The first time I watched the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup, I had just finished my senior year of high school and watched Games Six and Seven of the 2004 run at my parent’s house. At the time, I wasn’t into hockey, though it was certainly exciting to watch. Still, it didn’t mean much to me because I wasn’t emotionally invested in the team.
I started watching hockey more regularly in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons with the arrival of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. This was also partly due to my ritual at the time of coming home from work, eating dinner, and turning on the Tampa Bay Rays game.
When the Rays season ended in 2008 with heartbreak in the World Series, it was only natural that I stayed with that routine during the baseball off-season, but I replaced the Rays with Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. I didn’t always watch during those two seasons, but I watched more hockey then I ever had before.
The 2010-11 season was the one that got me to invest, emotionally and intellectually, into the team and the sport. I watched avidly and rarely missing a game on TV. I watched as the team made it into the playoffs and went on one of those unexpected Cinderella Runs. Along with all of the other Lightning fans I was heartbroken following the loss to the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Of course, being new to hockey, I figured the team would be right back at it. I mean, after all, the Rays continued to have success after their surprise playoff run in 2008, right?
I, of course, was wrong. I watched through the frustrating seasons of 2011-12 and the lockout shortened 2012-13. Along the way though, I joined Twitter, I started reading about the team, the prospects, everything. This is when I learned a lot about the game and eventually became a season ticket member for the 2014-15 season despite having an hour commute to get to games.
Then the Lightning made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, another unexpected run for a still young and developing team after getting swept by the Montreal Canadiens the previous year. Despite the loss to Chicago I thought we’d be right back to the Finals. We had so much young talent. We had Ben Bishop, one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. We had Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goaltending prospect in the world. We had a great coach. Alas, the Lightning failed to get back to the Finals until 2020.
When they finally made it, finally won the Cup again in 2020, it was bittersweet. I had gotten to see this core, this group that had seen so much heartbreak, lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion in three of the previous five playoffs. (Then there was the sweep by Columbus.) But I finally saw them lift their Cup. These players that I had seen give their all for almost a decade had made it. They’d won. They’d achieved their ultimate hockey dream.
For me, the bitterness was that I had not attended a single playoff game in person. I was at home for every single game. I watched from my home office, on my computer — the same place I sat almost every single day for a year whether I was working or not. The room that, now that I’m back in the office working, I can barely stand to step foot in. This past year and a half has been rough on mental health for myself and for millions of other people. But one of my worst regrets was not being in person for a single minute of those playoffs.
With my investment in the game also came the knowledge and perspective that it’s hard to win Stanley Cups. It’s always been difficult, but it’s even harder in the Salary Cap Era. It’s especially hard to win more than one. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and Chicago Blackhawks had managed to win more than one since the salary cap was instituted.
I knew, following the 2020 Cup win, that there was every possibility that I could go another decade or two or three or four without seeing the Lightning even get to the Finals, much less win another Stanley Cup.
Fast forward ten months. Wednesday night.
Game Five. I found myself in Amalie Arena. Section 329. Row K. Seat 5. I was far from the seat that I have inhabited for almost every game since 2014-15. But at least I was in the arena. I was in the building with a chance to see the Lightning win the Cup and raise it on home ice, something that very few teams have done in recent years.
And it happened.
Seeing that on Wednesday was like a dam broke inside me. That regret. That bitterness. That pent up frustration and anxiety. It washed away when the horn blew and I gave high fives to the amazing fans around me in the stands that I had only just met that evening.
The bitterness fled when I watched Andrei Vasilevskiy raise the Conn Smythe Trophy, and then I watched Steven Stamkos lift the Stanley Cup — and Victor Hedman — and Alex Killorn — and Tyler Johnson — all these other players that I had been following since they joined the organization. These were players I had watched grow up from 18-year-old kids at the draft with nothing but hopes and dreams and potential ahead of them, into bona fide NHL players and Stanley Cup Champions. Again!
Seeing all of that happen, right before my eyes, is a memory I’ll carry with me for as long as I live.