TAMPA — This was all supposed to happen three months ago.
The blue-clad horde descending upon the Tampa Bay Times Forum, waiting in traffic, pulling out chairs and barstools to grab a bite and a drink before opening night of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2012-13 season. This was supposed to happen in October.
But it didn't. And then it didn't happen in November or December. And there was talk it wouldn't happen at all.
But then the players and owners finally made up, and the 113-day lockout finally ended, ensuring this season wouldn't be lost entirely to a labor stoppage, as in 2004-05. And while some people did ask that question that is always asked when these things happen — "Will the fans come back?" — the men and women in blue jerseys and shirts, the children with blue face paint and blue-dyed hair heading into the arena Saturday knew the answer was never in doubt.
But that didn't mean they were happy they had to wait.
"It was the same nonsense," said Jim Dziewinski, 45, a duct mechanic from New Port Richey. Dziewinski watches every Lightning game, and so, since October, he has had a lot of unexpected free time. He spent some of it helping his 7-year-old son Jimmy work on his roller hockey skills, some of it helping Jimmy with his homework, and (according to his wife, Lisa) a lot of it griping on Facebook about the lockout.
But Saturday night Dziewinski was in a great mood, sitting at a Channelside restaurant sipping a beer, about to eat dinner with his wife and son before heading into the game.
"As fans, this is what we want to see," he said. "This is what we've been waiting for."
The Times Forum is a very blue place during the NHL season. Blue flood lights, the big blue Lightning team buses, the blue cups that make the beer look blue and even, in the distance, the blue-lit pyramid atop the SunTrust building. Anything that contrasts — foliage, traffic lights, the occasional Gasparilla float Saturday evening — seems like uninvited guests, intruders in Bluetopia.
In the midst of all the blue outside the Forum Saturday, there was a flash of red from Chris Iaquinto's head, from his blue helmet with a red lamp he lights every time the Lighting score. He was trying it out in the beverage line. The people behind him cheered.
Iaquinto is a former U.S. Marine and Lightning season-ticket holder who lives in Palm Harbor with his wife, Cathy. They came to Saturday's game with their son, Chris, and their 4-year-old granddaughter Mallory, a big fan of Lightning player Martin St. Louis who asked her grandparents several weeks ago, "Why doesn't Marty want to play?"
While happy to be back at a Lightning game, Iaquinto did not think the NHL's labor problems had been fixed.
"The only thing they've really done is delayed the next (stoppage) for eight or 10 years," he said.
Behind him, the lines to get into the Times Forum were getting longer as game time approached. Someone started a "Let's go Lightning!" chant and it ripped through the crowd, followed by clapping in unison. If you didn't know there'd been a lockout and this was January, not October, you would have thought the 2012-13 NHL season was about to start as regularly scheduled.
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or email@example.com.