"He said what?! And you believed it? Why? Why would I leave? It's just starting to get exciting around here!" (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
With the start of the 2011 NHL free agency season, and young star Steven Stamkos entering restricted free agency (meaning he could be tendered an offer sheet from any of the 29 other clubs, though the Bolts had the right to match any offer he received), some Lightning fans were dead certain that Stamkos' days in Tampa were numbered, especially when renown rumor-mongers played up the idea that Stamkos wanted out.
All of this transpired, in part, because Steven wasn't signed before or by July 1st and there wasn't much tangible information about negotiations after July 1. It turned into end-of-days pandemonium ("Repent, repent!") And with the panic that ensued through the social networks and broader Internet, the age of Stammergeddon was born. Every day, every moment that Stamkos was not signed was another sign of the Stam-pocalypse.
Yet, Steven Stamkos himself would disclose after his signing to a new five-year contract on July 19th, that he and the club had agreed to financial terms in private early in the process. It was about extras and details that took time to iron out.
The whole length of the process was miniscule compared to other marquee restricted free agents, or even lesser known RFAs who have received qualifying offers from the team that holds their rights.
But there was not outright bedlam about Zach Parise being unsigned by the New Jersey Devils through August 4th; there is no panicked frenzy regarding the continued RFA status of Toronto Maple Leafs d-man Luke Schenn and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty (two other stars from the 2008 NHL entry draft).
In other words, there isn't an ongoing overreaction.
Tampa Bay sports fans seem to have heightened insecurity when it comes to these things. We're always on the verge of disaster by way of a trade, free-agent loss, contraction, relocation, or the latest Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback. Of course, the Bay area does have a history that's led to such paranoia. It's one of bad management decisions, head-scratching exploits, or outright stupidity.
Let's start with football where there was Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams being forced out in favor of Jack "Throwin Samoan" Thompson. Then-owner Hugh Culverhouse was to blame, and not just for being a tightwad. His treatment of Williams would lead to Bo Jackson snubbing the Bucs in the NFL Draft after being selected 1st overall. Former NFL coaching great Bill Parcells left the Bucs at the proverbial altar. Twice (1993 and 2002), which dashed hopes for a time. And at current, fans look at the Glazer family seemingly investing more time and money in Manchester United than on their NFL team.
In hockey, the Lightning suffered the loss of Chris Gratton in 1997 after he signed an offer-sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers (and the fuzzy fax fiasco that followed it is one of the odder moments in team history). 11 years later, Dan Boyle was re-signed to a lengthy contract, only to be traded four months later out of spite by former owner Len Barrie.
Oh, and a decade-plus of Lecavalier-to-Montréal rumors. Can't forget that.
Being jerked around by Major League Baseball for years on end, and the Buccaneers threatening relocation in 1995-96 if the Community Investment Tax referendum didn't pass didn't help any, either.
Yeah, Tampa Bay sports fans have had their share of major ups-and-downs, but every fan from every team in pro sports can cite one or more instances that makes the fans anxious. Anxious, but not completely paranoid.
Watching on Twitter with people interacting in 140 characters, or on Facebook (without space constraints), too many were too quick to buy into rumors spawned from the fictitious authority that is Eklund. For the casual fan that treated his word as truth, you should know that Eklund's "reporting" is accurate less than 3.3% of the time. Lets not even try to gauge the accuracy of his imitators.
There was at least one local source that contributed to the hysteria too. Steve Duemig, the king-fish in Tampa Bay sports radio, decided to enlighten his Twitter followers (and hoist out-of-town fans hopes) by sharing the news of a threat of Philadelphia signing Stamkos.
When an authority of local sports-talk plays up hearsay, it's not going to squelch the hysterics.
Is paranoia really more rampant in Tampa Bay? Are we so insecure that we're confident the end is nigh? Are we so inexperienced with the hot stove of pro-sports that we can't just brush off the inane rhetoric from sources that thrive on creating news when there isn't any?
Actually, in that final question lies the answer. In this age of information, everything seems amplified. One vague statement by an official, a beat reporter, or even a blogger, soon becomes a game of telephone. The original statement gets warped as it's heard and repeated by others. While Twitter is a great gateway for news (and a great place to use as a sounding board), it's also ideal for the spread of misinformation with speed.
The craving for information on the Stamkos contract is what drove so many to jump at the rumors and panic. The same information moratorium led to wild speculation on Jeffrey Vinik's intentions before his purchase of the Tampa Bay Lightning in March 2010, as well as with who he would hire as GM and CEO.
Are Tampa Bay fans paranoid and insecure? Well, only when they overreact and become a bit too anxious. History and hearsay can easily lead fans of any team and any sport into a panic, and we're no exception as Stammergeddon has shown us.
It doesn't have to be this way, but it is the way of the hot stove. Overreacting doesn't help anyone in the end, but it is a great promotional tool for those whose livelihoods depend on it.