Among more than 19,000 fans cheering on the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, one group stands out above the rest, encouraging the team to secure a victory with a chant that is quickly becoming famous.
"I believe that we will win!" the group chants from high above the ice in Section 307.
The group is called Sticks of Fire as a homage to the etymology of the city of Tampa and can be seen and heard at every Lightning home game. Originally, the group's founders, Michael Tully and Kent Glisson, were part of a fan support group called the American Outlaws, which cheered on the United States Men's National Soccer team. Last summer, they decided the Lightning needed a group like that.
"One day, we just said, ‘why don't we do something similar for hockey?'" Tully said. "Tampa needs some sort of supporters' group for fans to rally around and to be loud and drive passion into our teams."
And, thus, Sticks of Fire was born. Since its inception last summer, the group has grown in size, nearly commandeering all of Section 307. Tully believes that Sticks of Fire brings unity to a fan base that has watched its team struggle for years.
"We want to show unity in the fan base and what better way than to have fans all chanting and singing at the same time," he said.
The other fans in the Forum are not the only ones who have taken notice though. Chris Dingman, currently an analyst for Sun Sports and a member of the 2004 Stanley Cup-winning Lightning, said that the players feed off of the energy from the fans.
"I think it's great to have regular fans that you see and hear every game," Dingman said. "We hear the fans and it pumps the players up."
Sticks of Fire has been just a small part of a fan base that has seen a resurgence in attendance after an abysmal few seasons under the ownership of OK Hockey Group, who controlled the team from 2008 until the March 2010. Between 2007-08 and 2008-09, the Lightning's attendance plunged from 8th to 21st in the NHL and continued to sink during the 2009-10 campaign. This story from 2009 features a chart that shows the attendance drop-off. The organization saw a major turnaround under the direction of current owner Jeff Vinik, who bought the franchise in March 2010.
Through various community efforts, such as the Community Heroes program, which awards a $50,000 grant during every home game to someone who makes a positive impact on the community, Vinik has created excitement among the fans. Kent Glisson, who was a founding member of Sticks of Fire, said Vinik's impact is felt as soon as the fans walk up the steps and into the Forum.
"The guy is incredible, and his passion for this area and for the Lightning shines through in every way," Glisson said. "There is a feeling in the Forum that the team and the employees care about the fans. This is the reason why attendance grows for the Lightning while the other teams in the area flounder."
Kelly Nash, who covers the Lightning and Tampa Bay Rays as a reporter for Sun Sports, said it is encouraging to see that the team is finally gaining ground on other fan bases around the NHL in attendance.
"To not only see hockey become so successful in a southern state like Florida, but see the Lightning draw an impressive top 10 NHL attendance record year after year is just incredible," Nash said. "The saying ‘true blue' has never been more applicable to a team's fan base than the Bolts'."