Grateful Lightning fans know the pain will heal

In real time, the puck was in the air for a rat's blink before it met the soft flesh of a young man's nose. But slow the video down, watch the pass veer toward Johnny Boychuk, watch him wind up for a slap shot and you'll see something amazing.

Steven Stamkos, all of 21, in the vacuum of sport, stiffening his spine, broadening his shoulders, squaring his body without flinch to block a bullet.

This is why we watch.

This is why I climbed aboard the Tampa Bay Lightning bandwagon after accidentally catching my first hockey game in the playoff series against the Penguins, which seems like a year ago, as I rocked my son to sleep.

This is why on Saturday morning Capt. Bandwagon put that same little guy in his car seat and drove out to the Tampa Jet Center to see the comeback kids come back, a dot in the distance descending, landing, the players high-fiving their way down a forever line of yelling fans, a slow plod of ball caps and tooth gaps and crumpled suits.

The woman beside me has scratched out THANK YOU on a clipboard she's holding up.

Why?

"Because they pulled me out of my miserable life for a little bit," says Lu White, 58. "I can't tell you how bad my life sucks right now."

Seems like she's on the edge of tears.

"I needed this," she says.

What a ride, huh? I feel like I've lost a girl I just fell in love with. I'd just learned these guys' names.

Not sure what I'm going to do with my playoff beard, which is a habitat now and subject to EPA fines if I mow it. This newbie can't even tell you when the hockey equivalent of pitchers and catchers reporting is.

"It's going to be another six months," says Jeff Davis, 53, one of the disciples gathered. He was on board when the team won the Stanley Cup in 2004, so he knows. And surprise of the day: He says he's not disappointed.

"They gave it everything they had this season," he says. "This is a little bit short of '04, but this is great."

That doesn't feel quite right. Great? I wanted to kick the dog when the buzzer sounded. Boycott Sam Adams. Something.

But the faithful here seem to have it figured out. They say thanks, again and again, scream it. Even in loss, they're grateful, and expectant, and looking forward.

"We take a little break, catch our breath, and then start again," says Jeff Muller, 45.

Down the line comes Ryan Malone and Steve Downie and Marty St. Louis, and they all look like dudes you'd really like to fish with. Then comes Steven Stamkos, posing for photos, signing autographs. His nose is swollen, his eyes a shade of purple, but it looks better than the night before. It's healing, like us.

There he is, boy, I say to my kid. A man.

Grateful Lightning fans know the pain will heal 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 10:59pm]

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