Tuesday, January 23, 2018
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Friends, strangers, young and old rally raucously for the Bolts

TAMPA

He hoped someone would pick him up from the bus station. After riding almost five hours from Miami, he pressed his face against the window, searching for a friend or stranger.

His high school buddy, Sean, had to set up the tailgate party. Michael, who was letting him crash at his place, was at a funeral. Michael's wife wasn't allowed to come to the games. She was bad luck.

So Mason Bradford, 24, had posted a plea on the fan club's Facebook page, asking for a ride from the Tampa bus station to the arena for Saturday's hockey game. Plenty of people had said they would try to help, but no one had promised.

That afternoon, more than five hours before the Stanley Cup face-off, Bradford climbed off the double-decker Megabus into the steamy streets of downtown Tampa. He shouldered his backpack and stroked his red play-off beard, which he planned to paint blue.

He had come this far. If he had to, he would walk the last couple of miles to cheer his team.

The Tampa Bay Lightning started playing in 1992, when Bradford was a baby. He grew up with the team, saw one of their first games at the Ice Palace, and, as a kid, slept in his lucky (Vinny) Lecavalier jersey.

Just as he was starting high school after his parents split up, Bradford's mom moved from Tampa to Miami. And his dad bought two season tickets to the Lightning. "He would pick me up from school and have my jersey in the car and we'd go straight to the game," Bradford said. They bonded in the upper deck. "That became our thing."

After high school, Bradford toured with a drum corps, playing trumpet, then lived with a former bandmate.

By 2009, when Bradford still didn't have a home or car, his mom bought him a one-way Greyhound ticket to Fort Lauderdale. Leaving his dad and friends was hard, he said. Leaving the Lightning made it worse.

"I can't afford cable," said Bradford, who works as a paralegal and still doesn't have a car. "But I stream every Lightning game and press conference and watch them live on my laptop."

Last fall, Bradford was scrolling through Facebook when he saw a post from his old bandmate and roommate, Michael Raper. Over the last five years, he had lost touch with him, and most of his Tampa friends. Bradford read that Raper had joined a fan club for the Lightning: Sticks of Fire. (Some say that translates to Tampa in a Native American tongue.)

A fellow fan, Sean Wayne, had helped form the club. "I couldn't believe it," said Bradford. "I played Little League with Sean. I hadn't seen that guy in forever." By Thanksgiving, Bradford had saved enough to buy a bus ticket to Tampa — and a seat at a Lightning game between his two old friends.

"The fan club really is to support the team," said Bradford. "But for me, it's about reuniting everything I love. The group has become my new family."

What started as three guys drinking beer together before the games has turned into a tribe of more than 300 people who tie on black bandanas, paint their faces Lightning blue, beat drums and wave flags and march in a rowdy procession to the arena — and who keep chanting through every game.

"Remember when your parents cheered you in Little League so you ran faster?" said Wayne. "We want to be that for the players."

Members of Sticks of Fire have caravanned to two road games — 70 people packed a section at the Panthers' game. Another time, they met the team at the airport at 3:30 a.m. And at every home game, the group grows.

"We've had exceptional fan support all season and that certainly includes Sticks of Fire," said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. "It really creates a great atmosphere that the players feed off of. You can feel their passion and enthusiasm from Section 307 to the bench."

On Saturday, the fans gathered in the parking lot for their biggest tailgate yet: 50 pounds of pulled pork, 10 racks of ribs, too many beer cans to count. Old friends and strangers, ages 3 to 73, spent the afternoon talking hockey and coming up with new chants.

"This is what we hoped for, but I never thought I'd see it grow to this!" Wayne said, surveying the crowd. "Last year, we didn't know any of these people!"

And when Bradford got off the bus, sweating in his Sticks of Fire T-shirt, a new friend from the fan club was waiting to drive him to the party.

At 6 p.m., Wayne climbed a cooler and yelled: "Make some noise!"

Bradford joined the parade roaring toward the arena, shouting, "Oh when the Bolts go striking in …. Oh, how I want be that thunder."

Other fans filed in along the way and by the time they got to the stadium the group was a whole block long.

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