TAMPA — The cheer from the Lightning players Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum was loud and in unison.
Michael Springham, 11, had scored on goaltender Marc Denis, and players in the impromptu pickup game reacted as if Michael was one of their own.
On this day, in fact, he was.
Michael skated with the Lightning for 20 minutes before practice. He led a warmup skate.
He dressed in the locker room with the players, got a behind-the-scenes tour from Vinny Lecavalier and a box of game-quality pucks from coach John Tortorella.
Best of all, he got pats on his helmet after he scored.
"It is something,'' Michael's father, Robert, said, "we will never forget.''
The Lightning first heard of Michael through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The third-grader, who lives in Melbourne, has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning the left side of his heart, including the aorta and left ventricle, is undeveloped. He had open-heart surgeries, Robert said, at 6 days old, 6 months and 22 months.
A huge Lightning fan, Michael's wish was to watch practice and meet Lecavalier.
The Lightning did even better.
First, Lecavalier said he would skate with Michael after practice. But Tortorella suggested Michael skate with the players and dress in the locker room, where a brand new Lecavalier jersey hung, courtesy of the team. Tortorella even tied the kid's skates.
"We wanted it to be a great experience for him,'' Tortorella said. "That's the real stuff. For us to be involved with his family, it was one of the better days around here.''
Michael, who takes hockey skating lessons, fit right in.
"Couple of one-timers,'' Denis said, describing Michael's goals. "I was late coming across.''
But Michael got no slack from center Jeff Halpern, who stole a puck from him after a pass from Marty St. Louis.
"No handouts,'' Halpern joked. "I was going to throw him against the glass, but he didn't go into the corners much.''
Robert, Michael's mother, Linda, and 12-year-old brother, Bryan, watched from the stands.
Robert talked about Michael's surgeries and how, "Back then, we were just hoping he was going to live."
There is the blood pressure medicine Michael takes daily; Michael's toughness, Robert said, is from "everything he went through as a young child;'' and the notion that at 40, Michael might need a new heart because "his is working twice as hard."
"But it's one of those things we don't know what the future holds,'' Robert added. "He only has half a heart. They rerouted all the plumbing, and one of the cardiologists said they don't know the long-term effects on kids like him. We don't look at that. We look at today.''
As the Lightning practiced, Michael was in the front row, waving and calling to Lecavalier, who tapped the glass with his stick as he skated by
After practice, players autographed his jersey.
Lecavalier showed him the weight room, the steam room, the players' lounge.
"We tried our best to make him part of the team,'' Lecavalier said. "It was great. A day like today, to make him smile, it's great to see the look in his eyes.''
"Just unbelievable,'' Linda said. "They're all just so very, I can't explain it. I really can't. It's been an awesome experience. I'm just so thankful to Vinny and the Lightning organization because they've really embraced us.''
Michael had one more job for Lecavalier — signing a bag full of Vinny merchandise, some of which Lecavalier said he never before had seen.
Lecavalier said if Michael had more, he would sign after tonight's game with the Hurricanes the family will attend.
"It made me feel good,'' Michael said of his wish come true. "It was great.''
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]