Bolts have become Tampa Bay’s favorite team

by Gary Shelton on December 26, 2018 · 6 comments

in general

Point is one reason the Bolts are so admired./CARMEN MANDATO

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Every day, we look toward the sky and brace ourselves against the Northern Wind.

We listen to Neil Young on the radio, except it keeps playing the Barenaked Ladies. We save our loonies so we can buy round bacon. We visit Tim Horton's so we can buy a nice dish of Poutine, maybe followed by a buttery tart.

Yep, every day, we become more and more Canadian.

We have a football team that is less than the NFL, sort of as if it competes in the CFL. We have a baseball team that may have its eyes on Montreal. And our golf courses? See if you can play in the winter without being behind a foursome from Toronto.

And -- oh, yeah -- we love hockey. More and more, we love hockey.

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No, I wouldn't yet call Tampa Bay primarily a hockey town. But I would say the Lightning have become our favorite team. Sure, the results have a lot to do with it, but it's more than that. It's faith in the front office. It's the performance of the players. It's the development of the kids. It's the puck in the net.

There in the beginning for the Tampa Bay Lightning, when we were learning to love the sport, it was a little strange for us. The first time a guy scored a hat trick, remember, the security guards threw a fan out for tossing a hat onto the ice. A reporter once asked Terry Crisp why he didn't find the fattest, squattiest guy he could to stuff inside the goal. Another fan, when the team got a rare lead and the opponents pulled their goalie for an extra attacker, actually yelled at Crisp: "They pulled their goalie! Now you can pull yours!"

We saw bad owners like Kokusai Green and Art Williams.

But the years grew, and the love deepened. We won a Cup. We saw Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards and the rest. We saw hope fade until the Cowboys took over, and we suffered bad ownership all over again. Like the Bucs and the Rays, for a while the Lightning was thought of as the worst franchise in pro sports.

It has risen again. It is a deep, talented team filled with firepower and high expectations. And it has gripped this town at a time when no other team seems to be tightening its hold.

Think about it. Who is the best pro owner in hockey? It's Jeff Vinik, hands down. The Ray's Stu Sternberg has a slight lead on the Glazers of the Bucs, perhaps, but no one is really second. Vinik is the image most fans want their owners to emulate; he cares, he spends, he stays out of the way, he gives to charity. Put it this way: If you were going to build a statue to one owner in the area, it would be Vinik.

I'd offer this. If ownership of a pro franchise were an elected position, Vinik would be the only guy in town who wouldn't be voted out. He doesn't make mistakes in hiring. He comes across as one of us, and at the same time, as being the best of us.

It goes further. Who's the best athlete in town? It's Brayden Point, followed by Blake Snell, but then come Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. There isn't much debate for the most admired athlete in town these days. Mike Evans probably gets into the top 10, but not comfortably.

So what is it about this team that we like so much? Well, they win. They don't sue their fans. We don't suspect that they have an eye on another city. Amalie Arena is filled with screaming, dancing fans who usually seem to have a good time.

The team is deeper than any in town. It is more resilient. It seems to have its priorities in order. This guy isn't pouting because of a lack of chemistry with that guy. No one seems to underachieve.

The team spends money to better itself, so much so that you don't sweat that Point and contracts will be up. You have faith this team will sign them both.

The draft picks seem to work out, eventually, and if not, no one misses them because of the success of the team. There are new additions yearly. The team can beat you in a variety of ways.

I've said it before: I keep fluctuating on my top five players for the Lightning. Today, I have Point and Kucherov and Stamkos and Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. Do you have five players you like that much on the Rays? Do the Bucs have five players you like at all?

The Rays have so many attendance problems you become convinced that most of Tampa Bay find them boring. They haven't made the playoffs in five years, and they haven't reached a World Series in 10. The Bucs have taken up residence in last place. They haven't made the playoffs in 11 years, and they haven't won a playoff game in 16. There are cobwebs on their trophy cases.

The Bolts? They haven't won as much as we'd like, but they've been among the last four standing three of the last four seasons.

And so we have watched, and we have learned, and we have come to love this persistent franchise so much we could all be declared official Espositos. We imagine our town much like this team: Fun and successful and high-paced. Our self-image is a lot like our impressions of them.

They have played 37 games now, almost half of their season. Every game, you seem to like them more. Some nights, it's Stamkos and Kucherov. Some nights, it's Johnson and Gourde. Some nights, It's Killorn and McDonagh. The Lightning are a collection of players having great moments.

Hey, the Bucs may be starting over soon. Maybe this time they'll luck into the right guy. The Rays reboot last year seemed to help, and they seem as if they're on the verge of being fun to watch.

But the standard of excellence around here is still the Bolts. They have the best general manager. They have the best coach. They have the best results.

From here on out, it's going to be an interesting finish. It's going to be a fascinating playoff.

Watch. Appreciate. Embrace.

And if you want, you can dance along.


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