“IT’S A NEW DAY IN TAMPA BAY!”
Many years ago, when the Bucs were on the verge of either staying in Tampa and getting a new stadium, or moving to another town, “It’s a new day in Tampa Bay” was a slogan for the team and the town. Thankfully, a deal was reached, a stadium was built, and it truly was a new day in Tampa Bay. Under the guidance of first Tony Dungy, and then eventually Jon Gruden, the Bucs built a perennial contender and eventual champion. Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another new day. Tampa, traditionally a football town, has turned puck crazy for the last few months. And it’s not going anywhere.
The Stanley Cup playoffs just ended about an hour before I’m writing this. And, unfortunately for us folks in the Tampa area, the Blackhawks closed out the series in 6 games. Over the next few days, much will be said about bad bounces, pucks with eyes only for Chicago, and the frustration of so many close calls. But honestly the Hawks played well and they deserved a cup. What Tampa should focus on instead, I think, is the new day, of new hockey.
TAMPA’S YOUNG GUNS
The Tampa roster is full of youth. It’s best line, “The Triplets“, are all under 24, and in the spirit of “what ifs” were destroying the playoffs until Tyler Johnson got hurt. Captain, and best player Steven Stamkos is 25. Goalie Ben Bishop is still a relatively young 28, but he’s not even the goal tender of the future. Andrei Vasilevskiy, just 20 years old, is perhaps the best prospect in the NHL. He played well in Bishop’s absence this playoff season and once he gets more experience Bishop could be expendable. My friend, Erick Smith (who we’ll talk more about in a second) called Vasilevskiy a ninja. Victor Hedman, only 24, has at least a few Norris trophies, handed out to the leagues best defensemen, in his future (And bonus, his name, and his looks, make him sound like the most formidable Bond villain of all time.). The team has only 1 unrestricted free agent heading in to this off season. With a young roster contractually locked up, heading into it’s prime, the fans in Tampa have a chance to witness something special. One of Chicago’s best defensemen, Brent Seabrook, sees the potential in Tampa’s future saying “They’re going to do the next six years what we did the last six years.” High praise! And honestly, we haven’t even touched on perhaps the teams two best attributes. It’s leadership, and community buy in.
Run by possibly sports best owner, Jeff Vinik, and led by a masterful hire of a coach, Jon Cooper, the momentum and good vibes don’t look to be ending anytime soon. As for the community buy in, look no further than hockey’s new super fans, Sticks of Fire.
“Sport franchises lack faith in their teams’ ability to be entertaining. In response they control every aspect of the live experience, which creates an artificial feeling disconnected from the actual game. Supporter groups are more organic. They flow naturally with the gameplay. The jumbotron doesn’t need to tell people to get loud, the crowd knows. Supporter groups make this happen.” STATE-LINES own Julien Llerena
STICKS OF FIRE
Over the course of this season, and some of last season as well, something special has happened at Lightning games. I had lunch with my friend Erick to talk about a supergroup of fans who have energized the arena called Sticks of Fire. The name comes from one of the possible origins of the name “Tampa”, and is a perfect descriptor for the Lightning offense. What started with just a few friends organizing cheers has turned into an entire section, and sometimes an entire arena. The cheering and chanting will start from section 307, all 250 to 300 people strong, and since this playoff season, has spread to almost every fan in attendance.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is, the team has totally taken ownership of this band of friends. At multiple points during games, section 307 (the S.O.F. home base) will become illuminated with spotlights and asked to cheer loudly in unison to pump up the crowd and the team. Coach Cooper, and Sticks of Fire favorite Ben Bishop have mentioned the group numerous times in interviews. What a cool experience to be recognized by the team’s marketing department, the coach, and the players. But perhaps the best part for Erick and his friends has been seeing the rest of the arena catch on.
“In game 4 of the first series, against Montreal, we started the “I Believe” chant, and for the first time, the entire arena chanted with us. I remember looking around and thinking “Wow, it’s catching on.” After that, we noticed that the team and coaching staff used “I believe” in interviews. We didn’t think it was a coincidence.” Erick Smith, member of Sticks of Fire
What catches my attention most about this fan group is how much they love each other. Game 4 was played in Chicago, and due to torrential rain fall in Tampa, the Sticks of Fire watch party was cancelled. That meant no hangout beforehand in Channelside. No march, led by drums, to the arena. No pounding fists with the Phil Esposito statue, and no camaraderie. The group quickly moved to get a few house parties in, but the weather and horrible traffic prevented everyone from getting together. When I had lunch with Erick, it was the day after game 4, and the first thing he said to me was how sad he was that he didn’t get to be around his friends, leading cheers for thousands of people, supporting his favorite team.
Tampa, get excited for the future. Our team is stacked, and they play a fun and new style of hockey. One that has taken the Blackhawks to 3 Stanley Cup victories recently. We have the vision and leadership of an amazing owner, a smart and daring GM, and a coach who has won at every level. We match up extremely well with our biggest competition in the East. We have a great record against the toughest goal tenders we face. And perhaps best of all, Tampa is becoming a hockey town, thanks to Sticks of Fire.
Game 6 was played in Chicago. So, here in Tampa, a watch party was hosted at the arena, and of course Sticks of Fire was there. After the game, the fans refused to leave. The stayed and chanted and sang songs about the lightning for at least 30 minutes celebrating the amazing season we’d had. I’d say the group is well on their way to fulfilling their purpose – “To create an environment for The Lightning, an atmosphere of excitement chanting and singing in a place where we have a definite home advantage.”