TAMPA — As the Tampa Bay Lightning closed in on a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, Jessica Kreps fought her way through the cheering crowd to the glass around the rink.
“The last three minutes of that game were just complete chaos in the best way possible,” she said.
She made it just before the final buzzer, raising her fist in one hand and a homemade cardboard sign in the other.
“Heaven’s biggest Lightning fan Andrew Kreps,” it read. “6/19/99 – 5/22/21.”
Jessica made sure that her little brother was there for the Lightning’s triumph June 25. Even if it was in name only.
Andrew Kreps died in a car crash just before dawn May 22 in his hometown of Palm Harbor. He failed to make a turn on Highpoint Drive and wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, the Florida Highway Patrol said. He would have turned 22 on June 19.
An avid Lightning fan during his life, Andrew has become something of a good luck charm for the team in death, his family says.
During the playoffs, his mother, sister and neighbors have carried his photograph into Amalie Arena for three games, and the Lightning have won each time.
After clinching their spot in the finals, the team posed on the ice with the Eastern Conference trophy. The sign Jessica held up made it into the official team photo, posted at the Lightning’s Instagram page.
“When we saw that the photo made it in the big team photo after the fact, it was just goosebumps for the whole family,” Jessica said. “You could see his name so clear.”
“It’s part of history,” said Cindy Kreps, Andrew’s mother.
Sheryl and Christopher Price, the family’s next-door neighbors, are Lightning season-ticket holders. On June 5, they invited Jessica and Cindy Kreps to the playoff game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
It was the mother and daughter’s first real outing since the crash.
“When we went I said, ‘Mom, we’ll bring Andrew’s picture with us,’” Jessica said.
They brought two wallet-sized photos of Andrew along with them. Cindy pinned one to the inside of her jersey. Jessica carried the other with her.
“It was when we were losing and the game wasn’t looking too good in the beginning that I took out Andrew’s picture and I was just holding it,” Jessica said. “And that’s when we just scored six goals.”
The next time they visited Amalie Arena was June 15, Game 2 of the Conference Finals against the New York Islanders.
This time, neighbor Chris Price joined Jessica and Cindy, pinning Andrew’s picture to his jersey. The team won again.
Sheryl Price said he’s “like a hockey angel.”
Before the June 25 game, Jessica decided to make the sign with Andrew’s photos on it and bring it to the game.
Other fans are asking about Andrew now. They’re grateful to hear, when the Kreps and the Prices explain, that Andrew’s spirit is with the team.
“They’re like, ‘Come on, Andrew! We need your luck!’” Sheryl Price said.
Andrew was a student at the University of Central Florida, where he studied marketing and worked at Smoothie King. Friends and family remember him as kind and welcoming.
“He was also funny,” Jessica said. “He was very sarcastic. I think that’s the only language we spoke to each other.”
Last year, when the Lightning played in the Stanley Cup, Andrew watched on TV at UCF while Jessica live-streamed it back home in Tampa. Jessica’s live stream had a lag, about 30 seconds behind the real-time game, and Andrew kept texting her spoilers.
“I had to make sure that I wasn’t reading his texts because he would be like, ‘They scored!’ or like, ‘We missed it!’” Jessica said. “It was funny. He loved to watch them.”
At a vigil celebrating Andrew’s life, hundreds of his friends came to a park in Palm Harbor near the Kreps’s home to share memories of him. Friends have approached Jessica to tell her about the times he helped them while they were struggling back in middle school and high school.
“I always knew how special Andrew was to us,” Jessica said. “But after his death, me and my whole family realized how special he was to the whole community and how many people he left an impact on that I never knew about.”