out another side to the Lightning that not many had seen quite yet; their resiliency. The early-season November trip could one day be looked back on as a turning point in the growth of the Lightning franchise and the 2013-14 campaign.