Friday, December 15, 2017
Human Interest

ThunderBug lost her way in Lightning crowd, found redemption at All Children's

She should've known. Easy to say now. That night this past hockey season, though, she sat during a break inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, inside the mascot's locker room, inside the costume of the Lightning's ThunderBug, thinking to herself: That crowd out there. Too intense.

Kelly Frank was the Golden Knight as a student at the University of Central Florida. She was a giant gecko for the old Miami Fusion soccer team and a pig named Mudonna for independent league baseball's St. Paul Saints and a kangaroo named K-O for minor league baseball's Brockton Rox. She was Raymond for five years for the Tampa Bay Rays.

To be a mascot is a craft, an art, its practitioners insist, and the mandate is this: Know the crowd. Can't just let them sit there. Entertain them. Read them. Feel them.

The Bruins were in Tampa that night. The boisterous Boston fans made the Times Forum feel like a "powder keg." Frank's words. The Bruins had beaten the Lightning in the playoffs the year before and then went on to win the Stanley Cup. Some of their fans came to gloat.

"Stanley Cup!" bellowed one burly man wearing a black shirt with a big picture of the National Hockey League's championship trophy.

Frank approached him. ThunderBug held a furry yellow hand up to one of its nondescript ears. What?

"Stanley Cup!"

Hand to ear. What?

"STANLEY CUP!"

Frank then engaged ThunderBug's weapon of choice. The burly man quickly was covered in sticky pink streamers of silly string. At which point he sprung out of his seat and chased and tackled ThunderBug on some stairs. Security escorted him out of the arena. And Frank? Frank got fired.

She sat one morning this spring outside a Starbucks in St. Petersburg. She's 31 now. Getting on the old end for an active mascot. It was probably about time anyway. She has a bad neck and a trick back. She broke her arm when Raymond fell over a fence trying to be funny for fans. The team doctor had to fix it with plates and screws. Does she regret that her time as ThunderBug came to that kind of end? Not really. "Baseball fans can take a joke," she said.

Time to go. She got in her Toyota without a front bumper and drove downtown to All Children's Hospital. She went into a conference room as Kelly Frank and came out as the Easter Bunny. The hospital public relations man had to help her with her zipper. She now had large blue eyes and two buck teeth and fist-bumped a trauma surgeon on her way to meet with a different kind of crowd. Kids in wheelchairs. Kids with fractured limbs. Kids tethered to poles with medicine sacks. She posed for pictures. She shook their hands. She kissed their heads.

Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

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