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Strike Force! // (the follies)

(ran TP edition)

Somewhere in section 101 of the Ice Palace, there is a Lightning fan who doesn't appreciate the wacky vicissitudes of the T-shirt slingshot. A fan on whom the subtle charms of the Hoop Helmet are lost. A fan who is less than impressed by the unstudied grace of the Balloon Dance.

Pretty much any activity orchestrated by the Strike Force bugs this guy, who complained recently that he didn't pay good money for season tickets to have his view of the ice blocked by a bunch of people waving balloons.

But the Strike Force _ known individually as Jon, Kristen, Kevin and Emmett _ is just doing its job, which is to be enthusiastic and entertaining during Tampa Bay Lightning home games while distributing corporate-sponsored free stuff like HIP Health Plan T-shirts and Spaghetti Warehouse "Meatballs."

And what's one complainer compared to the clamoring hordes of fans who stand up and scream for T-shirts, who beg for balloons and autographs and get fired up when prompted? Along with mascots, music and halftime shows, the Strike Force is part of the sideshow that most fans of professional sports have come to expect.

"You have to have a lot of guts to go out in front of 19,000 people and do what we do," says Jon Adams, 23, whose other professions are struggling actor and sometime waiter at Orlando's Planet Hollywood restaurant. "But it's a lot of fun. I'd do it for free if they didn't pay us."

The other Strike Forcers tend to agree. Maybe it's because they all seem to be members of that peculiar breed known as hams, people who love to act goofy and be wherever there's a crowd of people to entertain. They even seem to have been cast as if for a Thursday night sitcom: Besides Jon, the struggling actor, there's single mom Kristen Rehart, 33, who by day works for a resort company in a downtown Tampa office tower; professional clown Emmett Noble, 43, a father of two who lives in Mulberry and wears cowboy boots when he's not in his performing gear; and Kevin Mazur, 23, an environmental consultant from Clearwater who joined the Strike Force as an outlet from his stressful job.

The four got their gig at the Ice Palace by auditioning with an Orlando company called Sports Magic, which runs 19 "interactive entertainment" teams for professional sports franchises including the Chicago Bulls and the Florida Marlins. The company started seven years ago when an Orlando magician began performing in the stands during Magic basketball games, and began to develop new ways to entertain fans during breaks in the on-court action.

Though wacky spontaneity seems to be a job requirement, Sports Magic rules govern everything the Strike Force does. After they were selected last summer for their improvisational and performance abilities, the Strike Force members attended a training camp where they learned how to slide on ice and make balloon animals. They also learned the proper way to bundle T-shirts and how to shoot them off a slingshot held behind their partner's head.

As they later found out, those T-shirts are pretty aerodynamic even when they're interrupted mid-sling.

"I've hit him in the back of the head, and it still goes into the second row," says Kevin, who is usually Jon's partner.

Bruised noggins are only part of the hazards of being on the Strike Force. Sometimes they get soaked when a beer-toting fan forgets to put down his drink before he stands up and cheers, and sometimes they fall during on-ice skits. Most of the time, their track suits are damp from constant activity _ during a recent game against the Islanders they ran up and down the steps in 33 sections of the Palace, blew up about 400 balloons and threw more than 20 T-shirts.

The Strike Force members say it's all worth it when you can get an entire section of people smiling and waving balloons, as they did during a break in the second period of the Islanders game. The spectacle they created was displayed in slow motion on the Jumbotron, to the tune of No Doubt's Spider Web. In the third period came another triumph, when they incited the entire arena to do The Wave.

It's enough to make the Strike Force forget about the little indignities they suffer, like fans grabbing T-shirts out of their slingshots. But not enough to keep them from offering a word of advice to anyone who really, really has to have one.

"If you want a T-shirt, make a sign," Jon says. "The best is if you make a sign with a bull's-eye on it. And we'll shoot one right at you."