TAMPA — When the Lightning's rookie tournament charter to Nashville last weekend became a Hurricane Irma evacuation flight, it made for a surreal scene.
Owner Jeff Vinik invited players and staff members to get their families out of harm's way. And family apparently included animals. There were three cats and seven dogs on the Boeing 737, with captain Steven Stamkos' 100-pound Swiss Mountain Dog, Trigger, curled into a coach seat before takeoff.
"It was a little crazy," Stamkos said.
Defenseman Anton Stralman brought the largest contingent — 10 — which included four kids, three bunnies (Charlotte, Lisa and Charlie), and a dog, Lizzy.
"It was like walking on the ark," coach Jon Cooper said, laughing. "I was just waiting for a bird to fly overhead."
"I said, 'What if someone had a pony?' " quipped Ryan Belec, team director of travel services. "I think we'd just been like, 'Let's go.' "
It was the most challenging — and crazy — experience in Belec's 10 years managing the team's travel. Think about it. Plan a trip for 148 people (and 14 animals) in 48 hours, and do it with a hurricane looming. It took the generosity of Vinik and a massive amount of cooperation from the charter airline, Miami Air International; bus companies and Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Resort.
The Predators were gracious hosts, their staff helping as the Lightning rookies competed in scrimmages against Nashville rookies and veterans held informal skates.
Still, it felt like a miracle for the Lightning to open camp on time Thursday. The team returned Tuesday to sunny Tampa skies, put its pets in their crates and went home.
"It worked out well," Belec, 40, said. "But it probably knocked a couple years off my life."
It started with a text message Belec sent to team management Sept. 5.
Irma was then expected to be a Category 5 hurricane when it hit Florida, and though initially it was headed for the east coast, Belec wrote, "Can we discuss this today?"
It didn't take long for the Lightning's four-team rookie tournament in Estero that weekend to be cancelled; Germain Arena was an evacuation center. The Panthers soon pulled out of the event, evacuating their team, and the Capitals stayed put. By Wednesday, the Lightning and Predators had worked out a plan to scrimmage in Nashville.
But it soon became an evacuation situation.
"Everyone thought (the hurricane) was coming to the east coast. Nobody out west took it serious," said Cooper, who has stayed in a hotel since his Tampa home lost power. "Until all of a sudden it was coming at us. So now what do we do?"
Stralman said he and his wife, Johanna, wavered about what to do.
They boarded up their South Tampa home and bought sandbags, just in case.
"All of our guys were in the same situation as every other Floridian," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "Should I stay or go? Where do I go? What do I do with my home, my car, dog, cat?"
When the Lightning welcomed players and their families to join the rookies' flight Sept. 8, leaving became an easier decision for most. The hard part was the execution.
Belec got lucky with Miami Air having an available plane, though this was the first time he requested no first-class seats. He said Nashville is the toughest city in the NHL in which to find hotel rooms, but with Opryland's massive 3,000-plus-room campus, 55 rooms were available.
"It's a little more expected to be in Boston and have a snowstorm and can't get out," Belec said. "When it's a hurricane and then an evacuation, you're texting your entire team saying, 'Let me know how many,' and they're writing back, 'Four kids, wife, two dogs, three bunnies.' That's certainly nothing I had experienced."
"Looking back, I'm sure it's funny now. But at the time, I'm like, 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' "
Defenseman Braydon Coburn brought wife Nadine; their two kids, daughter Rory, 5, and son Blair, 3; and their two rescue dogs.
"You saw it with (Hurricane) Harvey, people don't want to leave their pets," Coburn said. "They don't want to sacrifice a member of the family."
Belec said his 5-year-old twins, Carson and Ryder, felt like it was a vacation, remembering their summer trips to the Gaylord resort in Kissimmee.
Stralman took his kids mini-golfing and go-carting, and they watched movies in their room.
"It was a strange trip," Stralman said. "But we made the best of it."
The coaching staff went through typical meetings in the hotel conference rooms and watched the rookies play in scrimmages Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at Ford Ice. Veterans held informal skates, like they would have done in Tampa, to prepare for camp. "It was business as usual," Belec said.
The trip back? Not so much. With commercial flights scarce coming to Tampa after the storm, the Lightning had the 18 roster players who had been outside Florida through the ordeal come to Nashville so it could get an even bigger charter plane back. It used 148 of 168 seats and every inch of cargo space.
"We didn't think we'd get it on, but we did," Belec said.
They put a animal-related Disney movie on for the kids on the uneventful flight home.
"One thing I want to commend everyone was that, surprisingly, all the pets were potty-trained," Cooper joked. "They knew they had to behave."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.