As the Tampa Bay Lightning prepared for its game Saturday against the New Jersey Devils inside Amalie Arena, its fan group Sticks of Fire marched outside along the Hillsborough River.
"Destroy the Devils," shouted a kilt-clad Erick Smith of Tampa as he banged on a drum.
More than 20 Sticks of Fire members chanted back to the 43-year-old: "Destroy the Devils."
The self-directed cheer group came together about 2014 and rapidly expanded, said Smith, one of the original Sticks of Fire members. Now, more than 100 members gather at tailgates, take long bus rides to see the team play in other cities and hang out in the same social circles.
Smith led the chants for hours before the game started, even though his voice was "still tore up from Thursday night."
The Lightning trounced the Devils 5-2, in Game 1 of the National Hockey League Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Smith hoped for a repeat and tried to prepare his vocal cords for the stress of game-time shouting.
"Thatís why we all keep cough drops on us," he said, gesturing to his bag. "Sometimes we toss them to each other during a game."
Smithís booming voice inspired other fans who wanted to start a club of rowdy Lightning cheerleaders. They began by gathering in Section 307 and grew from there.
"I get giddy when I get loud," Smith said.
During the Lightningís regular season, the group marches from various Tampa bars to the arena. But during the playoffs, the party pounds the pavement for every home game, said Alyssa Arrien, 27, a medical assistant from Clearwater.
Like many Sticks of Fire members, Arrien is a season-ticket holder. And like the others, she tells her employer she canít miss a playoff game.
"Iím really the only hard-core fan where I work," she said. Arrien wore blue lightning-patterned leggings and a black T-shirt that said, "REF YOU SUCK."
But Sticks of Fire is more than a rambunctious fan club.
"We really are a tight-knit group," Arrien said. "When my mom passed away, so many of them came to her funeral. Most of them didnít know her, but they know me."
When Sticks of Fire member Christine Lewis, 53, had breast cancer, the group held fundraisers and threw a party when she finished chemotherapy treatments.
"They really rallied around me and kept my spirits up," said Lewis, an adjunct professor at Pasco-Hernando State College.
She and her husband, Rob Lewis, 54, got married in front of Amalie Arena last year before a game.
"Itís a cliche to say we are like a family, but we really are," Rob Lewis said, "Thatís the only way I can describe it."
After advancing Saturday from Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, the group paid homage to member Robert "Bobby" Jorge, who died recently. They sang that they would "kick the devil into the river."
Finally, they gathered under the yellow lightning sculpture at the arena, chanting, "I believe we will win." Then they dispersed.
Smith, who banged his drum the entire way, said heís not allowed to take it inside the arena, but he didnít have to put it in his car, either.
"They hold it for me at the front," Smith said. The noisiest thing heís allowed to bring in is his voice.
Contact Jonathan Capriel at 813-225-3141 or email@example.com. Follow @jonathancapriel.