So, some of you know that Raw Charge was asked by Puck Daddy to submit our Essentials regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning. Members of the staff here - myself, Cassie McClellan, Clark Brooks, Matt Amos and Clare Austin - all contributed to the project. Some of the responses are no-brainers. Others are subjective or debatable.
None of the responses should cause as much debate as what we listed as the essential season in Lightning history. Our choice was 2010-2011.
This wasn't because 2010-11 was fresher in our minds than 2003-04 (what the majority of fans would state in a nanosecond). As Clark said in our response:
It would be easy to anoint the 2003-04 season as the essential season in the history of the club. It was their first time they'd won the Stanley Cup, the game's ultimate prize. Clearly, that's the greatest season in the team's history. But how "essential" was it? The next season was lost to the lockout, which didn't do them any favors in maintaining momentum. That was just one factor preventing perennial contention...
But that doesn't really go into it, does it? Just why the bloody hell would Raw Charge select an overachievement, a season with such horrible goaltending, a season of massive change, over the Stanley Cup Championship?
When we originally started internal debate about the essentials, my own first thought was 2003-04 as the essential season because it'd be expected. Martin St. Louis, Cory Stillman, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin, Cory Sarich, Ruslan Fedotenko. Pavel Kubina, Tim Taylor, Dave Andreychuk, Dmitry Afanasenkov, Nikolai Khabibulin etc, That's not even talking about specific games in the regular season, the playoffs, or paying homage to John Tortorella and Craig Ramsey behind the bench. That's just running off a list of names that made the season what it was, and should further make some of you stress the essentiality of the season.
But was it? Was it really?
There's a quote that I like to throw out from current head coach Guy Boucher about the process. He said this in an interview with Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune before the 2011-12 season:
But what we were at the end of the year is not what we are going to be at the beginning of this year. I think that's the common misconception that teams, organizations and fans usually have is that they think it just continues and it's an on-going process, which it's not. There is a break in between, there's a change of players, there's chemistry that is going to be a little different to start.
The statement basically says each season is a stand-alone entity. What you achieve in that season is what you achieve. It's an event in and of itself. Each season is its own chapter, its own stanza, its own prose, but common perception doesn't have fans turn the page.
With that Boucher quote, I expect you to say "So why didn't you go with 2003-04?! It's the Lightning's best season!"
Essentially, it's because of the process.
While each season is a singular event, there is something grander going on within a sports organization that leads to fans perceiving consecutive seasons as a continuation. It's about direction of the organization and the course it is taking.
Life's a journey, not a destination.
2003-04 represented an end. It was a finite point and finality. In almost all Lightning essential discussions with the public and in private, it was the focus of the essential goal, essential game, and essential fight. It could be linked to internal debate about the essential villain, the essential trade, etc. Everything revolved around that finality of winning Lord Stanley's Cup. If not for this, then the Lightning wouldn't have won it all. If not for that, it wouldn't have happened.
And that's where I started seeing the problem. The Tampa Bay Lightning franchise didn't suddenly exist in 2003-04. It also didn't stop existing when Commissioner Gary Bettman asked Andreychuk to come get his Stanley Cup. But the mentality that this was it - the end all be all of the Bolts - sure made it feel like the franchise started on October 10th, 2003 and ceased operations on June 7th, 2004.
The other way someone may look at the 2003-04 championship season, instead of as an end point, is that this was the high-water mark in team history. This was the apex, this was the paramount, and that means all things attached to it are easily perceived as also being essential to reaching that height.
Yet an apex, a high mark, is still an end point: You can't achieve something grander. The organizational process comes to a halt. Instead of trying to attain more, the task becomes maintaining the status-quo.
You can blame the 2004 NHL lockout, perhaps, and business practices / lack of long-range building by former GM Jay Feaster and owner-at-the-time Palace Sports and Entertainment, but forward-movement with the franchise ceased after the Cup win. What followed was a slow, and then torrid regression of the roster and the organization as a whole until March 2010.
2010-11 represented the promise of things to come, and let fans witness the first stages of a grand new process for the franchise. Though largely a transition season with a new owner (Jeffrey Vinik), new General Manager (Steve Yzerman), and new Head Coach (Boucher), the season wasn't a climax or end-point, but a beginning of a new process and a metamorphosis of circumstances. It wasn't a reboot of the team with a gutting of the roster, but a grand course correction that better utilized talents that the team already harbored. .
It wasn't a championship season, but it sure as hell was close. It wasn't a Hart Trophy season for Martin St. Louis, like it was in 2003-04.... But he was nominated for his efforts. It sure wasn't Nikolai Khabibulin in net, but Dwayne Roloson invoked memories of the ‘Bulin Wall with his efforts that propelled the team in the playoffs.
2010-11 was a Cinderella season, as the team and franchise in transition wasn't supposed to get to the playoffs - let alone come within striking distance of q Stanley Cup Finals berth.
2010-11 represented something that sports fans experience far more often than the glory of a championship: Close but no cigar.
Claiming the glory of the Stanley Cup as your own may be the ultimate goal for an NHL team, but knowing how rare that feat is and how unlikely it is to be done... Well, it brings me to my final point of argument on 2010-11's essentialness: If you're going to have one NHL season, and in all likelihood that season wouldn't be a championship, the 2010-11 season is the kind of season you want. It's one that makes you believe again, one where you are finally repaid for the emotional investment you've made in a club... And you can walk away with your head held high knowing, going forward, this season represents the end of dark days of the recent past.
I don't expect to have swayed a single one of you, but I've said my piece. While I can revel in the knowledge that the Cup has the Tampa Bay Lightning engraved upon it, it's the process of becoming - not necessarily actually reaching that end point - that makes the whole thing worthwhile.