Normally, it is not appropriate for Lightning employees to mock coach Guy Boucher with what assistant equipment manager Rob Kennedy laughingly called "a few sweet nothings."
But this was a competition, and Boucher and team massage therapist Christian Rivas were thumping all comers in what had turned into a five-hour marathon of Washers, a game best described as a combination of horseshoes and Cornhole.
"Nothing derogatory, nothing to get you in trouble," Kennedy said of the taunts aimed at Boucher, "just a little something to get him off his game."
"At one point," video coach Nigel Kirwan added, "somebody even said to him, 'You're not our boss out here.' "
"Out here" was at Fort De Soto Park where on Wednesday and Thursday Boucher, Kirwan and assistant coaches Dan Lacroix and Marty Raymond joined five members of the team's training and equipment staffs on a two-night camping trip that was both bonding exercise and morale booster.
The group has organized weekly gatherings during the NHL lockout to maintain the personal relationships they believe essential to the efficient workings of what Kennedy called their "team within a team." That efficiency will be tested if the lockout ends in the next month or so and a compressed 48-game schedule turns a usually hectic pace manic.
So, "we have to stay connected," Raymond said. "We have to build relationships."
Golf is the default activity, but simply shooting the breeze at the Tampa Bay Times Forum works too. The idea of a camping trip had percolated for a while.
"When you're camping there's teamwork involved as far as getting meals made, getting the bedding, tents," Kennedy said. "It's similar to a road trip."
The group took over two water-side campsites at Fort De Soto and marked them with a large blue Lightning banner.
Bold, food-stealing raccoons were a problem, and high winds made fishing miserable. But talk around the campfire was jovial and food was plentiful.
And then there was Boucher, who apparently took Washers as seriously as he did the Eastern Conference final.
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The campsite was fairly secluded with three tents and Kennedy's pop-up camper. Kennedy, an Eagle Scout growing up in Chicago, arrived Tuesday with Kirwan to set things up and create what Kennedy called a "campy feel."
Equipment manager Ray Thill showed up Wednesday in his 22-foot boat he guided across the bay from Tampa. The vessel was beached for a while when the tide went out, which delayed some fishing plans. But Thill said his first cross-bay trip was "really cool, something I really wanted to do."
They ate grilled burgers Wednesday night; eggs, sausage and bacon Thursday morning; steaks and chops Thursday night with Boucher footing what was about a $400 food bill.
They threw around a football and fished, unsuccessfully, off Thill's boat and on the flats.
"It was just a bunch of guys hanging around a campfire, sharing stories and laughs," Kirwan said. "We laughed our butts off the whole time."
Especially at the raccoons which Thill called "nosy little buggers" that "got into everything."
One, ignoring Kirwan and assistant athletic trainer Mike Poirier just inches away, jumped on a chair and stole a bag of marshmallows that were supposed to be for S'mores.
Another snuck into Raymond's empty tent and stole a bag of croissants meant for Thursday breakfast.
"I start yelling, 'The raccoon stole something out of the tent,' " Kirwan said. "So we chased after him, but we couldn't catch him in the woods."
Probably for the best given how nasty raccoons can be, though the half-eaten bag of croissants was recovered.
"The raccoons had a lot of fun; good for them," Raymond said, laughing. "At least it wasn't just us having fun."
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Because he does not golf, Boucher only intermittently is part of the group's weekly gatherings, so getting him to Fort De Soto seemed special.
What also was cool, Kirwan said, was how among everyone "the titles melted away."
That was clear during the Washers tournament as Boucher and Rivas won their first 10 games. That made them targets, especially Boucher whom Kirwan said "is just as competitive (at Washers) as anything else. He did not like losing."
"We were all giving it to him," Kirwan added. "The jokes were flying every which way. It wasn't a situation where people were on guard about what they said to each other. He dished it and took it and he was a man about it. It was really good."
There was no corroboration from Boucher, who left Friday to visit a friend in Vienna. But before the outing he praised the lengths to which his staff has gone to stay bonded during the lockout, which is in its 94th day.
"The only thing we can do is control what we can control," he said, "and that's the staff working to make sure we're tight and we're a family-type atmosphere."
"Hopefully this makes us stronger as a staff," Raymond added, "and that will help us down the road."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]