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Fans fill Thunder Alley hours before start of Game 5

The line of fans attempting to get inside for the watch party stretched roughly 100 yards,
Emily Hall, left, and her father Jim Stafford and sister Kimberly Stafford arrived at Thunder Alley from Inverness at 11:15 am to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning attempt to win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday.
Emily Hall, left, and her father Jim Stafford and sister Kimberly Stafford arrived at Thunder Alley from Inverness at 11:15 am to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning attempt to win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 27, 2020
Updated Sep. 27, 2020

TAMPA — As the NHL season approached its 11th hour Saturday evening, Kimberly Stafford was on her 26th.

No Lightning or Stars player logged a shift as draining as this civilian jail officer’s. After her normal 12-hour stretch (6 p.m.-6 a.m.) at the Land O’Lakes Detention Center, Stafford nearly outraced the sun back to her Inverness home, grabbed a shower, then headed back out the door with her half-sister and dad.

After a stop for breakfast, the trio — Stafford, 23-year-old Emily Hall and Jim Stafford — arrived in downtown Tampa and set up their makeshift camp (lawn chairs, bags of snacks) directly in front of the big screen in Thunder Alley, just outside Amalie Arena.

Puck drop for Game Five was still nine hours away.

“They both love the game,” Jim Stafford said. “I love it, but not like these two right here. They’re crazy fans.”

In a conventional year, dawn would be breaking on the NHL preseason. But convention in 2020 exited several shifts ago.

So on the one-year anniversary of the 2019-20 Lightning’s preseason game against the Panthers down in Sunrise, fanatics such as Stafford and his girls converged in Thunder Alley — on a day when the humidity rose higher than Kevin Shattenkirk’s approval rating — to watch the Lightning attempt to clinch the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.

By 5:30, capacity in Thunder Alley — approximately 200, groups limited to a maximum of eight, first-come, first-serve — had been reached, and the line along Channelside Drive remained remained roughly 100 yards long.

About an hour before puck drop, select season-ticket members, as well as Lightning staffers and guests — 1,000 people in all — were allowed inside Amalie Arena to view the game.

“I mean, if you have a chance to see your team win a championship, you have to do it no matter what,” said 23-year-old Justin Gibbons, an FSU grad student raised in Seminole Heights.

Gibbons, a 2015 Sickles High graduate, left Tallahassee at 8 a.m. with 19-year-old sister Haley (also an FSU student) to hang out in Thunder Alley. They planned to keep track of Saturday night’s Seminoles-Miami football game, but only when intermissions allowed.

“We’re gonna be following along, but that’s one game and (the Seminoles) are not very good,” Justin Gibbons said. “This is more important right now.”

That vibe meandered through downtown Tampa’s shadowy thoroughfares, where every bar and downtown restaurant appeared to be filled to capacity a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted statewide COVID-19 restrictions on such establishments.

Hattricks, the popular Lightning fan hangout off South Franklin Street, had to stop accepting patrons more than an hour before Saturday’s puck drop.

Manager Larry Heisel said he was happy to see such a turnout — but couldn’t help but feel a bit bummed that he was missing out on the action.

“I used to be a Lightning season ticket holder,” said Heisel, 58. “If it weren’t for the coronavirus, I would love to have been at the arena in person.”

Logan Laplant, 23, was one of those too late to get a spot inside Hattricks, but it didn’t take away his excitement for Saturday’s game.

Laplant said he has played hockey for six years and loves the sport, but this game went beyond hockey itself. With the current political climate in the United States, he said a Lightning win would unite the City of Tampa and give everyone something around which to rally.

“A Lightning win is something that would mean a ton to this city in a time like this,” Laplant said. “We need that.”

Times staff writer Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.