Saturday, January 29, 2011

Florida Trip, Part III...Or, Reasons To Go See A Hockey Game In Tampa

Picking up right where I left off from the last blog entry about the Florida trip,
since I had pre-paid for parking, we were in the garage right next to the St. Pete Times Forum for Tuesday evening's game between the host Tampa Bay Lightning and the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets. I have no vested interest in either team (I'm a New York Ranger fan), I just enjoy going to see live NHL games. I'll watch games on TV, especially the Rangers, but there is an extra element of electricity added when you're right there in the arena.

Both of these teams have their share of talented players, especially Rick Nash for the Jackets, and Steven Stamkos for the Lightning. While there are many other excellent, skilled men on both teams, these would be the 2 standouts. In particular, Stamkos is in very rarefied air. Still shy of his 21st birthday (he
doesn't turn legal drinking age until Feburary 7), this is his 3rd full season in the NHL, the premier professional hockey league in the world. He has thus far been blessed with remaining injury-free in this extremely violent game, so he has already surpassed the 200 games played mark for his career. His shot, and his goal-scoring ability, are both amazing. As of this writing, which is during the 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend, he has played 212 games, and has 114 goals. What's even more remarkable about those totals is that he has 89 of those goals in just his last 133 games, and 68 in his last 91. That means he scores, on average, more than 1 goal for every 2 games in his entire career, 2 goals every 3 games for the 133 game span, and an amazing 3 goals every 4 games for the most recent 91 game stretch. In today's defensive minded NHL, those are incredible numbers. He is an immensely talented player, and has the potential to rack up some incredible career numbers if he can remain healthy, continue to be surrounded by quality teammates, and keep something close to this pace going for a number of years. He will also be on a Stanley Cup winning team sooner or's just bound to happen.

After milling around outside for a few minutes, enjoying the nice warm Florida evening air (it had been in the low 70's during the day, and the sun was just setting as we actually made our way into the arena), we headed in to wander around the inside of The Forum. It's always nice to see what the different venues have set-up for fans to spend their money on. Gotta cover those overpaid athletes salaries somehow. After getting a bucket of popcorn and a couple drinks, we headed to the
team store so I could buy myself a Lightning puck. The souvenier I get myself from each sports venue I visit is either a team puck or baseball, obviously depending on the sport...duh...So I got myself an official game puck in a case for my mantle, and a non-official puck with a more colorful logo on it for my uncle. He said the last time he'd been to a live NHL game was back in the late 1970's to see the New York Islanders, who at that time had a powerhouse team, and were on the verge of the dynasty they had when they won 4 straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. By the way, the black & white illustration in the left of the photo of the man holding the gun is a drawing of The Punisher by Mike Zeck, who will be the main topic of Part IV of the blog of the Florida trip...

Now that we had our drinks, popcorn, and pucks, it was time to head down to the ice to watch the teams warm-up. Since I don't get to live games too often, I like to
arrive early so I can watch this. About a half-hour before game time, both teams come out at their respective ends of the ice and go thru set routines designed to loosen everybody up, and start to get even more mentally and physically ready for that evening's contest. The nice thing about that is, because it's still early, 80% of the crowd has yet to arrive, so you can pretty much just walk down to the glass and watch the players extremely close-up. It's a great way to see them demonstrate skills from close proximity, and it's a terrific opportunity to take pictures.

I'm very careful about not getting too caught up in being behind the lens. Not just at sporting events, but anytime I'm taking photos. It's very possible to get so wrapped up in taking pictures that you forget to just actually enjoy the experience
of being wherever you are, whether it be at an arena watching hockey players warm-up, walking the streets of New York City, or hiking thru the forests of the Canadian Rockies (another of my previous trips that I need to someday write about here on this blog). So while I do enjoy taking pictures, I also put the camera down between shots and just stand there and actually watch the proceedings, and just enjoy the moment. I hardly ever see my uncle, so it was nice to just share this with him, and we stood right up against the glass in a corner at the Blue Jackets end of the ice (as evidenced by this picture I got of goaltender Steve Mason). We situated ourselves at the Jackets end for warm-ups, due to where our seats for the game were going to be.

