It's safe to say that the vast majority of us in the extended Tampa Bay Lightning family will not be in Ottawa this weekend, meaning we'll be focusing mostly on the break part of the All-Star break. Breaks in any endeavor are designed for you to stop, rest, get your bearings, re-assess your plans and go forward. If during this break, your re-assessment of plans doesn't include going forward with the Lightning, I'm here to tell you so long and good luck.
I honestly do so without malice or rancor. Look, passionately devoting yourself to a favorite team can be difficult. It requires demands on your time, emotions and bank account that can be strenuous. Especially if you're expecting some kind of return on those investments that may not be immediately forthcoming.
It's a busy world out there with lots of things going on to occupy our attention. I fully understand your predicament. Being a die-hard sports fan isn't for everyone. There's a reason bandwagons are slow-moving, low-to-the-ground conveyances; they're easy to get on and off of. If you feel like you need to get off of this one, even if you just climbed on less than a year ago, I say go in good health, no questions asked, no hard feelings and we'll happily welcome you back if you're so inclined in the future. I would just ask you to make sure you're not doing it because of undue influence from some of those in the media.
It's not my intent to disparage those people as one big group of self-important blowhards. For the most part, they do fine work in providing good information and quality entertainment, but they don't know everything (hint: the more someone tries to convince you that they do, the more you should be suspicious of them; this is actually pretty good advice for dealing with everyone, not just the sports media). It's just that I would hate to see you make a decision you might regret entirely for the wrong reason(s). Those reasons include:
THEY'RE JUST LIKE THE BUCS – There are a lot of parallels being drawn between the most recent incarnations of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Both teams featured young rosters led by young coaches at the helm of their first major league coaching job that struggled to repeat the surprisingly good results their previous seasons had yielded. Those similar circumstances aside, the two situations are as comparable as the proverbial apples and oranges.
Where the management of the Buccaneers had decided that their roster was good as is and was content to more or less stand pat, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman spent last offseason scrambling just to fill a complete roster. It was a summer-long (a short summer, at that) juggling act, allocating the limited resources at his disposal to retain as many players as possible (not the least of whom was a young, skilled forward you may have heard of named Steven Stamkos) and attempting to find suitable replacements for those who left. It certainly hasn't worked out as hoped, but it hasn't been for lack of effort, on anyone's part.
LAST YEAR WAS A FLUKE; SAME OLD TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – This one you're far less likely to read or hear in the media than you are to get from a neighbor or co-worker. First of all, I don't believe it's possible for a team to "fluke" it's way deep into the playoffs. I'm (selectively) an optimist, so I'd prefer to look at last year as a sign of things to come. I'd also prefer to look at last year as over. Different time, different team. More importantly, there should be no question whatsoever that this organization is committed to doing things the right way and I doubt the ability of anybody who suggests otherwise to make a case.
This isn't to imply that Lightning management is perfect, that mistakes won't be made and that they're above criticism. It's merely pointing out that for possibly the first time in the history of the franchise, consideration is being paid to a bigger picture than what is happening on the ice (and the turnstiles) at that exact given moment. The days of making rash, impulsive decisions are over. It doesn't mean that every decision will be correct. It also doesn't mean that gambles won't be taken, some of which won't work out.
It means that risks will be calculated with attention paid to the ramifications of reward versus failure. It means that concern over the depth of players on the roster extends beyond the 2011-12 season and the Tampa city limits. It also means asinine conjecture like whether or not to replace a 40-year-old coach a year and a half into his tenure (whose career record is still well above .500, in spite of the team's performance this year) doesn't even merit discussion.
IT'S OVER; THEY'RE OUT OF IT – I have never entirely understood the rush by pundits to proclaim ultimate victory or defeat while the competition is still taking place. I guess there's some sort of smug satisfaction and a presumed boost in credibility from being able to say, "I was right and I was first!" Except what if it doesn't happen that way and you're neither?
If comparing the Bucs and Lightning is comparing apples and oranges, then comparing the Rays to the Bolts is comparing apples to some kind of weird green thing covered in fur that might be some kind of banana…but still, look at what happened with the 2011 Rays. Part of the reason we love the world of sports is that it's a place where things that can't happen actually happen all the time. Plus, who cares who was first? Who wants to hang out with the guy who spoils the fun by telling everybody the party is over while the music is still playing?
In closing, if you feel that for whatever reason you just can't find it in you to support this team right now the way you did last year, it's okay. Just know that there are very good, logical reasons to believe that things are going to get better sooner than later and you're running the risk of missing some cool stuff that might happen between now and then. So make your decision with care and we’ll respect whatever choice you make…unless you go off and root for some other team. Because bandwagon fans are one thing, but frontrunners are true lowlifes.