TAMPA — It’s the little moments that make the difference for four-year season ticket holder Crystal Joerg.
Before her first Lightning game at Amalie Arena in 2018-19, Joerg was escorted to her seat by her section usher, Bob Mohr. He learned her name and tried to make her experience the best possible, offering help if Joerg or her husband, Jeremy, needed anything.
Over time, Joerg came to consider Mohr “family.” She sends him an annual Christmas card. So, when the coronavirus pandemic paused the NHL season in 2020, Joerg made frequent calls to her season-ticket representative to check in on him.
“I’m calling my rep and I’m like, ‘Is Bob OK? I heard you guys did some cutbacks. Did you cut back the ushers?’” Joerg, 44, of Tampa recalled. “And they’re like, ‘We can’t really talk about that.’ And I’m like, ‘But can you tell me, is mine OK?’”
Ushers like Mohr make an impact on fans night in and night out, Joerg said. It’s why this season — the first with full attendance since the start of the pandemic — has been so meaningful for arena staff and their guests.
Now, with the Lightning in the midst of a third straight deep playoff run that will resume with Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final Sunday at Amalie, it’s special for them to be able to share the experience again.
“It’s been a great reunion,” said Mohr, 70, of Apollo Beach, who has worked as an usher since 1998.
Last month, ushers wore green ribbons to help raise awareness on Mental Health Awareness night. Mohr knew the night was personal for Joerg, who works as a therapist. At the end of the night, Mohr handed Joerg his ribbon.
“I don’t know why that was so touching or why it made me cry, but I cried walking out holding this green ribbon,” Joerg said. “I posted a picture of it on my Facebook (page) that I had the best usher in the world.”
Mohr always has thought of himself as a people person, and it didn’t take much convincing for him to apply for a part-time position as an usher 24 years ago. He knows his section’s season-ticket members by name and goes out of his way to make the unfamiliar, temporary faces feel at home, too.
“You have to like people,” said Mohr, who has worked sections 126/128 for the past 20 years. “If you don’t like people here, you might as well move on. You have to be a people person, and I enjoy it.”
‘Like a part of me was missing’
Late in the third period of Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference final, usher Selma Maran made her way down the stairwell toward the glass along the visitor’s bench. When the final horn sounded, Capitals players rushed on to the ice to celebrate their 4-0 win over the Lightning.
While some in the crowd were celebrating, Maran wept. She wasn’t alone for long, however, as one of her season-ticket holders walked up to her and gave her a hug. Soon, he was crying himself.
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“I didn’t know it meant this much to you,” she recalled him telling her.
Such interactions have stuck with Maran for the past seven years working as an usher outside sections 101/102.
With attendance limited last season due to the pandemic, Maran felt something was amiss as the team played in a semi-empty building for much of the year.
“With them not being there, it’s not the same,” Maran, 35, of New Port Richey said. “There’s nothing like 19,000 people on their feet when a goal is scored in Amalie Arena. It is freaking electric. You feel it down to your bones.”
It’s why Maran couldn’t wait for this season’s opener in front of a capacity crowd. All of her season-ticket members stopped by to give her a hug and express their joy at seeing her.
“It makes such a difference,” Maran said. “It felt like a part of me was missing. And not seeing these people on a regular basis and not having them in my section … this was the first year they all got to come back to their original seats.
“So having all of my people back was just amazing, because you go through the ups and downs of the season and you share it with these people, and nobody knows that better than the people that are there for every game.”
Friendly face at the door
Katrina Balentyne has been helping fans inside and around Amalie since 1999. So much so that Balentyne, an assistant manager for guest services, has become a familiar face around the arena’s first level.
If a fan needs to relocate because they broke a leg and can’t fit into their normal seat, Balentyne is there. If someone buys tickets with a partner and later breaks up, Balentyne helps relocate them so they don’t have to sit next to their ex. If someone is sitting under a vent, Balentyne helps them find a warmer spot.
While she doesn’t see the same people for extended periods of time every night as ushers do, she’s felt a collective joy with Lightning fans and her co-workers with everyone back this season.
“It’s been wonderful,” Balentyne, 58, of Tampa Heights said. “They’re the people you see when you have games two to three nights a week. You definitely do develop relationships with them.”
‘Best part-time job in the world’
A heart attack around Christmas last year disrupted Dave Carlin’s normal schedule. Stuck recovering at home, the usher of 22 years missed most of the action around Amalie for the past six months.
Anxious to return, Carlin found his way to a couple of games at the end of the regular season as a fan. But he wasn’t expecting an audience.
“I couldn’t even watch the game,” Carlin, 65, of Land O’ Lakes joked. “I had so many people looking for me, trying to track me down. No matter where I went, I had people coming to find me.”
The reception was touching for Carlin, since he had not seen most of those people since the holidays. His co-workers started calling him “Nikita Kucherov,” since he was returning in time for the playoffs, as the Lightning star forward did last season.
Carlin’s most heartfelt moment came a couple of weeks later when he waited at the top of the stairway between sections 114/115 before Game 3 of the opening-round series against the Maple Leafs.
As fans trickled in, Carlin saw one of his favorite guests walk his way: a 2-year-old girl who sits along the glass in 115.
“When I saw her for the first time in six months, she just lit up,” Carlin recalled. “That was it right there. I said, ‘Hell, I can’t ever quit this job.’ Every time I see her, she has to fist bump me.”
Such moments remind Carlin why he returned to Amalie this summer. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s just the best part-time job in the world,” Carlin said. “... Just going there and being friendly and nice to people, you’ve got it made if you’re a people person. … When they bury me, that’s when I’m going to quit here.”
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