I was 11 or 12 when the Lightning played their first game... Me and my younger brother would hang out at a local sports card shop that was owned by a Canadian gentleman and his wife. This guy happened to ref for the Lightning during pre-season and he just fueled the flame of interest in both myself and my younger brother, Andrew.
We started playing street hockey - not exactly knowing the rules but doing it anyway out of interest in the sport. We loved the sport even if we didn't totally understand it.
A couple of years later, the Lightning made there first playoff appearance and the entire area was going crazy. This was the first pro-sports playoff appearance for Tampa in decades and through the awkwardness of this Canadian sport more fans fell in love with hockey.
Unfortunately, 1996 was the end of days at the Thunderdome and the end of the positive time for the Lightning. That summer started the downfall of the Lightning and by November of 1997 I only paid attention to the Lightning for comical purposes (if I needed a laugh - I'd read about the team and the moves they were making). The teams direction was straight tot the gutter and it was obvious... A team of castoffs and a few young players had helped the Lightning make it to the 1st round of the 1996 playoffs. Phil Esposito loving value cast-offs and not truly understanding that an expansion team needs to be built with talent and youth disregarded the draft and the fruits that it could bring.
Things got worse and worse. Even Vincent Lecavalier's drafting in 1998 didn't bring me back to the Lightning. It was after Phil was fired as GM (he still is the father of the Tampa Bay Lightning however) and Jacques Demers re-acquired Chris Gratton that my interest truly picked up again. It wasn't that Gratton was a great player, it was the fact the Lightning needed young talent instead of hordes of has beens. Demers didn't last as ownership of the Lightning changed hands again and I truly didn't believe in the five year plan preached by Rick Dudley and William Davidson... Five years to contention? Yeah, right -- this team needs to be built and even though there was hope because competent business people and hockey people were brought into the fold with the Lightning, it just didn't seem realistic to think of the Lightning as ever being Stanley Cup contenders.
Last year made me realize I was wrong.
This year? Five years into the five year plan... I realize that the miraculous can happen. That resurrections do occur, and that Tampa Bay - the maligned hockey market that had been a doormat for so long - is indeed a Stanley Cup contender.
Four Wins will place the Lightning into history and into hockey culture. Four wins will give Dave Andreychuk his long-sought Stanley Cup.
That's all that's left.