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Lightning players struck by Kobe Bryant’s death

With Tampa Bay playing the Kings in the first game at Staples Center since the former Lakers star’s death, the Lightning had a unique perspective on Bryant and a city grieving.
Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, left to right, display the t-shirt the Lightning and Kings wore Wednesday night honoring Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna before their game at the Staples Center on Wednesday. It was the arena's first game since Bryant died on Sunday. [Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning]

LOS ANGELES — Being in the same locker room as Kobe Bryant reduced Kevin Shattenkirk and his friends to awe-struck children.

They weren’t children. Shattenkirk had been in the NHL for nine years when he met Bryant last summer.

The Lightning defenseman was at a wedding at the Resort at Pelican Hill, near Bryant’s home. The groomsmen were in the locker room preparing for the main event when Bryant walked in.

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“I remember feel like we were little kids, whispering to each other like ‘there is he is,’ ” Shattenkirk recalled. “He actually approached us, said hello, congratulated my friend on the wedding.”

The Lightning played the Kings Wednesday in the first game held at Staples Center since Bryant’s death on Sunday. With Los Angeles grieving the death of Bryant and eight others in a helicopter accident Sunday, the NBA postponed a Lakers-Clippers game that had been scheduled for Tuesday.

Fans lined the barricades in front of the arena, leaving signs, flowers, paintings and just about anything you can think of. And that was before Wednesday’s morning skate. Two hours before the Lightning-Kings game, fans were back, adding candles, balloons and jerseys to tributes. There was no celebratory pre-game emotion, just solemn silence. People whispered to each other, afraid to break the still.

Kings players wore Bryant jerseys into the arena, in place of their usual suits. Both teams wore purple t-shirts with a gold heart, inside of which read 24 and 8 in the middle with Kobe and Gigi along the curves, before the game. Before the game, the Kings played a video recognizing Bryant and what he meant to the LA community.

“I think we are all in this sadness together," coach Jon Cooper said.

Tampa Bay defenseman Luke Schenn also knows the feeling of being awestruck by Bryant. Schenn played 43 games for the 2015-16 Kings, who shared a practice facility with the Lakers.

He never met Bryant, but Kobe often sat in the corner near where the Kings take the ice, Schenn said, so the players went right by him before the game. Schenn remembers skating by thinking “Wow, I can’t believe that’s Kobe.”

“When I got traded here, you’re just in awe that you are in the same facility, not as the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant,” Schenn said. “You’d come to a Lakers game to see no one else but Kobe.”

Pat Maroon never met Bryant but the Lightning forward was struck by his death. He learned of it before the Lightning’s practice in Dallas on Sunday, when a reporter standing in front of him reacted to TMZ’s tweet with the news. He was immediately struck. Maroon isn’t a big basketball fan, but he latched onto Kobe-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers of the early 2000s while growing up in an NBA-less St. Louis. He follows Bryant enough to know the helicopter ride was his common mode of commuting.

“I never met him,” Maroon said. “Growing up watching what he does on the court, his craft. Mentally, how tough he was. He put everything together on the court. He dedicated 20 years to his fans.”

Part of what hit Maroon was the fact at age 41, Bryant was just starting what many athletes think of as their “second life.” After dedicating 20 years to the NBA, Bryant was dedicating himself to his family.

Those family years were cut tragically short.

“He had his next life to teach his four daughters and be with his wife, to start a second journey,” Maroon said. “His life was too short now.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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