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Meet the Tampa guys behind those cheeky Lightning tees

Players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos have been sporting Smack Apparel T-shirts since winning the Cup.
Smack Apparel's Chris Brown, left, and Derek Miller have overseen the production of some of the most successful T-shirts sold in the company's 23-year history. They have the Stanley Cup champs to thank.
Smack Apparel's Chris Brown, left, and Derek Miller have overseen the production of some of the most successful T-shirts sold in the company's 23-year history. They have the Stanley Cup champs to thank. [ Mari Faiello ]
Published Jul. 14

TAMPA — Derek Miller and Chris Brown watched Monday’s Stanley Cup boat parade in awe from their Smack Apparel warehouse. But it wasn’t so much the celebration that mesmerized them — although that was a contributing factor — but something much more personal.

Almost every time a player was shown on television, their company’s T-shirts were front and center. Their business was getting noticed in the best way.

The friends oversaw the manufacturing of some of the most notable Lightning T-shirts seen during the team’s Stanley Cup celebrations, the most popular one taken from an iconic Nikita Kucherov moment in the Cup-clinching news conference.

In a blue font on a white tee, it reads: “Number One Bulls--t” with an image of Kucherov drinking a beer in the top left corner. It was an instant hit, and on Monday (less than five days after releasing the design), they were still behind on orders.

“I think this has been the craziest 72 hours of our existence,” said Miller, 32 of Seminole Heights. “We’ve been in business for 23-plus years, and this is arguably the biggest thing that’s ever happened for us as a company.”

Smack Apparel initially thought it was a little late to the Kucherov party. The company didn’t debut its original design — “#1 Bulls#!t” centered on a blue T-shirt with a drinking Kucherov — until Thursday at 10 p.m., nearly 24 hours after the viral moment.

But with the extra time, they thought their tee would stand out since most other companies just had the phrase and no graphic. By Friday morning, they had 50 sales. Then the numbers started climbing.

“We said, ‘Maybe we’re onto something here,’ " Miller recalled.

But the unexpected happened that evening when Miller got a call from Vlad Spektor, an agent who works at Gold Star with Dan Milstein, Kucherov’s agent.

After getting wind of the design, Milstein showed it to Kucherov and the Lightning’s playoff-leading scorer loved it at first sight.

Kucherov wanted at least 100 T-shirts for the upcoming boat parade, with some modifications: He preferred the design on a white T-shirt instead of blue and no censorship. Milstein had a request of his own, asking Smack Apparel to create an “$18M Over the Cap” tee with the same drinking Kucherov graphic in the corner.

But it wasn’t as easy as grabbing 100 blank T-shirts out of the back of the 10,000-square foot warehouse and going to work. Smack Apparel didn’t have any white shirts in stock nor were they prepared to use the same design on a white tee.

They would have to redo the design and find 100 T-shirts in and around Tampa.

“We pulled as many strings as possible,” Miller joked.

On Saturday morning, Miller, Brown and one other worker came into the warehouse and hammered out the order from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

By that afternoon, Miller and Brown dropped off a handful of T-shirts to Milstein, Kucherov, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who were enjoying some time with the Stanley Cup on a yacht.

After the quartet posted photos on social media in their new gear, another 500-600 orders came in that day.

“We’re still printing them while our sales are just going through the roof,” Miller said. “It was just insane.”

The next morning, the Smack Apparel duo dropped off the rest of Kucherov’s order with some extra tees, including their “Back to Boat” blue one — which captain Steven Stamkos wore most of Sunday night and during Monday’s parade.

“It was like, ‘How many chances do we get to give them T-shirts?’ " Miller said. “We roll up with five or six people with six boxes.”

As expected, the “Number One Bulls--t” tees remain the most popular, though the “Back to Boat” ones took off after Monday’s parade coverage in the media. Brown, the company’s director of e-commerce, estimated sales increased 1,600 percent as a result.

On a typical day, they might make between $1,000-$2,000 in sales whereas in the past week they’ve done close to $40,000.

A box of white "Number One Bulls---" T-shirts in Smack Apparel's warehouse.
A box of white "Number One Bulls---" T-shirts in Smack Apparel's warehouse. [ Mari Faiello ]

“We’ve done more in the past three or four days than all of last year,” said Brown, 28 of Lutz.

“It feels like every time it’s about to maybe slow down, something else happens,” added Miller, who works as the company’s chief marketing officer.

It’s hard for the small business operators to put into words how much the past week has meant to them. Combined, they’ve worked at Smack Apparel for nine years (Brown for seven years alone). And they’re still riding the emotional high.

“I mean, we make shirts, and obviously we do it for the fans, but the fact that the players saw it and loved it so much, they were willing to rock it,” Miller said, “it speaks volumes.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.