TAMPA — So I'm sitting between Jennifer and Laura, and Jennifer keeps wondering why I haven't tried on my Styrofoam playoff beard or turned on my Lightning stick. Laura tells me her favorite player is Steve something.
"Stamkos?" I asked.
"That's it!" Laura said.
These were my peeps.
Looking out over the lawn early Wednesday evening at Water Works Park near downtown Tampa, on the Hillsborough River, there were Lightning fans as far as I could see, thousands of them, waiting to watch Game 3 from Boston on two big-screen TVs. Our own little Woodstock. No Hendrix, just hockey.
I was embedded, completely, and enthralled. It was fun watching this watch party. Its heart, and lungs, were in the right place. The Lightning responded in kind with a dominant 4-1 win over the Bruins to take a 2-1 series lead. Big night in Hockey Town.
Yes, it took a while. This is the place where, in the first year of Lightning history, a quarter century ago, fledgling fans didn't know the game was three periods, not two halves. This is the place where, on opening night in 1992, at the fairgrounds, clueless ushers tried to toss fans who dared litter the ice with their caps after someone named Chris Kontos scored what the ushers would later learn was a "hat trick."
Now this is a place with heroes, like Stammer and Heddy and Kuch and Vasy. Hockey is like that. I'm telling you, if hockey had run Yalta, we would have referred to Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin as Churchy, Roosy and Stals.
There has been a lot of moaning out of Boston, where hockey was apparently invented, about goob Lightning fans, and how the Lightning were limiting Bruins fans at its games at Amalie Arena.
Well, tough. Hey, that place has been going downhill since the tea party. And another thing: A reliable source told me that at Bunker Hill, they turned away British army fans wearing red coats. So, there.
The Lightning has been holding watch parties for years, though the NHL and NBS initially balked, especially NBC, because it hurt in-home ratings. They balk no more. This is how playoff hockey takes hold. This is how hockey towns are made, on beautiful breezy nights during the long march in the name of the Stanley Cup.
I could asked myself why people would come to a city park to see something they could watch in the comfort of their own home. Instead, I asked Eric Smith, 43, of Tampa.
"Just the energy of us being together," said Smith, who plays the drum in a Lightning pep band. "It's celebrating our boys. It's a home-field advantage on a home field. You can't do this anywhere else. We're on a river. I just watched the sun go down."
My row mate, Jennifer Cataldo of Largo, is a regular at watch parties. A longtime season-ticket holder, she sat in her Lightning shirt in her Lightning chair. Cataldo is an assistant gym teacher at Fuguitt Elementary School, where she has been battling with Mr. Long, the kindergarten teacher, who dared put "Go Bruins" on his classroom door. Ms. Cataldo responded by putting Lightning bolts on the door.
"It was on," she said.
Laura Sorrell sat next to me. She got to the park at 1:30 Wednesday afternoon, five-and-a-half hours before puck drop in Boston. She recently lost her husband, Robert, and both her parents, all within 13 months. She watched the game Wednesday with her daughter, Christine.
"Got to get on with the living," Sorrell said.
There were 17,000 people inside Amalie Arena to watch Marty St. Louis win Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in Calgary. This year, there have been watch parties at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach and Armature Works, not far from Water works Park. Ed Bardelli of Dunedin was at the Clearwater Beach gig.
"We sat with the gulf in front of us, with our feet in the sand, watching hockey," Bardelli said.
Where else can you do that? Where else?
People brought chairs and blankets Wednesday. They brought food, though there were food trucks. And Lightning cheerleaders. And Thunder Bug the mascot. And souvenirs and giveaways, including those light sticks and beards.
Bo Evans, 22, of Tampa, sat on the grass with his younger sister, Grace. Evans recently graduated from Flagler College; Grace is a freshman at the University of Tampa.
"It's very communal," Evans said. "I feel more united with my city. This is our town. This is our team."
Evans wore a Bucs jersey, No. 93. Gerald McCoy.
The Bucs should own this town, but don't. The Rays can forget it, too. They just tore off a long winning streak and who noticed? It's a Lightning time. And there's no cheering like a community cheering.
Steven Stamkos finished things up Wednesday with an empty-net goal. Strangers high-fived. They were strangers no more. I handed my Styrofoam beard to someone on the way out. She happily put it on.
"Don't tell me this isn't a hockey town," Cataldo said.
You don't have to be Mr. Long to know that.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029.
Friday’s watch party
At Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 600 N Ashley Dr., Tampa. It starts at 4 p.m. and is part of Tampa Riverfest 2018.