TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Rangers, Stanley Cup playoffs, Game 6. The Rangers had scored five third-period goals, and it looked like the Lightning wasn't coming back.
Things weren't going well for the Bolts.
Even the astronaut was missing, someone pointed out online.
It was true. The Lightning astronaut — the chicken-dancing, front-row-sitting, selfie-taking, T-shirt-giving, product-advertising, Carey Price-taunting viral Internet sensation — was not in his seat at Amalie Arena.
He's bailed, the Internet lamented.
He hadn't. The Malektronic Rocket Man (that's his real name — he's not actually affiliated with the team) was upstairs in a suite. A fan had spilled red wine on his suit, and he needed to get the stain out. A few minutes later, he was back, and all was well. Oh, the Lightning lost the game, but it still made the Stanley Cup final.
What amazed Ben Malek, owner of the company that dispatches the astronaut, was that a five-minute disappearance became a minor Internet phenomenon.
"Even just during the few moments he's missing, people notice," he said this week.
The astronaut wasn't supposed to be that big of a deal, Malek said. Malektronic, a Lightning advertiser, had brought him on toward the end of the regular season. He wore one of the company's products, the Rocket speaker, around his neck and gave away prizes to fans who tweeted at Malektronic.
Then the astronaut sat down in Malek's front-row, season-ticket seat, which happened to be next to the opposing team's penalty box.
That put him right behind opposing goalie Carey Price a few games later, when the Lightning played the Montreal Canadiens. The astronaut participated in Amalie Arena's traditional pregame military salute — and everyone thought he was saluting Price.
Later, music started playing. As instructed, the astronaut started dancing in order to get on the big screen. Price happened to skate by, and as a camera rolled, he cracked a smile. The resulting YouTube video — and a Lightning win — launched the Rocket Man into stardom.
"A lot of people said the astronaut was the MVP of that game," Malek said.
The astronaut has been at every home game since. Malek said several people, usually his employees, have donned the suit.
"The people in the suit have no training, unlike ThunderBug, who probably goes to mascot school or something," he said of the Lightning's official costumed character.
Rocket Man gives out T-shirts at games, and Malek said people line up to take pictures with him. Malektronic's Twitter name, @Malektronic, is full of retweets of gleeful selfies and astronaut spottings as well as product promotions and his own #GoBolts posts. At Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks, the astronaut brought a friend. Or a date. Or a clone, depending whom you ask on Twitter.
Two astronauts were almost more than the Internet could handle.
"We were just trying to mess with people," Malek said.
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The astronaut has been all over social media, as city after city sees him on TV for the first time. He's been on local news stations and T-shirts, featured on ESPN and discussed on sports blogs. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. once had the astronaut pretend to be sportscaster Scott Oake, who gave his opening standup off-camera while the astronaut held a microphone.
Malek said he can't yet tell how the astronaut's fame has affected his company's sales, though he's been invited to advertise at other sporting events. Recognition, though, is through the roof — opposing team members look straight ahead when they skate by the astronaut, and Malek said he sometimes has to remind people that ThunderBug is the Lightning's official mascot.
"That's the unreal part of it, how quickly especially people outside of the Tampa market start to associate the astronaut fan with the team," he said.
The astronaut doesn't have any special plans for Game 5 on Saturday at Amalie Arena, Malek said. Rocket Man's job is just to hang out with fans, get on the scoreboard screen and wait for people to notice, as one Twitter user put it: "Astronaut at the #StanleyCupFinal, just chillin'. "