ST. PETE BEACH – Hockey on the beach.
It’s a foreign concept to most of the NHL — that is unless, you’re a Lightning fan.
The sand between your toes. A night under the stars. The waves crashing on the shore as Lightning players crash opponents into the boards.
It’s definitely a unique experience, and one likely to draw a crowd again to the TradeWinds Resort Sunday on St. Pete Beach. The team will stage its last scheduled beach watch party of the season as the Lightning take on the Panthers in Sunrise.
About 350 people gathered at the TradeWinds on Feb. 2 to watch the Lightning finish out its road trip in New York against the Rangers. Many lounged while watching the sunset a couple of hours before the game. Most, though, showed up in the 30 minutes before the 8 p.m. puck drop, just in time for the good stuff.
The resort dotted the white sands with about 200 tan lounge chairs, while others brought the kind of lawn seats favored by soccer parents. The screen, large enough to rival a Mayflower moving truck, proved visible from any vantage point and the audio easily reached the ears of everyone following the action. Two red sirens on each side of the screen flashed and a horn sounded each time the Lightning scored.
Yet it’s not as much the what as it is the who that make the watch parties special. People choose to leave the comfort of their homes to embrace the sense of community the gatherings have offered fans for years.
Get to know some of the friendly folks that come to the parties.
Thelma Dipallina and her granddaughter Theresa Odom
When Dipallina woke up Saturday morning she didn’t realize just how “big” her 89th birthday would be.
Despite not knowing the team existed before this day, Dipallina quickly got in the spirit with a silver and pink plastic birthday crown and silver and blue pom-poms.
Odom, a fan for the last eight years, convinced Dipallina to celebrate with the Lightning.
“My favorite part is just being on the beach, having fun and being able to meet people,” Odom said.
Odom used to be a Carolina Hurricanes fan. But she adopted the Lighting upon moving to Florida and has attended watch parties for the last year.
“They (the Hurricanes) didn’t have things like this,” Odom said. “I think this is awesome because it really brings in the community. It brings it in to keep it alive and going in people’s minds.”
Bob and Laurel McVaugh
The McVaughs have been hockey fans for more than 40 years and Lightning fans since the couple moved to the area in 2007.
Their 23-year-old daughter Kelsey is an intern with the Rolling Thunder, the organization that helps put on the watch parties. They’ve attended almost every one since she started her role.
They love the energy and the excitement of the games, but also how the community comes together. The couple says it would attend if if the team wasn’t winning.
“It’s all community,” Bob said. “I mean it’s nice that they’re winning, but it’s all community. Bob’s novelty suit jacket, Lightning blue coat covered in the team’s white circle bolt logos, stood out in the crowd. He got it as a Christmas present from his family and has worn it multiple times since.
“They don’t have this in Philadelphia,” the 62-year-old former Philadelphian chuckled.
Tammy Bly and her friends Mike and Melissa Swek
Tammy Bly is another transplant who adopted the Lightning.
“Tampa does it well,” she said. “I mean they make everyone feel welcome and tons of (freaking) spirit. No, it’s amazing.”
The 50-year-old Indiana native who started as a St. Louis Blues fan finds Amalie Arena one of the coolest places she’s ever been. Bly finds no negatives with the organization.
Bly’s friends Mike and Melissa were also converted Lightning fans, but you couldn’t tell with their respective Lightning jerseys and glow-up foam sticks.
The Sweks, originally from Detroit, were Red Wings fans before Bly convinced them to switch over.
When Melissa found out you could watch games on the beach, she didn’t need much more convincing. It’s one of her favorite parts.
Nikki Keesee and her boyfriend Joey Nicolosi
Opposites attract, at least it did for this hockey couple.
Sitting side-by-side Keesee donned a blue Lightning jersey while Nicolosi stood out from the crowd in his Rangers gear.
“I love the beach, and he’s a Rangers fan so we had to come to this game,” Keesee said.
It was Keesee’s first watch party on the beach, and Nicolosi’s first watch party in general. He was impressed with the crowd and energy on the beachfront.
“I love the atmosphere despite the score,” he said as the Rangers were down 2-1 at the second intermission.
While the New York native loves his Rangers, he admitted the Lightning are his second favorite team. “If I don’t root for the Rangers, I’m rooting for the Lightning,” he chuckled. “But when we play each other, it’s always fun.”
Rickey Barber and his friend Scott Freed
Barber and Freed have been friends for years. Barber took Freed to his first Lightning game six years ago.
The two have their own little game traditions, and they started a new one that Saturday night when Barber brought his new gift onto the sand.
The 52-year-old’s son gave his father a specially made bell, a refurbished fire extinguisher that painted in tie-dye Lightning colors.
Every time the Lightning scored, Barber and Freed ran down the middle aisle, ringing the bell in front of hundreds of people. The sound even stood out amidst the cheers and goal horns.
“I would think this gets the crowd amped up,” Barber said. “It’s the first time we’ve brought it out but people seem to enjoy it.”