They say that people have always come to the States to fulfil their dreams and that the Walt Disney's World in Florida has always been the place to be to have your dreams come true. Well, this saying is probably outdated and not true anymore. Plus, I can imagine the Florida natives and residents being already fed up with the equation being put between the Sunshine State and Disney. Yes, Florida is so much more than that and I have learned that myself. What is true though is that the dreams do come true in Florida, even though not always thanks to Disney.
As some of you might know I made a trip to Florida last month, spending there two wonderful weeks. For a girl from the Czech Republic it was special and unforgettable in so many ways. But why am I writing about it on here? The answer is pretty simple. People know me as a huge hockey fan, mostly a Tampa Bay Lightning fan. So it was a given that I would try to get to see some games, to see Tampa, the Forum and my favorite team with my own two eyes. It did happen, I went to two games and everything went beyond my expectations.
If you read my previous Fan Post or talked to me more or less often, you knew I was going to see the game on March 29, when the Lightning played the Senators, and then on March 31 when they faced the Penguins. I had been in Florida a week prior these two games and needless to say I was enjoying it very much. The sunshine (and I am not a summer person), the food, the gators, the theme parks and so on and so forth. It was great.
When THE Tuesday came I was excited from the early morning, but we were not leaving to Tampa (we were staying in Orlando) until the afternoon. So I was getting ready, both physically and mentally, not knowing what to expect, hoping and praying it wouldn't be a let down. When we were finally about to leave I checked that we had our tickets probably ten or more times. Speaking of tickets, we had pretty great seats. In the lower level, section 116, row R. You can't really ask for better seats for your first NHL game. The view was absolutely perfect.
But let's get back on track. As we were driving and Tampa crept nearer and nearer, I would keep squealing with excitement whenever I saw a "Tampa" traffic sign. My dad, who was driving, definitely did not appreciate that but can you really blame me? As we finally arrived to the city and my eyes spotted the Forum for the first time it was really hard to calm me down. We parked the car, I grabbed all the stuff I needed (my ticket, jersey, sign and camera) and ran, miraculously not killing myself in the upcoming traffic, to the St. Pete Times Forum and stopped breathing for a while. It may sound silly to people who come to the games regularly, but standing in front of the building you had wanted to see for years... well, that's something.
I made my brother (who was there with me to take care of me so I would not lose myself or my head) to walk around the Forum. Which we did (me hugging one of the corners in the process) and then came back to where the entrance is, grabbed our own Downie bobble heads and walked inside. That caused me to lose my breath again. Seeing all the people in their Lightning jerseys, shirts, hoodies... I had never seen so many Lightning fans in one place my entire life. When we finally found our sector and went in, my breath was knocked out of me yet again. The ice, the boards, the Lightning bench, thousands of seats, the Jumbotron, the penalty boxes, things I had only seen on TV were now right in front of me. Yes, a few tears appeared in my eyes and it still give me chills only thinking back to that moment.
And there she was! Batgirl1954, waiting for me with her friend. It was wonderful to see a familiar face, to have someone to talk to. Not to mention the great surprise she had for me. I knew about the Gagne give-away shirt but the Stamkos bobble head was totally unexpected. But the most welcome nevertheless! She is absolutely amazing and I am very glad I could meet her! Waiting for the warm ups with her was a bliss, no kidding.
Speaking of warm ups... I was getting anxious as the time for the players to come out on the ice neared. We walked down to the glass, right next to the penalty box (on the Lightning side of the ice) and waited (I personally with a heart down in my pants). After a few videos on the Jumbotron I finally got to see the players coming out! Stammer, Vinny, Marty, Nate, Victor, Bugsy, Smitty... everybody started skating around right in front of my eyes. It was unreal. And then Simon Gagne showed up. Let's keep what was running through my head at that moment unsaid. It is very hard to describe and none of you could really understand anyway. Plus, I make myself look silly enough ;).
As I said before, I had made a sign for the games. It had two sides and I bet it is no surprise to anyone that both of them were directed to Simon. You can have a look here and here. I was hoping he would skate by and see it. When he finally did and smiled, my heart melted. I was flying with happiness and I can imagine my eyes were twinkling and my mouth was spread in a wide smile when he kept looking and smiling at me and my banner. The other side (the one with the stats) even made him laugh a bit. Well, I would call it a WIN!
