From the back of the closet: Tampa Bay Lightning tickets

A collection of ticket stubs brings back old memories

It’s that time of the year where fans of a different sport start receiving special packages in the mail. My family and some friends, still grouped largely in the Maryland area, started posting their Baltimore Ravens season ticket packages. One thing I noticed that was different from last year was that there was a lack of actual tickets. Instead of a book of tickets featuring various Ravens there was a lanyard, a plastic ticket with seat information about the size of a gift card to attach to the lanyard and a postcard-sized instructional guide. The Ravens, like so many other teams, had succumbed to the digital age.

Tampa Bay Lightning season ticket holders are quite familiar with this system as the club switched over to a similar process last season. It’s a growing trend in sports and most likely will be the norm over all sports within the next five years. The NHL plans to be fully RFID by next season. Teams tout the benefits - no more lost paper tickets, easier to share (as long as everyone has the app!) quicker access to games and a more streamlined fan experience.

Sure those things are nice, but it also helps the teams out. They save on printing costs. Imagine how many printed tickets were wasted for all of those early 2000s Tampa Bay Devil Rays games. It also makes it harder for tickets to be counterfeited or sold on a non-team/league approved third party site. They also can track their season ticket members buying habits.

So it’s a win-win situation, right? Sure…

In a rush to make things more efficient and user friendly, there is a small bit of joy is lost. It’s not a huge thing like seeing a team win a championship or celebrating the birth of your child, but it’s still something that is lost in an increasingly digital world - the tactile feel of holding an actual ticket in your hands.

As a kid, it was always a treat when my dad secured tickets to a baseball game. I don’t know how he got them, but I was always excited when he pulled out a ticket and handed it to me. I’d soak in all of the details from the section and seat numbers to the “agreement” on the back which boiled down to - if you get hit with a foul ball, don’t come crying to us. That feeling continued as I grew up and was able to afford them on my own. For a very brief time in the pre-Stanley Cup days of the Lightning, I was a partial season ticket holder.  Seeing that book of ten tickets show up in my mailbox was fantastic.

Walking to a game and seeing the scalpers fan out stacks of tickets was a peek into a slightly seedy world. Seeing them shuffle through stacks of paper makes them seem more like unorganized accountants than salesmen working in a questionably legal occupation.

Handing a ticket to an usher and having them rip off a piece and utter an “Enjoy the game!” was one of those weird moments as a kid where you felt like a grown-up for some reason. Now you have the little hand-jive dance of trying to hold your phone at the right angle so the barcode scanner recognizes it and instead of “Enjoy the game” the usher is muttering, “Is your brightness turned up all the way?”

I realize as I write this it’s turning into a “Things were better in my day!” post which is not what I intended. I love how easy it is to buy tickets. Between the two paragraphs above, I literally bought 4 tickets to a Pirates game. I didn’t have to call and wait on hold or visit a TicketMaster outlet or walk up to the box office. Just a couple of clicks and they’re sitting in my inbox.  That’s awesome. I don’t have to worry about them getting lost in the mail or not being at will call. I just print them out and go.

Still, when I’m at the game, I’ll keep an eye out for an actual ticket stub. If you ask nicely, some people will give you theirs or with a good eye you might spot one sitting underneath a chair in your section. In some stadiums, guest services will print a duplicate copy if you ask towards the end of the game. When I get home I’ll throw it in a drawer along with all of the other stubs I’ve collected over the years. In a couple of years, we’ll be packing to move again and my wife will ask if she can throw them away and I’ll say “No!” and she will roll her eyes.  Eventually I’ll organize them and do something with them.

After almost two decades as a Lightning fan, I’ve finally gotten around to doing something with all of those hockey tickets stubs.  Well not all of them, but quite a few of them:

I stole the idea from my buddy Link, who travels for a living and usually spends his nights on the road at a ballpark or an arena watching sports. As part of his former sports room, he had framed a bunch of tickets and hung them on a wall. I liked the look so I copied it with some of the Lightning tickets I’ve accumulated over the years. With the exception of the centerpiece, the Game Two of the Stanley Cup Finals ticket, the others were picked randomly based on their design and if they fit the empty spaces.

