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Tampa Bay Lightning Training Camp Opens

by Paul Kennedy / Tampa Bay Lightning

Welcome to Blue Heaven in Tampa. If you can find a parking space. Hockey season is here.

Media are being shuttle-bused to practice in suburbia, accommodating thousands of fans descending in cars on Day One of training camp. The Bay Arena continues to bask in the reflected glory of the NHL's feel good story of last season. The one that concluded about 90 days ago just a couple of goals shy of the Stanley Cup Finals.

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"The summer's pretty short when you play nearly into June," grinned popular forward Ryan Malone as he worked his way thru the masses.

Apparently there is nowhere else Bolt backers wished to be this gorgeous September Saturday, ignoring such driving distance college football distractions as Oklahoma facing Florida State and Tennessee battling Florida just up the road in some league called the Southeastern Conference. Right next door USF was hosting Florida A&M after knocking off a private school in South Bend.

Sky-high Lightning zanies are so optimistic they're starting a new tradition: Preseason beards.

Just imagine when they become Playoff whiskers next April. Crazy.

With a nod to football, head coach Guy Boucher ran hockey's version of the gridiron Nutcracker drill to get the competition started. A puck carrier, a defenseman and a goaltender. The forward skates at full speed from the goal line thru center to the far blue line, then turns and charges. The defenseman makes the attacker's life appropriately miserable. The goalie awaits whatever shot may follow.

Steven Stamkos, who spent the past three months in Toronto pumping iron at dawn, went first. As he's done 96 times over the past two campaigns--more than any player in the league--Stammer scored.

Next up was Marty St. Louis, who toiled this warm summer in Connecticut by dragging a 500 pound sled across asphalt until he vomited, passed out, or a combination thereof. Blasting thru the resistance he sped to where Grandma keeps the cookies. Cue the music, Louie-Louie.

"I felt sharp," said the hardest working man in show business and a Hart Trophy Finalist when last seen at the Awards Show in Las Vegas. "When we'd start a drill I was ready to go. It wasn't like I'd think, 'Oh no, I gotta go again.' I put in the work."

Memo to the rest of the National Hockey League: This team will be better than Boucher's first.

"I was most impressed by the pace of practice. This is different and it's not just the emphasis on speed," observed jet fast new right winger Ryan Shannon, formerly with Ottawa, a Cup champion in Anaheim, with an Economics degree from Boston College. "Not only with the intensity of the (first) scrimmage, but how quickly one drill followed another. A whistle blows, and in a matter of seconds, we've moved the pucks into another corner of rink and started again."

Not only can this team skate, but it can think.

Harvard educated checker extraordinaire Dominic Moore spent the summer reading "The Big Short" by acclaimed financial author Michael Lewis. An appropriate title, too, for an initial year under GM Steve Yzerman and his hand picked bench boss who created such a fervor for this warm weather club that season ticket base has doubled into five figures. Fans, and players--when the opportunity arises--tend to vote with their feet.

Former St. Louis captain Eric Brewer, a key addition solidifying Tampa Bay's blue line a year ago, and an unrestricted free agent at season's end, quickly resigned, endorsing Boucher and his system: "He's positive, enthusiastic, and ready to rock. Very meticulous. It would take a mountain of negativity to break him down."

All this about a man who had never coached in the National Hockey League before last October.

"We are at a higher pace than last year," offered the head coach himself. "And that is what we are expecting. There is a fight to this team and an intense competitiveness. We want to be powerful and explosive."

Just such a competitive spirit enabled the gritty goal mouth grinder Malone to endure the searing pain of Grade 4 right shoulder separation, suffered in the first round triumph over his former club, in Pittsburgh. He never missed a game, playing in all 18 of the postseason drive.

"I felt like I had been stabbed in the back when it happened," recalls Malone. Surgery in June and recent months of uncomfortable rehabilitation rectified what was to all the world an "upper body injury" as Bugsy skated thru the Washington Capitals series sweep and a seven game gauntlet with the Boston Bruins.

And while welcoming the Lightning back to action, how about an owner who pumped nearly $50 million of his own money into an area he doesn't own, to grandly enhance the city's St. Pete Times Forum?

Why? Because he can. And he cares.

How about an owner who's invested more in payroll than the across-the-bay Major League Baseball Rays?

Why? Please see above.

Optimism, thy name is Bolt. Or, Jeff Vinik, as in the beaming chairman in a blazer, very much in the middle of his fan constituency as training camp began, posing for pictures, signing autographs, remembering names.

His blue-hued transformation of Tampa Bay is nearly complete. The Lightning donned a new royal blue uniform with the first shift of practice. All new blue seats await, too, surrounding the Forum ice, as will suites, concourses, locker rooms, and lounges, redesigned down to detail of the carpet fiber. And when a majestic new theatrical pipe organ first sounds in a few weeks, we'll all be channeling our inner Wayne Messmer. Chicago, the gold standard of hockey arena music, suddenly will be rendered envious.

"We are thrilled by the improvements to the Forum," smiled Vinik. "We have good momentum on the business side. It will be amazing for me to see it all when the curtain comes up."

The exhibition blinds are first to be raised. Tuesday the Bolts travel to St. Louis before jetting Wednesday to Orlando, with the Blues in tow, for the first ever hockey game in the magnificent Amway Center. We are advised City Beautiful Mayor Buddy Dyer not only will drop the puck at the ceremonial opening face-off.

He's also started growing his Preseason beard.

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