The warm ups were over so I said good bye to Lindsay and her friends and made my way to my seat. Ever since then it was truly like living your dream. The pre-game show, the anthems (both American and Canadian which was a gem) everything was absolutely perfect and I was enjoying every second of it. The game itself was fantastic. Not only did the Lightning won, Simon had two assists and was a #3 star of the game. After it was all over and we were all heading to the car I was beyond happy. And excited that I would experience the same awesomeness once again on Thursday. Well, little did I know.
Since our plan for Thursday was to go to Tampa in the morning and enjoy ourselves there, I had decided that I would go to the Forum to try to meet the players after the Morning Skate. After receiving advice from people who had done it before, my plan was to be there sometime around 11 am. All worked well until I saw the weather forecast the night before. Thunder storms? Tornado warning? I couldn't believe my eyes that my one and only chance to meet the guys I admire so much would be destroyed by the weather. I went to bed in hopes the forecast would be wrong and it would not rain. Frankly, I didn't sleep too well. Too nervous, sick to my stomach. Things hadn't gotten any better when I woke up early in the morning to see a madness going outside of my windows. Wind, rain pouring down, thunders... It was depressing. I imagined myself standing in front of the Forum, holding a tiny umbrella, waiting for the Lightning. It seemed very unlikely anyone would stop to give me an autograph or take a picture with me in this weather.
As I was trying to eat some breakfast (still sick, you see) I received a DM on my Twitter. It was from Mike Corcoran and it said:
(...) I got you two post game passes for tonight. They get you downstairs right by the locker room where the players exit. (...)
Could you believe that?! I could not. Everything suddenly seemed much brighter. I was so happy and excited, not able to really comprehend that I was going to actually meet the players. "I am going to meet Simon." was a sentence that kept popping up on my mind for the whole day. Call me insane but I could not stop thinking about it. Thanks to that, my nerves didn't feel any relief. They felt the opposite actually. The anxiety level was nearly unbearable (no jokes, I thought I was going to throw up every other minute) but it was all well worth it.
The Tampa trip wasn't as nice as we had hoped for, thanks to the bad weather. So we practically spend the majority of the day driving around the city in the historic tram. Then we went to grab some coffee (chocolate in my case) and waited near the arena for the doors to open. While waiting I spotted too many Penguins fans to my liking. Fortunately, they weren't the ones leaving the game with smiles on their faces.
This game was not only special thanks to the things that were to happen after the game but also thanks to the seats I bought (right behind the Lightning bench, next to the tunnel they use to come out) and the possibility of playoff spot being clinched by the Lightning. Can you say a night full of excitement? Well, the game went pretty much the same way as the game on Tuesday. Warm ups, pre-game, anthems, the game itself. The only difference was that I didn't see much of hockey (I had to keep looking up at the Jumbotron) but I at least was close to MY guys. The closest you can get, actually. It was really wonderful experience. It shows you the game from a bit different perspective. Also, needless to say I took tons of pictures :)
The intensity of the game also differed from the Senators game a bit. It was Pittsburgh after all, with a huge support from fans who travelled down to Tampa. Some of them travelled down right behind my seat which was rather annoying; why would you boo Stamkos only to fist bump with him twenty minutes later? Hypocrite much? Anyway... I jumped up from my seat twice while they did only once. The game ended with a Lightning win (thus making my stats 2-0-0) and a certainty of their presence in the post season. Seeing their glowing faces in the center ice after the game was over was priceless. It warmed my heart. Dwayne Roloson was a #1 star of the game and when he skated to the bench to throw the game autographed puck over the glass to the kids that were standing behind us, my dad being my dad reached up his arms in the last moment to catch the puck for himself. Giving it to me, naturally, leaving those Pens fans with sad faces. Sorry guys, it was my night to shine ;)
Then it was time to grab my brother and head... downstairs and... backstage. They allowed us inside some ordinary looking doors where bunch of us waited for an elevator. I was holding my sign and a bag with stuff I wanted the players to sign. And my camera of course. As we stood there some guy approached us, asking if he could see what's written on my sign. Once he saw 'the Czech Republic' one he said his wife was from the Czech Republic, that they are friends of Pavel Kubina etc. He even called his wife and put me on the phone so I had an awkward Czech conversation with some random lady I had never seen before. It was funny. Once we took the elevator downstairs we were told to stand behind the bars (I felt like a wild animal, haha). The guy (being the friend of a player) was let inside the locker room but before he left I asked him if he could tell Simon to come out. Yes, seeing the madness and the amount of people gathered there, I was getting afraid he might not even come.
