Clay Witt was 8 years old, a little pudgy kid from Brandon, when he got to go on the ice and have a photo taken with Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.
"It was cool," Witt said, "especially seeing someone you aspire to be."
Witt learned a lot from watching the "Bulin Wall" and Lightning goalie Daren Puppa. His family had season tickets during the team's 2004 Stanley Cup run, and they went to nearly every home regular-season game, with Witt — one of the Lightning's biggest and bravest fans — the center of attention.
"His big thing was getting on the big screen (at the arena)," his mother, Rebecca, said. "He used to dance and get on it. It was pretty cool."
The next time Witt, 22, is on the Tampa Bay Times Forum JumboTron, he hopes it's in a Lightning uniform. Witt, a redshirt senior goaltender at Northeastern next season, is one of three invitees to this week's Tampa Bay development camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. From Wednesday through Sunday, Witt will join the Lightning's 2014 draft picks and top prospects for skill development, practices and a 3-on-3 tournament.
Witt is a free agent, so Tampa Bay could sign him before or after his final season. He gets his tryout at the rink where he played for years as a kid. His family's business, Witt Fence Co., has its name on the Zamboni and boards.
"It's very exciting," Witt said. "Especially being in my hometown and being part of it, that's amazing. It's a great experience."
Witt has rarely been home the past eight years.
Like many hockey prospects in Florida, he has had to go elsewhere to find college exposure and elite competition. Witt started at the Ice Sports Forum, where he would play knee hockey while his dad, Ed, played pickup. Witt participated in peewee hockey for Brandon, too, but soon was making biweekly 91-mile commutes to Orlando to play for a bantam club team, often getting home at midnight.
During his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade years, Witt traveled around the world with club teams, going to Prague, Czech Republic; Slovakia, and Quebec. In the United States, he went to Michigan, California, Washington and New York. Rebecca Witt, a court reporter, would often go with him.
"It got to be a joke around here, because every time there'd be another 'trip of a lifetime,' " Ed said. "(Hockey is) so tough for families down here because it's so expensive. The money we spent we could have sent him to Harvard."
"We could have sent two of them," Rebecca quipped.
Witt left home in ninth grade to play for the Boston Junior Bruins. He lived with a host family and attended school there for two years before getting drafted in 2008 by Sioux Falls in the U.S. Hockey League, the country's top junior league, where he played two years. He'd return to Brandon at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"It was a big sacrifice for me and my family," Witt said. "They put up with the whole moving away from home. I was also a pretty mature ninth-grader; that made it easy. The hockey community is pretty small, so a lot of better hockey players in Florida start to do the same thing. It wasn't too outrageous, the local kid moving."
Witt was courted by a number of colleges before signing with Northeastern. He was a backup for two seasons, then had to redshirt a season due to a left knee injury. But last season, Witt blossomed in his first year as a starter, becoming a finalist for the Mike Richter Award (top college goalie). He went 17-12-3 with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage that was third in the nation.
"He was fabulous," coach Jim Madigan said. "We always had the confidence in his ability. It was just a matter of him getting an opportunity. He was a difference-maker for our team, gave us a chance to win every night. When it came to all our games, the bigger the opponent, the bigger he got."
Madigan, a former NHL scout, said Witt is athletic and competitive, and has a mature mental makeup. His favorite save came against No. 1-ranked Boston College in the final of the Beanpot tournament, an annual event with Boston's four Division I teams. Witt was down but jumped to bat a deflected shot away with the paddle of his stick. "It made the top-10 plays on ESPN," Madigan said.
Witt is still raw, having made just 38 college starts, so the Lightning would like to see him over a larger body of work. Witt, who has graduated with a degree in business administration, will return to Northeastern for graduate classes and another season, but hopes to catch the Lightning's eye this week.
"He's got a lot of untapped potential," Lightning scout Brian Putnam said. "He's certainly a guy we would look to bring in at some point. Just happy to have him, see what he's got and try to prove that he's a NHL potential goalie. It's just a chance. Somebody's got to believe in him."