It wasn't even two minutes past 6 p.m. and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park was already teeming with Tampa Bay Lightning fans.
They walked. They biked. They jumped out of minivans at the corner of Polk Street and N Ashley Drive, slung beach chairs over their shoulders and searched for a prime spot.
But when the eager fans entered the park, they were met with a crowd of hundreds who had already secured their seats an hour or two before the official start time of the Game 3 Stanley Cup final watch party. The crowd would swell to thousands by the opening faceoff.
Dorris Hardin and her family scored an ideal spot a few rows back from one of the two 16-foot screens when they arrived shortly after 5 p.m. Though Hardin admits they're bandwagon fans who recently dived into Lightning hysteria, she said they were eager to come downtown and take in all the energy.
"It's the first day of no school, it's summer and we're excited," said Hardin, sporting a blue tank top and a freshly painted lightning bolt on her cheek. "We just want them to keep winning and keep this all going."
Her son Jack, 13, is the biggest hockey fan in the family. He and his sister Maddie, 11, are both huge supporters of Ben Bishop. To prove it, Maddie had the balloon artist etch No. 30 on the back of a foot-tall balloon hat of Bishop holding a hockey stick.
The puck wouldn't drop for two hours, but the crowd had plenty to keep them busy. Food trucks. ThunderBug. Street hockey and faceoff simulators. Next to the balloon maker — mercifully in the shade — was a woman carefully applying free face paintings.
Erika Olivero, 24, sat perfectly still as the woman finished the last lines of the team's symbol and used her middle finger to dab on some glitter to make that bolt sparkle.
Olivero is a dedicated fan, born and raised in Tampa and cheering on the team as long as she can remember.
"It hurt when we lost that first game," Olivero said, referring to Game 1 of the final. "It hurt really, really bad. But I think they're going to pull through like they always do."
Tensions in the crowd were high. Sure, it's early on in the series, which was tied at 1-1 going into Game 3. But disappointment still lingered among fans after the Lightning dropped the first game on home ice. Getting a win in Chicago would be huge, and could create the momentum necessary to bring the Stanley Cup home to Tampa.
It was that sense of hope that brought Katelynn Waurishuk and Clinton Harris out to the watch party. Waurishuk, who has attended a few playoff games, said she was "more nervous, more anxious" after the Bolts lost the first game. Still, they were confident the team would win the cup. In the meantime, they were glad the Lightning provided such a "fan-friendly atmosphere" for the away game.
While about 2,500 fans have previously flocked to watch parties in the Channel District, Lightning officials expected the crowds to surge to 4,000 for the first out-of-town game of the series. The move to the downtown park was all about increasing capacity, said Bill Wickett, executive vice president of communications for the Lightning.
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One of the ideas behind creating the park on the Hillsborough River downtown five years ago was to give the community a place to gather. Monday's game watch was surely one of largest crowds to fill the space, fulfilling then-Mayor Pam Iorio's desire to create "downtown's living room."
Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who made an appearance early in the evening, said he "couldn't think of a more fitting place to watch the game."
"I love that even if you don't have tickets to the game, all the fans are here, like a family," Olivero said. "And when they score a goal, to be able to scream all together as one, it's like you're at the game."
Five minutes into the first period, as Victor Hedman unleashed a long pass to Ryan Callahan at the far blue line, the mass of Tampa fans held a collective breath.
With one snap of the stick, Callahan sent the puck flying toward the goal. The crowd erupted as the puck shot into the net.
Together, united in the heart of the city, they let their voices roar.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.