TAMPA — Debi Skinner had tears in her eyes earlier in the week thinking about returning to Amalie Arena for the first time since March 5, 2020 — the last home game the Lightning hosted fans before the season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Skinner and longtime friend Angel Whitfield have been season ticket holders for the past 10 years. It just so happened they had tickets for Saturday’s game against the Predators in the seven-game ticket plan they purchased back in January.
Skinner and Whitfield were two of 3,800 fans welcomed back at Amalie on Saturday, the first game open to the general public this season. The team also raised its 2020 Stanley Cup banner into the rafters, nearly two months after it was unveiled at the season opener against Chicago in a pregame ceremony.
When the two friends stepped out of the parking garage and into Thunder Alley, they knew they were back home.
“We’re just so excited,” said Skinner, 54 of Tampa. “We love the Bolts.”
Whitfield said she has missed being at the games in-person because it’s a different kind of feeling from watching the game at home on a screen.
“You can feel the energy of the players,” said Whitfield, 46 of Clearwater. “You can feel the energy of the fans. It’s just a much faster pace and everything feels so amplified when you’re in the building.”
Catherine Pedulla and her mother, Michele, agreed.
The season ticket holders also hadn’t been back at Amalie since the last home game before the pandemic.
Michele knew her waterproof mascara would come in handy for the banner ceremony. She started crying just thinking about how much that moment would mean.
“We’re here to represent all of those who can’t be here,” said Michele, 61 of Clearwater. “We’ll scream loud, I promise.”
Joshua Siegle and friend Mark Smith got decked out for the game in themed Lightning suit jackets.
“After a year of not being able to be at anything live, this is probably the best thing that can happen to us,” said Smith, 45 of Valrico. “It’s awesome to be able to get out of the house and actually see live hockey, watch the banner raising for the 2020 championship. Holy cow, I don’t know how you could get any more excited for this.”
Siegle and Smith already had the Nashville game on their ticket plan and also “got lucky” with it coinciding with the banner raising. .
“We don’t have to watch (hockey) on a big TV in our living room,” said Siegle, 42 of Riverview. “A big part of it is being able to see the entirety of the game. You get to see the parts that aren’t necessarily caught on TV or on the cameras.”
When it came time to raise the banner, fans started applauding long before players took the ice. Captain Steven Stamkos skated out to center ice and welcomed everyone back with a short speech.
“You guys don’t know how much we missed you,” Stamkos said. “We really hope that that 2020 Stanley Cup run gave you the joy it gave us. ... We heard you from afar. ... This banner is for you guys.”
For the Lightning, it was important to wait until fans were back at Amalie before placing the banner in the rafters.
“The banners are for the fans,” coach Jon Cooper said. “ ... Albeit we’re at 25 percent or whatever it is, but I think those 25 percent will sound like 100 percent.”
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