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For Tampa Bay, Lightning plays coolest game in town

Tampa Bay Lightning center Alex Killorn (17) yells defiantly as he celebrates his goal beating New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) for the Lightning fourth goal of the game during second period action of game three of the Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena in Tampa Wednesday evening (5/20/15).
Tampa Bay Lightning center Alex Killorn (17) yells defiantly as he celebrates his goal beating New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) for the Lightning fourth goal of the game during second period action of game three of the Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena in Tampa Wednesday evening (5/20/15).
Published May 24, 2015

The Bucs. The Rays. The Lightning. • If you're a die-hard Tampa Bay sports fan, those teams are like your children. Ask any parent and they will tell you that they love all their children — with their gifts and flaws, different quirks and personalities — equally. But there is something special about the Lightning. • It is a little more likeable, a little more endearing. This might be an NFL market, and baseball is America's pastime, and hockey isn't everyone's cup of tea, but let's admit it: • The Lightning is Tampa Bay's favorite. • Of course it's easy to favor a winner, and the Lightning is having what could turn out to be a championship season. The Bucs haven't won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl in January 2003. The Rays never have won a World Series. Right now everyone is caught up in Stanley Cup fever with the Lightning on the verge of playing for the NHL's famed trophy.

But there's more to it than wins and losses and titles. It's about the teams' reputations, their personas. It's about what you think about when you think about these teams.

There's no question that when the Bucs are good, they are this market's most-followed team. Even when they aren't good, interest in the Bucs is greater than that of any other local team. That's a product of the NFL. Football is by far this country's No. 1 sport, and there is more passion — good and bad — about the Bucs than about any other local team.

Interest, however, is not the same as appeal. Most fans are sour on the Bucs these days.

They are the NFL's worst team. They have had four losing seasons in a row. In a league built to help bad teams become good quickly, the Bucs haven't made the playoffs in eight seasons. It has been 13 seasons since they won a playoff game. Those numbers are absurd.

The Bucs are on their third coach in the past four seasons, and there's no guarantee they won't need another coach sooner rather than later. The best news of all is that the Bucs landed the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, allowing them the opportunity to rebuild the franchise with the best college football player in the country.

Yet even that has been a mess. The Bucs selected controversial Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who comes to town with a series of missteps and transgressions that have made him already the most polarizing athlete in Tampa Bay. As many people hate the pick as love it, and even if Winston pans out on and off the field, it likely will take a while before the Bucs are any good.

On top of that, most fans are not fans of the Glazers, the team's owners. The Glazers are often considered to care more about their soccer team, Manchester United, in England than they do about their team in Florida. Most blame the owners for the Bucs' lack of success of late.

Then there are the Rays. Really, we should have every reason to admire, respect and like the Rays. They are the scrappy little guy. They have been one of baseball's best franchises over the past decade, winning more games than a team with their payroll should have won. And what is happening this season is nothing short of amazing.

Despite a slew of injuries, especially among their vaunted starting pitching, the Rays have managed to remain contenders with new manager Kevin Cash, a breath of fresh air who happens to be a local kid, from Tampa.

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So what's not to like? Well, though it's not totally the Rays' fault, a dark cloud always seems to be over the franchise because of an out-of-date stadium, pitiful attendance, constant bickering over a new stadium and the threat that the team will eventually move out of the area. Though the present is enjoyable, the future is always depressing.

Meantime, the Lightning's present is glorious, and its future might be epic when you consider how good and young the team is.

It starts with owner Jeffrey Vinik, who has completely embraced this area by moving here. Not only has he moved here, he is investing millions of dollars in an effort to revitalize downtown Tampa. We like owners who jump into the community with their feet and their dollars.

There's more. The Lightning plays a style that is, quite frankly, more entertaining than those of the other local teams.

The greatest Bucs teams were built on a ball-control offense and a great defense. Effective. Very effective. But not scintillating to watch.

The Rays' success is a result of pitching and defense. That, too, is effective and probably the best, most reliable way to win in baseball. But again, it's not exactly must-watch.

Ultimately, winning with defense, as the Bucs and Rays have done, is better than not winning at all.

But the Lightning wins and does it with a go-go-go style. The Lightning is one of hockey's most entertaining teams, a team that is fun to watch whether it wins or loses, and it usually wins. It's a three-hour thrill ride every time the Lightning takes the ice.

Finally there's this: Hockey players are the best people. They are the most approachable, most down-to-earth, most likable athletes. And the players on this particular Lightning team live up to hockey's nice-guy reputation.

Tampa Bay is not considered a great sports market. We're a melting pot, with fans from all over the country who have not lost their hometown allegiances. We become a good sports market when one of our teams gets really good and following that team becomes the cool thing to do.

Right now that team is the Lightning. Going to Lightning games, following this playoff run is chic. Maybe it could change someday if the Rays get to another World Series or the Bucs get good again.

Until then, the Lightning is Tampa Bay's favorite son.

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