When warm-ups ended, we made our way back up to the main concourse level to walk around to our section. We were at the polar opposite from where we'd stood for warm-ups, so we toured the entire concourse before coming across our entryway. As we made our way in, lo and behold, there were 4 of the Lightning Girls standing right at the top of the stairs. Whoo-hoo! Many teams around the NHL now have cheerleaders, or in some cases Ice Girls to clean the playing surface during commercial breaks. In the case of Tampa, they serve strictly as cheerleaders...which meant they would be in the stands throughout the game. As we were passing them, another fan asked if they would be in our section all game, to which they unfortunately replied no. To which I said, "You need to be!" After making it down to our seats, and getting
settled in, maybe a minute later I turned to Ray (my uncle), and said "...I'll be right back...", and headed back up the stairs to the Lightning Girls we'd just passed. I asked the nearest one (who also happened to be the prettiest of all the pretty girls) if I could get a picture, which they were more than happy to do. It's part of what they get paid for, but you'd never know it was a job for them. They really seemed very happy to do it. Another fan asked if I wanted to be in the shot, but I said no...why ruin the picture?

Returning to my uncle, I now was able to soak in just how good the seats I'd gotten were. We were 4th row from the ice, right next to the walkway the Lightning use to get to their bench. We're actually visible all night in the TV coverage of the game, as I have on a bright orange shirt, just at the left edge of the Lightning bench. We were able to watch the organized chaos of shift changes and
in-game coaching from a spot practically situated on the bench itself...I was 1 person away from being able to tap Dan Ellis, the Lightning back-up goaltender, on the shoulder. We were afforded an excellent ice-level view of the game, and Ray commented several times on the steely-eyed glare of head coach Guy Boucher, because we were that close that we were really able to see it well. Boucher is a first-year head coach at the NHL level, and is also the youngest coach in the NHL. He's actually a couple months younger than me, and Dwayne Roloson, the Lightning goaltender that night, is actually 2 years older than him.

The proximity made an already fun experience even that much more entertaining, and it was really interesting to be able to see and hear assistant coach Dan Lacroix offer suggestions and advice, and encouragement, in particular to 2nd year defensemen Victor Hedman, a large young man from Sweden (he's 6'6", and just turned 20 years old a month earlier). Hedman is still learning the game at the NHL level, but he is another talented individual, and defense is a tough position with a lot of
responsibility. It was nice to watch the learning process in action, and Hedman had an excellent game that evening, being named 3rd star of the game due to solid defensive play, and assisting on one of Stamkos' 2 goals that evening. But just to be that close to the action, and to have an unobstruted view of some of the ice (due to the opening in the glass at the back of the bench for the players and staff to get to and from the bench and the dressing room), was a great treat.

The game turned out to be an exciting affair, which went completely down to the wire, as it was deadlocked at 2 after both regulation and overtime, requiring a shootout that went 3 scoreless rounds before Ryan Malone put home the winner for the Lightning. But the game was almost secondary to the event that they hype the game up to be, as Ray pointed out a couple times during the evening. The loud music blasted during every stoppage in play, the cheerleaders, and just the overall spectacle of being there is all amped up to the nth degree in an effort to get the crowd more hyped (and hopefully to spend more money, of course...). It makes for a very entertaining evening. And those Lightning Girls were right in our section at the beginning of the contest, and thankfully, the most stunningly beautiful one of them all was only a few feet away when the festivities started in earnest, affording me another opportunity for a photograph. So while most eyes where on the ice surface, mine were on this beauty...

Blog Post Soundtrack; AC/DC (most of their 1976 Australian release Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, most of their 1975 Australian release High Voltage, most of their 1977 Australian release Let There Be Rock, and most of their 1975 Australian release T.N.T.), Motörhead (most of their 1979 album Overkill, most of their 1987 album Rock 'n' Roll)

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