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Welcome to hockey country

Lightning fans gather at Amalie Arena last month before a playoff game against the Detroit Red Wings in Tampa. The Lightning ousted the Red Wings with a Game 7 victory and the team is enjoying a ton of support.
Lightning fans gather at Amalie Arena last month before a playoff game against the Detroit Red Wings in Tampa. The Lightning ousted the Red Wings with a Game 7 victory and the team is enjoying a ton of support.
Published May 6, 2015

Here we are again, on the edge of our seats, our flags unfurled, our overpasses adorned with lightning bolts. The hockey team from Tampa Bay is again making a run at greatness, up two games to none against the longest continuously operating professional ice hockey organization in the world.

Game 3 is tonight, and if you hadn't noticed, hockey, more and more, is a thing here in the subtropics.

"It's hard for many in more traditional markets to recognize Tampa as a hockey town," said Alexis Boucher, managing editor and senior writer at Lightningshout.com. "It's easy for other fans and members of the media to dismiss us because it's hard for them to understand how we have grown and now flourish in such an unlikely place. Tampa is a hockey town, though."

Alas, there are still guys like me who get busy with bills and babies and look up one day to realize, holy goodness, the hockey team is doing very well. Maybe you're in my wagon. Welcome aboard.

The last time Capt. Bandwagon watched so closely (or at all) was 2011, when I paused just long enough to get hooked. The Bolts were down 3 games to 1 against the Penguins from Pittsburgh before an incredible winning run. They advanced two rounds to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost in Game 7 to some team from somewhere much colder and dirtier than here.

The signs that adorned that team's arena back then stung, though. Remember?

In Tampa, hat tricks are performed at the community center every Monday at 4:30.

For your courtesy, Tampa fans, there will be shuffleboard during the second intermission.

(They'll have some free time at home to create more nifty signs since they missed the playoffs this year.)

"We went through a period of time when our organization was a joke," said Melissa Estep, sporting Lightning blue earrings and Oakleys as she waited for autographs outside Amalie Arena on Tuesday. The Lightning played in the underwhelming Expo Hall at the state fairgrounds in 1992, then the Thunderdome (now Tropicana Field). Saw back-to-back 19-win seasons. Fired a head coach after just 16 games.

But that's old news.

The team drew an average of 18,823 fans to home games during the regular season this year, ninth in the 30-team league. The kids who watched them win the Stanley Cup in 2004 have jobs now and money to spend.

Fans point to the ownership and management.

"Jeff Vinik cares about the sport," Estep said. "He's repairing it from the inside."

The players help, too, and not just on the ice.

"These guys actually seem to care about us," said Heather Glynn, 29, who left her children with her husband so she could wait around for autographs. "They come out here every day and ask us how our day is going."

And fielding winning teams goes a long way.

"The organization has put themselves in a great position to be good for a long time," Boucher said. "Making the playoffs is great but winning championships and being perennial contenders is what leads teams to be considered great."

Tyler Moore, 29, an assistant pastor at Our Savior Lutheran's Largo campus, has begun sharing his fanaticism on the church marquee. After Easter, the sign read: JESUS SAVES, STAMKOS SCORES. A few games later: THOU SHALT BE THE THUNDER.

Does the Almighty care who wins?

"Probably not," he said. But he does pray for the players to stay healthy, to play clean and to use their best abilities.

"In the end, that's a fair prayer," he said. "God would care about that. He gave them those abilities."

The preacher (who's looking for discount tickets if you know anybody) changed the sign again on Tuesday. This time it suggests something about what he has observed lately, about Tampa coming out as a hockey town.

"Florida gets razzed all the time for our sports attendance, but this area, man, people are hockey crazy," he said. "It's cool to see."

His latest sign: TODAY YOU'LL BE WITH ME IN HOCKEY PARADISE.

Contact Ben Montgomery at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

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