Matching outfits, wigs and social media all part of being Lightning SuperFans

Sean Ruane cheers after the Tampa Bay Lightning scored a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday. Ruane is a founding member of the Sticks of Fire, one of the Lightning’s most recognizable fan groups.
Sean Ruane cheers after the Tampa Bay Lightning scored a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday. Ruane is a founding member of the Sticks of Fire, one of the Lightning’s most recognizable fan groups.
Published May 18, 2016


Welcome to the era of the SuperFan.

It takes more than a T-shirt to root for your team these days. When the Tampa Bay Lightning returns to home ice tonight for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the the team will have more than the Amalie Arena crowd on its side.

The Lightning also will have a dedicated coterie of fans who have taken fandom to the next level: customized jerseys and coordinated outfits; blue face paint and luchador masks; chants and rituals; fans who gather before games and online using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

It's a fandom that teams cultivate because it creates an atmosphere that can't be replicated watching on a high-definition TV at home.

"It's almost like they want to create an event within an event," said University of South Florida sports marketing professor Michael Mondello.

That's what Sean Ruane and his Sticks of Fire do before every Lightning home game. Almost 350 strong, the Sticks of Fire march from their parking lot tailgate to the arena before every game, waving flags, stomping to the beat of drummers, chanting I believe that we will win!

"Having this group is making a difference," Ruane said. "It's not just about a sporting event."

The Sticks of Fire is one of the Lightning's biggest and most recognizable fan groups — and one of the loudest.

The hundreds of members who participate in the "march to the match" each home game walk under the towering lightning bolts in Thunder Alley and fist bump the statue of Lightning founder Phil Esposito before going inside the arena.

"We want the home ice advantage," Ruane, 26, said. "We want to bring together people who want to be loud."

Ruane helped found the Sticks of Fire in 2013. The first dozen members all bought season tickets in Section 307. Now they have their own logos, flags, scarves and even charitable projects.

"We started as an idea to bring some more culture to Tampa fans," Ruane said. "I didn't expect the group to get this big. It's exciting."

Ruane and his friends wanted to create a group that was inclusive, and could compete with the fans of hockey's far older franchises. For those teams, fandom is passed down through the generations. Ruane wanted to create that same kind of community here.

He never thought of himself as a sports fan before he became a Lightning fan. And not all members of the Sticks of Fire are longtime Bolts fans. Some went to their first game with the group.

"I can't say I'm not a sports fan anymore," Ruane said. "It's a great time to be a fan."

Elizabeth Schatz was a casual hockey fan at the age of 14.

Now 16, she has become an obsessive follower of the Lightning.

A junior at Alonso High School in Tampa, Schatz doesn't express her fandom using face paint. She uses Instagram and Twitter. She's part of the social media generation, using her skills to promote the team, lasso in new fans and recap games online.

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She went to her first game two years ago. The atmosphere and literal electricity in the air hooked her. "There was just something about it," she said. "The whole thing was very different (than watching on TV)."

She now goes to every game she can. She tries to be first in line for player autographs. Her signature game day look is a backward black Bolts hat and a dark blue Vladislav Namestnikov jersey. Her Halloween costume for the Oct. 31 game against the Boston Bruins featured a blood-splattered Vladdy tee with a hockey puck embedded in her head and chest.

Then, while watching last season's playoffs at Channelside Bay Plaza, her fandom went in a whole new direction: online.

"I want to talk about this," is what Schatz thought to herself. "It just kind of happened."

Now she thinks about pursuing a career in sportswriting. Maybe she could become a reporter covering the team, she thinks, or even work for the Lightning.

"I definitely want to expand what I'm doing," she said. "(My parents and I) have been talking about doing a blog."

Last year, Mike Hill and Dan Hurd wanted to step up their game as Lightning fans.

That's when they decided to become the Thunder Brothers.

Now, before games, they don matching outfits using things like blue wigs and luchador masks.

They started with jerseys customized with their nicknames: "Thunder Mike" and "Thunder Dan." That led to painting their playoff beards blue and buying matching Chuck Taylor shoes, shorts and socks. All blue, of course.

"We woke up one day and wanted to do something different" Hill, 36, said. "We wanted to be more creative."

Hill is from Long Island, N.Y., and used to be an avid Islanders fan until he moved to Tampa six years ago. Hurd also moved to the Tampa Bay area six years ago from Pensacola. They became close friends while working at the Chili's near Raymond James Stadium and have been season-ticket holders for four years now.

It takes about 15 hours for the duo to create matching head-to-toe outfits and 30 minutes to put them on.

"You have to be ready to go and cheer for your team," Hill said. "Those jerseys and outfits are badges of honor."

And their famous blue-and-silver Luchador masks? Hill found them on Amazon. They wanted something different from painted hockey masks.

"(The luchador masks) were how the Thunder Brothers were born," Hill said. "People now know us by that name."

The Thunder Brothers' next sartorial project: "We're currently working on getting a diagram of the Lightning bolt sewed onto our blue shorts."

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.