Going through these tickets I realize how lucky I was. If you focus on the sections, you will see a lot of suite tickets. Those all came compliments of the vendors I worked with at the time. Lightning tickets weren’t exactly a hot commodity and the reps were glad that someone was using them. The ones I paid for are all in the 300 sections.

During the process of picking which tickets to add to the collage, I was reminded why I held on to them. It reminded me not so much about specifics of each game as I’m getting old and my memories are fading a bit. I’ve also never been a big details guy, so remembering exactly what happened in a game against the Thrashers in 2002 is kind of hard. But it does remind me about how I felt about the team at that time and also about what my life was like at the time.

When I see a ticket from November 20th, 2003 against the Islanders, I don’t remember what happened in that game (they won 3-2) but I see Brad Richards on the ticket and remember being excited about how good of a young player he was.  I see the date and remember thinking that this was about the time we realized that this team might be pretty special (the win took their record to 10-2-2-1).

Looking up the details on hockeyreference, I see that the Lightning built a 3-0 lead on goals from Fredrik Modin, Richards and Cory Stillman (his 10th of the year!) and held on to win after giving up two third period goals. The win moved the Lightning back into the lead of the Southeast Conference over the Atlanta Thrashers(!) and according to a recap from the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Coach Tortorella was as happy as he gets. “I thought we played a very good game. It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but you never look away from two points.”

The recap also mentions that Richards’ goal came on a give-and-go play with Marty St. Louis. I can picture in my head Richards stealing the puck and playing catch with the newest hall of famer before rifling a return pass into the net. Does it come from this game? Who knows, but the memory is still there.

One of the oldest tickets in this collage is from November 17th, 2001 against the Carolina Hurricanes. According to the internet, Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 26 shots in shutting out Tom Barrasso and the Hurricanes 2-0. Ben Clymer and Tim Taylor picked up the goals as the Lightning won for the second time in a nine-game stretch. They somehow managed to win despite defensive stalwarts Grant Ledyard and Cory Sarich missing the game with injuries and Josef Boumedienne limited to 5:32 while playing on a broken toe.

It was Khabibulin’s second shutout of the season and a sign that despite another losing season, the Lightning might finally have a pretty good goaltender. Despite not remembering the details, it does remind me that every time Khabibulin started a game, I would look down during the national anthem from whatever upper deck section I was in (316 in this case) to see him spin back towards his net during the last verse of the song. It was a tick (along with all of his other ones) that I remember all these years later along with his saves and the image of him throwing his gear in the air before being swarmed by his teammates after Game 7 in 2004.

I also remember going to a lot of games that season because I was young and relatively single. I was living in a cheap apartment and making more money than I should have and was way too irresponsible to put it into a retirement plan so I spent it on hockey tickets, booze, and travel. In November of 2001 I also remember that I, along with the rest of the country, was still adjusting to a post 9/11 world. The World Series had just ended about two weeks before that game and sports was just then kind of settling back into a routine.

An exception to the hazy memories rule is the Game 2 ticket at the center of this menagerie of colorfully decorated paper. It is, along with a signed Vinny Lecavalier jersey,  one of my favorite pieces of memorabilia sitting in my collection. I’m pretty sure I had to call in to the ticket hotline to get it and I remember not caring how much I paid for it (still pretty fiscally irresponsible in 2004).  That game I remember.

I remember the pure giddiness and restless energy during the pre-game and the anthems. There was a beat up old car in front of the Ice Palace decorated with Flames logos that fans could smash with a sledgehammer. I remember being tense and nervous as the game got under way. I also remember how loud it was when Rusty Fedotenko scored seven minutes into the game. The gut-wrenching nervousness throughout the scoreless second prompted the “how do people enjoy this?” thoughts in my head. Then the glorious three minute stretch in the third where they broke the game open with three goals.

The lasting memory of walking out, possibly a bit drunk on beer and victory, into the May night, voice hoarse from screaming all night celebrating the first Stanley Cup final win in franchise history with my arm around a friend as we watched people dancing with glee.  That’s what I remember the most when I look at that ticket stub.

That’s what I’ll miss once the digital age completely takes over sporting events and all tickets are scanned by phones. Yes, I understand why they do it and part of me has no problem with it. Still, I wish teams would set up a booth or a kiosk, where for a small fee, I could enter in my seat details and the machine would spit out an actual tangible ticket so that when I look back at it years from now, I can remember the feeling of going to the game.