TAMPA — This is what we do now.
Throngs of fans crowded the downtown waterfront Monday while the Tampa Bay Lightning sailed through the heart of the city as world champions for the second time in 10 months.
The boat parade, born last season from socially-distanced necessity, is now a tradition for the southernmost city to ever bring home a Stanley Cup. Monday made three of these in a year, if you count the Buccaneers Super Bowl championship boat parade in February.
Hannah West, who lives downtown, was attending her third.
“He’s a big boat parade guy,” she said, pointing to Toro, her Bernese mountain dog, who was wearing a Lightning bandana.
And so what if the party started on a Monday morning? Champagne was swigged straight from bottles, and a special-edition Coors Light beer brewed using ice from Amalie Arena flowed on tap at the Sail Plaza bar on the Riverwalk.
A group known as the Lightning Ladies had scouted a prime spot near the stage at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park the night before. They passed blue Jell-O shots around before 9 a.m., hours before players were to take the stage for celebratory speeches and rapper Big Boi was to perform.
That Lightning celebration in the park was, somewhat ironically, canceled when a severe thunderstorm warning threatened dangerous lightning in the area, but it was sunny skies for the parade.
Fans watched from hammocks slung between palm trees. Some played hooky from work.
Lifelong hockey fan Josh Davis, 29, brought his 4-month-old daughter, Lily. He wanted to introduce her early to the hockey “dynasty” he loves. He introduced his wife to the Lightning last season during their five-overtime playoff win over the Blue Jackets, and she became hooked too.
“We live and breathe this team,” Davis said. “We’ve become a hockey family.”
Fan vessels crowded the Hillsborough River, from luxury yachts to pontoons, kayaks, fishing boats, a pirate ship and a floating tiki bar. A Tampa Bay Fire Rescue Boat cleared a path, followed by boats flying banners with the jersey numbers of the players aboard.
Team captain Steven Stamkos stood at the bow of one vessel wearing a “Back to Boat” shirt, alongside defenseman Victor Hedman, holding up two fingers and waving at fans who blasted air horns as police boat sirens blared.
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Coach Jon Cooper, cigar in mouth, rested a hand — adorned with a sparkling 2020 championship ring covered in nearly 200 diamonds — atop the gleaming Prince of Wales trophy on the lead boat. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy tossed shirts to the crowd, then danced while wearing the Conn Smythe trophy, honoring the playoffs’ most valuable player, on top of his head.
There were plenty of “Stanley Cups” hoisted, from a fan-made one constructed of flower pots wrapped in tin foil, to the one built from beer cans that rode with winger Nikita Kucherov at the front of his boat.
But all eyes were on the real thing — including those of a police dive team standing by in case the “most historic trophy in sports” wound up in the water.
The closest it came might have been when Lightning owner Jeff Vinik lifted the 34.5-pound trophy over his head, then stumbled backward, before other passengers on his boat grabbed on. Moments later, he was drinking from it.
“My therapist told me I’ve got to enjoy moments,” a beaming Vinik told a Bally Sports reporter minutes later on a live TV broadcast, “and this is a moment for all of us to enjoy.”
For a while, the Cup was shuttled boat to boat on a jet ski driven by left wing Alex Killorn, who wore a Bucs jersey and held the Cup between his legs, while Kucherov rode on the back. They cruised up to a dock and let fans touch it before Kucherov sprayed them with champagne.
The crowd angled for a view of the players, but many of the players took this moment to capture video of the adoring fans on their own phones.
Some fans wore T-shirts referencing Tampa Bay’s growing status as “Champa Bay,” reading, “Cup. Boat parade. Repeat.” Others shirts nodded to the Lighting’s colorful personalities, reading, “Number one bulls--t,” a reference to Kucherov’s shirtless, beer-fueled interview after Game 5 of the finals.
Defender Erik Cernak wore a professional wrestling championship belt slung over his shoulder.
Payton Michelle, who drove to Tampa from St. Augustine to attend the parade, wore a knee brace. She’d been knocked down in the crowd waiting outside Amalie Arena hoping to get a glimpse of the Stanley Cup after the Lightning clinched the championship.
No luck that night, but “Pat Maroon did help me up, though,” she said, “so that was nice.”
On Monday, she brought along her replica Stanley Cup which had 17 player signatures, including that of her favorite, Brayden Point.
“I still have to get Vasy and Hedman,” she said, “but I’ve got quite a few.”
The players disembarked their boats at Rick’s On The River restaurant before boarding trolleys that rushed them on closed streets with a police escort to the celebration at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
A seasonal downpour sent fans running for cover, but some who braved the rain were treated to a group hug over the metal barrier from a soaking wet Pat Maroon, who briefly carried Yanni Gourde on his back.
The players took the soggy stage in a steady rain and passed around the Cup for a few minutes in front of a cheering crowd. But officials made the call to end the celebration shortly before 4 p.m. for safety reasons.