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What I did on my spring vacation: Invasion, TampaCuse style

Staff writer Alex Ackerman and editor Cassie McClellan spent some time in Tampa this past month. This is a summary of their adventures. Sort of.

David Baldwin

Sometimes, things do manage to come together at the right time. Planets align, the toast lands butter-side up, and travel plans actually manage to come together (well, for the start of the trip, anyway...). This, I am happy to say, is what happened when site editor Cassie McClellan and I decided to travel to Tampa at the same time to take in some sun (well, the needing sun part was mostly me, but still), see some people, and watch some Lightning hockey.

Cassie and I had been talking about going to see the Lightning play in Tampa for a while. She had some things she needed to check on from when she lived there a few years ago, and I just needed to get away from my hometown for a bit. With the Crunch season down the drain and other things just not working out around here, it was time for a vacation.

I won't bore you with all of the mundane details of our trip. We stayed about a half hour outside of Tampa with some family of mine. We shared a rental car, which Cassie drove because she knew where she was going and my attention can get unreliable when it's been a few hours since my last coffee fix. Side note: by the end of the trip Cassie could tell with surprising accuracy when it was time for coffee. Apparently, I stop talking and listening, and just start making agreeing sounds. I believe I granted her my first born at some point by accident.

Anyway, our schedule was really open. I had no interest in leaving Tampa for more touristy spots like Orlando, so we basically were free for four full days to sight-see, go to a few places in and around Tampa, and do what we wanted. Most notably, we hit the Tampa Aquarium, Honeymoon Island State Park, and went to lunch around the Indian Rocks Beach area. We also had some rocking Italian food one afternoon with our esteemed friend and managing editor here at Raw Charge, John Fontana.

I really enjoyed my time wandering around the Tampa area. The scenery was gorgeous. The weather was amazing. The shopping, bars, and restaurants were plentiful, varied, and fun, yet everything was pretty affordable. Actually getting there was rather expensive, but once there it was pretty easy to have fun and relax without worrying too much about cost.

Yes, I very much enjoyed getting to know Tampa.

I also really, really enjoyed the hockey.

This was not only my first trip to Tampa, but also my first opportunity to see the Lightning play live. A little reveal here: I have never cared enough about a parent club and/or past players to spend any kind of money to see them play live in the NHL. The Crunch is my team, and I'm pretty unapologetic about that.

But the guys who are in Tampa now who were a part of the Crunch last year are still very special to me, more so than most of the players who have come and gone. I care about those TampaCuse boys an awful lot, so seeing them live in the big league became a priority for me. In addition to wanting to watch them play hockey, I also had the personal mission of getting my Radko Gudas Crunch game worn jersey signed.

I saw the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the first time on our first full day in town. I was immediately impressed by the size and scope of the place. If that sounds smalltown, well...yeah. It should. I'm used to watching hockey in a place that sells out at 6,100 people. I've been to bigger arenas for concerts, and I saw a Buffalo Sabres game in Buffalo a long time ago, but I'm not used to such a huge, modern building. It was awesome.

I was also very impressed by the offerings at the team store, and really happy with the customer service. The staff was helpful and pleasant, and they were even more so when they found out that I was a Syracuse Crunch season ticket holder. It was nice to be treated that way even though my connections were with the farm team rather than with the big club.

We saw the games on March 13th and March 15th. Cassie and I both wore our Crunch game worn jerseys, so we stuck out just a little bit. This did make us easier to find, however, which made for some fun meet-and-greets with people.

The Lightning won both games, and as a TampaCuse-oriented person, they were fun games to see. I so enjoyed watching the likes of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, JT Brown, and Gudas play live again. To see them fulfilling their NHL dreams was special in a way it probably wouldn't have been with any other affiliation.

The in-game experience at the Forum was unlike anything I've experienced at a hockey game before. I mean, Tesla Coils. The Lightning has Tesla Coils. And they're loud. And real. And awesome. I also wanted to steal that gorgeous, giant scoreboard, but Cassie and I both agreed that it wouldn't fit in the overhead bins on the plane and, more problematic, would probably collapse the Onondaga County War Memorial's roof.

So, I guess the Forum can keep the scoreboard. For now.

The only thing I wasn't impressed with was the lack of attention players are allowed to give fans after games. Full disclaimer: I realize this is coming from a strictly AHL fan viewpoint. I always kind of imagined that we are spoiled down here when it comes to player attention, but I never knew how much so until I waited two game nights in a row, fenced in with other fans outside of the parking lot where the players park, hoping desperately for a rather expensive car to pull over so that its driver could give us the time of day.

Okay, perhaps that's a bit too emotionalized. I realize that not having to deal with people if one doesn't want to is probably one of the rewards of the reaching the NHL. Access to the players is something that is used to draw in potential season ticket holders at the NHL level, too. It's also something that's used to reward sponsors through rare player appearances. But, still, the disappointment when certain players such as Valtteri Filppula or Steven Stamkos would drive off without stopping was palatable among those who had waited more than an hour to see whomever would stop.

On the other hand, the excitement that was generated when guys like Ryan Callahan, Ben Bishop, and Gudas stopped was also neat to be a part of. That, more than anything, made me realize how much AHL fans get to take for granted when it comes to interacting with these guys, and how much of a shame it is to miss those chances while we have them. I was able to shove my game worn jersey to the front of the throng of people somehow on our last night there when Gudas pulled over, and I did get him to sign it.

However, the circumstances made me painfully aware that any number of factors could have changed what happened that final night. I would have gone home without the signature had Gudas not been able to stop for whatever reason. There's a good chance I might not have another opportunity to interact with him and I would have been left really disappointed, whereas in Syracuse it was/is as easy as waiting outside the War Memorial or wandering up to the team bus in Albany, Rochester, or Glens Falls and requesting a signature. That accessibility is something I value even more now that I'm back home.

All in all, I would love the chance to go back to Tampa. Although I can't imagine when it'll happen, I am excited to revisit again sometime. When I do, however, I'll just have to remember to not fly through Charlotte (flights apparently never leave there on time) or Philadelphia (where I was stranded for seven hours after missing my connection home because my flight out of Charlotte didn't leave on time). Even times.