Tuesday, November 20, 2018
  • Lightning Strikes

The entire Lightning team was sent to Syracuse late Tuesday. Really

On Tuesday night, the entire Lightning team was reassigned to Syracuse.

Well, more like re-directed.

The team's charter flight from Washington D.C. was diverted around midnight Tuesday night due to fog in Ottawa, where the Lightning was headed for a Thursday game.

The 50 passengers, including players staff and TV crew, spent the night in Syracuse before heading to Ottawa Wednesday afternoon.

"We were about to land in Ottawa and were on our descent and all of a  sudden, the plane pulled up," coach Jon Cooper said. "You're thinking,
'Something is wrong here.'"

Every Lightning flight has a backup city, and coincidentally, this trip it was Syracuse, where Tampa Bay has its AHL affiliate, the Crunch. Ryan Belec, team's long-time travel director, has navigated through many strange circumstances, including organizing "Vinik's Ark" during the August hurricane scare in Tampa.

But this was only the second time in a decade Belec has been through a diversion. The first was years back on a flight to Denver that ended up in Colorado Springs. That was much easier.

"This was a new one," Belec said.

Belec said the team's first thought was to refuel in Syracuse before trying another attempt when the weather cleared. But they were told it wouldn't be until 7 a.m., six hours later.

Then came the fun part – finding 50 hotel rooms last-minute.

Belec tried the Crowne Plaza Hotel, the Crunch's hotel, and got lucky when they could accommodate.

"I got cold sweats thinking about what if they said 'No,' Belec said. "We'd have to scramble, consider five rooms there, five rooms there. That would be a nightmare."

Then came the transportation part. The Lightning's scheduled buses were in Ottawa, four hours away. Belec called reps with the Crunch to see if their bus company was available. They weren't.

The hotel found someone to drive the shuttle out, and the airport allowed the Lightning to use an old bus it had on site – which looked like a yellow school bus.

Several Crunch employees volunteered to pick up people – Uber style – to  make it work.

"All in all, it went pretty well considering the circumstances," Belec said.

Players and staff arrived at the hotel around 3:30 a.m. and tried to rest up before the flight at 3 p.m. the next day.

"We didn't see much but the inside of hotel room," defenseman Victor Hedman said.

But this had a feel-good story to it. There were 17 players and coaches who have spent time with the Crunch in their career, with several checking out their favorite local haunts. Cooper went to the Crunch's arena War Memorial to catch up with some old co-workers.

Some Crunch staff members, and local media, greeted the Lightning in the lobby before the afternoon departure. Players signed autographs and posed for a team picture.

For a Lightning team in the middle of 18 road games in a 24-game stretch, this is one leg it won't forget.

"Ultimately, in this league, you've got to expect the unexpected," Cooper said. "The fortunate thing is we're not playing (Wednesday night).
"To be honest, this is one of those situations that you'll look back on and say, 'You know what, it was a little bit of a pain in the you-know-what last night. But we'll get into Ottawa tonight and be like, you know what, 'I"m glad that happened."