No current pro team has captured the hearts and minds of Tampa Bay sports fans like the Lightning. It's a young, star-laden team on a mission. Potentially great things lie ahead. The playoffs start Wednesday.
Reporter Diana C. Nearhos is in her first year covering the team for the Tampa Bay Times. Photographer Dirk Shadd has been doing it for more than 20 years. They form the nucleus of our Lightning beat coverage. During the playoffs, they will have plenty of company from the sports and photo staffs.
As Tampa Bay gears up for the playoffs, our newsroom will produce a hard-cover coffee table book about the Lightning's extraordinary year. Think about some of the accomplishments so far: Steven Stamkos set an all-time franchise record for goals. Nikita Kucherov led the National Hockey League in points. The team won its first-ever Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the franchise that earns the most points during a regular season. Tampa Bay matched the best record in NHL history.
"There's a ceiling for every team, but this Lightning team allows a fan's imagination to run wild," said Mike Sherman, our deputy editor, sports. "It's hard to see the ceiling from here."
Our 160-page book will showcase hundreds of photographs — from the team's first shootout victory on opening night through the push to the Stanley Cup.
Dirk estimates he's probably made more than 100,000 photos at Tampa Bay Lightning home games this year. The book will include photographs that have never been published.
One of the best hockey photographers in the business, he lugs roughly 50 pounds of equipment into Amalie Arena and sets up along the glass about 20 feet from the goal. Three cameras are strapped around his neck and shoulders. That's just one part of his operation.
With remote transmitters, Dirk controls two more cameras mounted in the rafters. Sometimes he uses foot pedals like a jazz drummer to activate the rooftop cameras 97 feet above the ice.
Dirk knows every passageway and secret door at Amalie and recently treated me to a tour. He opened one to take us over concrete floors made sticky by spilled drinks and sweat underneath the 100 section seats. In the dark, we stepped over rat traps, cutting off precious time from the rink to the media room. (Dirk logs about 3 miles on his Apple Watch moving from station to station during a game). And he seemingly knows everyone who works there — from the Zamboni operator to the ushers to the security guards to the concession stand operators. They all trade big greetings and wide smiles.
Back near the ice, he sits on a plastic stool, points his lenses through a 6-inch slot in the Plexiglass and fires away.
"The more action and goals, the more I shoot," he said. "Also, the more nervous I am, the more I shoot. But it's typically more than 3,000 a game. And no, I'm not paid per shot."
Diana arrives a few hours before game time. She's already been working most of the day. She attends the morning skate. And then spends a couple of hours filing and drafting stories from home before heading back to the arena.
As the puck drops, she watches from the front row of the press box perched above the 300 section. Not quite the same view as Dirk's — but it's suited to her purposes.
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"I actually love it from here," she said. "You can see everything develop."
Her laptop flipped open, she begins writing and tweeting almost immediately.
At different stretches of the playoffs, Diana and Dirk will be joined by columnists John Romano and Martin Fennelly, pro sports reporter Eduardo A. Encina and reporter Mari Faiello. Doug Clifford, Monica Herndon and Chris Urso will be part of the photo team at home games.
Covering lousy sports teams grows old fast. It's not as much fun being around hapless players and hopeless fans. This Lightning team is a different story. The players brim with confidence. The expectations are high. They live for the moment. And that moment — the Stanley Cup playoff push — is here.
Hold on tight. It's going to be a fun ride.
About the book
The Tampa Bay Times will publish a 160-page hard-cover picture book commemorating the Lightnings' historic season. The book will print three weeks after the Lightning play their last game. It will ship directly to you. The book retails for $39.95 but if you order early, you can save $10 off the retail price. You can order at www.boltsbook.com
Contact Mark Katches at email@example.com. Follow @markkatches.