TAMPA — You spend all this time climbing to the highest of mountaintops, only to discover this unsettling truth.
Dang, it’s awfully noisy up here.
They’re whining about the Lightning’s salary cap in one corner and tsk-tsking Nikita Kucherov’s indelicacies in another. The morality crowd is complaining about Tom Brady’s tequila cruise, and the purists are still harping about Blake Snell and the sixth inning.
So, I guess, congratulations are in order for Tampa Bay’s teams and fans:
You’re finally good enough to be hated.
It’s been quite the journey from entertaining nincompoops to long-term losers to, suddenly, the Evil Empire. We barely got in the penthouse suite and we’re already being accused of stealing towels and robes.
If it had gone largely unnoticed in the Stanley Cup title and abbreviated pennant race of 2020, it became a lot more heated with the Super Bowl and second Stanley Cup in 2021. And, I suppose, we have Kucherov and Bud Light to thank for a lot of it.
The Lightning forward was already a bit of a flash point for his hip surgery that cost him the regular season and allowed the team to manipulate salary cap restrictions before he returned in the postseason, but Kucherov went into full villain mode when he showed up to his Game 5 news conference Wednesday shirtless, drinking beer and throwing shade on Montreal fans and Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Kucherov chided fans for what he decided was an excessive celebration after the Canadiens’ lone Stanley Cup final win in Game 4 and then dissed Fleury, who has won three Stanley Cups, for beating Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Vezina Trophy.
“Vasy was outstanding. MVP. I was telling him every day: Vasy, you’re MVP. You’re the best player,” Kucherov said. “And then they give it to, whatever, the guy in Vegas, the Vezina. And (in 2020) they gave Vezina to somebody else (the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck). No. 1 bulls--t. No. 1 bulls--t.”
Within minutes, social media and internet commenters were blasting Kucherov and, in collateral ways, Tampa Bay.
Sports and political journalist Keith Olbermann weighed in with a tweet to his million-plus followers that said the Lightning are “reviled” around the league. Olbermann later explained that Lightning coach Jon Cooper has a reputation among hockey insiders for being a “bad” winner and Kucherov’s bluster overshadowed the NHL’s longstanding tradition of post-series sportsmanship.
“It not only insulted Montreal’s fans, it insulted Tampa Bay’s, because if any player thought Montreal had excessively celebrated, they clearly have never been at a real hockey celebration,” Olbermann said in an email. “And as I said: it insulted the game’s greatest tradition, the handshake line.
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“If he just sits there and chugs and says, ‘We’re the greatest,’ and leaves the Montreal fans out of it, I’ve got no problem with what he did. But the moment he does that, he opens a Pandora’s Box.”
Yes, he did. The salary cap had been a popular issue among critics for months, but now Tampa Bay was getting whacked online for what the world perceives as the area’s longstanding shortcomings.
“The streets of tampa are EMPTY after you win the Cup! It means nothing to the city you play for, yet you s--t on a passionate fanbase that eats hockey even in summer?” someone wrote on Twitter.
“Keeping it classy like a true Florida man,” read one blog in Montreal.
Montreal radio host Matthew Ross said the vitriol toward Tampa Bay seemed over the top in Quebec but explained it was borne out of nearly 30 years of frustration for a market that had been accustomed to competing for the Stanley Cup year after year.
“Yes, it’s palpable, it’s real. People were already annoyed with the salary cap situation with Tampa Bay and then, obviously, Kucherov’s silly comments after the fact. … Some people took it personally,” Ross said. “Passion/fanaticism is just at another level here in Montreal. People treat it as a religion.”
So did Kucherov go over the line? Fans in Tampa Bay are routinely blasted by outsiders who have zero understanding of the market’s complexities, so dumping on another fan base doesn’t seem like the worst crime. The backhanded slap of Fleury, however, was way over the line.
And are Olbermann’s sources correct about the perception of Cooper and the Lightning? “Reviled” might be a strong word, but there is a smugness about Cooper that surely rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
In the end, the criticism is almost a compliment. A badge of honor, so to speak.
For 30 years or more, Tampa Bay teams were known for losing streaks, draft disasters, terrible owners, empty seats, faulty fax machines, quarterbacks who got away, and catwalks that get in the way.
So now that the Lightning and Bucs are sitting on top of the world, and the Rays are continually moving in that direction, it’s nice to hear criticism that’s more pointed than mocking.
And does that mean fans in Tampa Bay should feel guilty or ashamed for any of this success?
Well, to borrow a line from Kucherov:
That would be No. 1 bulls--t.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.
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