We waited for a few minutes, spotting some players coming in and out, here and there. But none approached the fans waiting there... yet. First guy to come closer was Martin St. Louis who unfortunately didn't give any autographs, explaining to me that "he would come later". But he never did. Shame on you, Midget, shame on you ;). Roli then showed up but he signed some autographs to people who were closer to the locker room and somehow didn't get to me. I was about to start freaking out, scared that nobody would come to me! Well, fortunately, Steve Downie then came and took his time to sign everything and take picture with everyone. And after him, more guys began doing the same. Teddy Purcell, Randy Jones, Mattias Ohlund and even Roli came back to sign the shirt for me. It was wonderful.
I also got to see some Penguins. Max Talbot, Kris Letang, Alex Kovalev, Mike Comrie, Arron Asham and others. They usually just stopped to sign stuff to people who were obviously Penguins fans and then left. Well, can't really blame them.
As we were waiting for someone to come out again I noticed the guy who had talked to us earlier talking to Simon and pointing at me (how awkward, haha). Simon turned to look and as he spotted me he smiled and nodded (now come on, who wouldn't die?). I was fighting everything in my body in order to keep my composure. Only a few minutes later he walked out, heading to the fans! I kept mumbling a quiet "oh my god" the whole time before he got to us. I might be totally wrong but it really looked as if he knew who I was (remembering the sign from the games etc.).
When he got to me he said: "Hey, how are you doing?" (which he didn't do to any other fans standing there!). I don't know how, but I managed to say I was great and asked him how he was to which he replied he was doing great as well. I then asked him if he by any chance saw my website. He said that he did not and before he could finish his question about the URL address I jumped in and said: "Just simongagne.com." (how rude, I know). He said that it's great and that he will definitely check it out (fingers crossed!). After he signed my shirt and the printed out photo I had there, we took a picture together.
Yes, this is starting to look like a fangirl post but it felt fantastic when he put his arm around me and I did the same. Come on, give me some break! I have the right for such silly fangirl moments! Anyway... Simon then signed some other things of people that were standing next to us. After that I asked him if he could also sign the banner I had there with me. He didn't hesitate a minute, of course. As I was giving him again the sharpie we both dropped it and then were trying to catch it, both at the same time. Yes, it's absolutely petty thing to brag about but it was great. Also because we shared a laugh thanks to that damn sharpie.
As he was signing the banner and then was giving me the sharpie back I asked him whether he saw the sign. His response was: "Yeah, I saw it, I saw it. At the last game, right?" And I nodded with a smile, agreeing and then saying that I was behind the bench tonight. Then I turned the sign around to remind him the "stats" side of it. When he saw it he laughed again and said: "Hey this is not really true anymore. My numbers got better lately." I laughed too and said that he was right, that his numbers are indeed much better now, but that he's great either way. He chuckled, we said good bye and in a second he was gone.
I was hoping Vinny, Marty, Stammer, Nate, Bugsy and others would come but I only got a glimpse of them as they kept walking from one room to another, never coming to the fans. When the clock showed 11pm we were told to leave. I was indeed sad and a little bit disappointed but I could not really complain. We took our way out and then to the car, where our parents were waiting for us.
Remember the sickness I felt for the whole day? Well, it was gone. The relief of having my expectations beyond fulfilled was huge. It's very hard to describe how I felt after I got to meet a guy who I thought would never be possible for me to even see in person. But I got to meet him? Talk to him? Joke with him? Laugh with him? As silly as it sounds that's something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I had followed and loved Simon Gagne for years, always standing behind him, defending him with passion. He always seemed unreachable for me, a girl from Europe, and I was always jealous of people who were that lucky to meet him. Well, now I don't need to feel jealous anymore, I can only feel happy, gratified and proud. Because... I did travel half the world to have my dreams come true. And they did.