Members of the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with members of the USAF 6th Mobility Wing pose for a photo in front of a KC-135 Stratotanker at MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday, February 10, 2011
Thursday, after an early-morning practice, the Tampa Bay Lightning jumped on a bus and went to see where some real heroes work, MacDill Air Force Base. Just minutes from the St. Pete Times Forum, in South Tampa, the base is home to the United States Air Force 6th Air Mobility Wing, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), United States Central Command (CENTCOM), and others.
The Lightning were treated like rock stars upon arrival at the main gate as the bus was swept past the main check points, but once inside the shoe was on the other foot as the players marveled at the "city within a city" that these service men and women call home.
For the first stop, the bus pulled up outside the headquarters for USSOCOM and the players piled out for a group photo. Due to security reasons the players and coaches were forced to leave their cell phones and other wireless equipment on the bus for this stop. Once inside and after clearing another check point, it was time to be briefed.
The players were guided through what felt like a maze inside the building to a door until they were introduced to the man who would be giving the briefing, Col. Frank Donovan, a U.S. Marine. Donovan quickly explained the building, which mostly looked like anyone's office, and its purpose before pausing to point out a very special wall outside of yet another door leading to another building. The wall honored all Special Operations Medal of Honor recipients. Vincent Lecavalier stopped to read the stories of the two recipients whose actions were replicated in the Hollywood movie, Blackhawk Down.
"They do everything for us," Lecavalier, on his second trip to the base, said. "They allow us to keep our freedom. It is great to be here and spend some time with them, talking and learning about what it is they do on a daily basis. It's a great experience for all of us."
After marveling at some of the stories the team was escorted into the next facility and an enclosed conference room that opened up to the SOCOM command center. The command center is basically the informational nerve center of SOCOM, providing informational support to the commander as well as support to special operations going on around the world. There was an entire wall that was basically one big computer monitor on which multiple things could be viewed. Donovan admitted that all of the classified information had been taken down for our visit, but you could certainly see how it would be useful. After a slide show and explanation of what SOCOM is and how it operates, the players were back on the bus for what was probably their most anticipated stop: the gun range.
On Gun Range
The bus pulled up to what looked to be an unassuming, grassy area, but upon getting a closer look, that couldn't have been further from the truth. The players were handed their ear plugs and eye protection and then broke into two groups. The first group assembled at an uncovered area surrounded by burms to fire assault rifles. Each player had three different targets to shoot at; a standing cutout target, three balloons and another cutout with "hostages". All the players cheered their teammates on and razzed guys that missed their targets.
The other station was where guys got the chance to shoot M-5 sub-machine guns. Needless to say the players really enjoyed being able to "open up" an automatic weapon and really do some damage to a target. A few players certainly needed to work on their aim however, firing wildly into the ground and wooden overhang after firing for too long. Teddy Purcell, probably the most impressive with his final attempt, could have been a 1920's gangster the way he handed the sub-machine gun.
After firing the guns it was the Air Force's turn. The bus was directed to the flight line, home to, amongst other things, the USAF 6th Mobility Wing. The team walked through an enormous hangar and to an equally enormous KC-135 Stratotanker. The KC-135 is used to refuel planes mid-air using a "boom" to connect the two. It was explained to the players that the plane can put out as much fuel as an SUV would use in a year in about three minutes. Pretty impressive stuff. Steven Stamkos crawled into the boom-operators place while Lecavalier, Victor Hedman, Randy Jones and Nate Thompson checked out the cockpit.
Meal, Ready to Eat
After thoroughly examining the plane it was time for "lunch". The players had the chance to try MREs, or meals ready to eat. They come in such enticing flavors as chili with beans, veggie burger, marinara sauce with meat balls, chicken breast fillet and chicken enchilada just to name a few. The Lightning quickly found out, though, that these were nothing like the ones they find at some of the restaurants they frequent. The players were instructed on how to add water to the packets and wait for them to warm themselves. Some certainly seemed better than others, but I don't think the guys will be going online to buy MREs to make at home.
After checking out the food it was on to the SERE demonstration. SERE, which stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape, teaches servicemen and women a number of different skills, but the one that the Lightning got to experience today was hand-to-hand combat. Both Marty St. Louis and Pavel Kubina were part of demonstrations on the mat, but for the major sparring the team turned to rookie Dana Tyrell. The youngster was taught a few skills by the SERE instructor and then had to spar with him on the mat toe-to-toe. Tyrell seemed to hold his own but eventually lost out to the professional who got him into a headlock seemingly out of nowhere. Did Tyrell think his opponent was really giving it his all?
"Not at all," he said.
If not anything else today, the Lightning walked away from MacDill Air Force Base with a brand new respect for what the men and women in the United States military do every day to secure their freedoms. The other lesson learned though was one the team can use as they push toward the end of the regular season.
"It’s all about team work," Lecavalier said. "Everyone needs to be a team guy in order for us to win. That is what we learned today."