Lightning fans finally cheer NHL champs in person

Christopher Spata, Mari Faiello, Josh Fiallo
Diana C. Nearhos and Natalie Weber Tampa Bay Times (TNS)
Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos, left, Luke Shenn and Victor Hedman celebrate during the Stanley Cup Champions Boat Parade on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Tampa, Florida.

TAMPA, Fla. - By land and by sea, the Lightning and thousands of adoring fans Wednesday celebrated the first professional sports title to come home to Tampa Bay since the last time the Lightning did it in 2004.

Tuesday had been the intimate reunion, as the team arrived home with the Stanley Cup to greet loved ones they had missed for months. Wednesday was the giant party for everyone else.

A flotilla of boats carrying players, staff and fans paraded up the Hillsborough River through downtown, followed by a free celebration at Raymond James Stadium with an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people in the stands.

Fans said the intensity of the moment was heightened by the pandemic. The Lightning made their entire playoff run in a quarantine bubble, thousands of miles from the city with no fans in attendance. Game or not, the celebrations Wednesday were the most live spectators watching a sports team in Tampa Bay since March.

The Tampa Bay Lightning continue celebrating their Stanley Cup win with the community with a boat parade followed by festivities at Raymond James Stadium.

It was a bit surreal.

"It almost feels like what we're doing now is, like, wrong," said Wes King, celebrating on the Riverwalk during the boat parade. His partner,Courtney McManus, said it was the first event that had brought her out in six months.

But the Stanley Cup gleaming in the Florida sun is a special bright spot in Tampa in what has been a dark year for the nation. Fans who said they'd traveled from across the state were determined to live it up.

"Being here is huge," said Orlando's Janet Fox. "I was like, I'm not missing it. You've got to be there and share the moment in person a little bit."

Sara Finitz, who'd biked over to the parade from the Channel District, thinks this strange year is actually the best year to win the Cup.

"It's kind of like bringing Tampa back (together)," she said.

Celebrations began around 5 p.m. when hundreds of boats gathered near Marjorie Park Marina.

About 50 vessels carried Lightning players and team staff. They were far outnumbered by fans who had shown up in bass boats, cruisers, pontoons, jet skis and yachts - flying blue and white Lightning flags.

The team had said no outside boats were allowed, but there was no stopping the fan flotilla that sailed north into downtown hoisting both beers and plastic replicas of the Cup. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

The players' boats blended with fans. Nikita Kucherov stood at the bow of a center console in sunglasses and a ball cap, sipping from a plastic cup and pumping his fist. He cruised past another boat filled with Lightning fans in blue wigs who did not seem to notice a few yards away.

Ondrej Palat danced atop the tower on a fishing boat nearby, and Alex Killorn and Mathieu Joseph shotgunned beers in unison with a fan who said he would do it if they would.

Fans in Bolts gear lined both banks of the Hillsborough. They let out a chorus of "Coop" as coach John Cooper, cigar in mouth, sailed by and pointed at them, the Prince of Wales Trophy, for conference champions, precariously perched on the boat's railing.

Killorn jumped on a jet ski with Steven Stamkos riding In the seat behind him, holding the Stanley Cup trophy tightly on his lap. They managed to keep the famed trophy out of the Hillsborough River. "I wasn't dropping that thing," Stamkos said.

They passed the Cup up to the lead boat, where Victor Hedman, the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP, raised it over his head, drawing big cheers. As they passed the University of Tampa minarets, Hedman dumped a Bud Light into the Cup and poured it into a kneeling Stamkos' mouth.

The Cup's main escort, Phil Pritchard, known as the Keeper of the Cup, said it was the Stanley Cup's first boat parade, although the Cup did once ride aboard a pirate ship in the Gasparilla invasion.

Nearby, the decks of the Yacht Starship dinner cruise ship and the bright yellow Pirate Water Taxis were packed with fans in blue and white, and Mayor Jane Castor waved a flag from the bow of a Tampa Police boat.

At Tampa Convention Center fans stood three rows deep against a barrier cheering and taking photos. They climbed the railing outside American Social and lined the bridges leading into downtown.

Some who attended the parade wore masks. Many did not.

After the players disembarked at Ricks on the River and had some more refreshments, the team boarded an open-air trolley and headed for Raymond James Stadium. There, more refreshments.

As they walked into the main concourse, fans chanted, "We want the Cup!" so Ryan McDonagh gave them what they wanted and brought the trophy over to them.

Killorn by then was wearing a giant, sparking NHL championship belt that would have looked at home in a pro wrestling ring. Pat Maroon was shirtless in a fedora. Yanni Gourde commandeered an empty golf cart and drove as Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tyler Johnson and Erik Cernak hung on.

Cooper lifted the Cup with the help of his kids.

Jersey-wearing, socially distanced fans looked like blue dots spread across the seats of a stadium with a capacity of 65,000.

It wasn't an easy ticket to get. Jarrod Chambers, 42, of New Port Richey was one of the lucky ones. He didn't even know about the Lightning's party until 16 minutes before the free event officially "sold out," but he logged into Ticketmaster and was able to score four of them.

"I still can't believe it," Chambers said. "If I couldn't get them for free, I would've paid whatever I needed to get them. This is exactly the thing this city and country needs, I wouldn't miss it."

For 34-year-old Jessica Skilling, an usher at the stadium, the event was a much-needed return to normalcy - and income. She hadn't worked as an usher since the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.

She said she would be strictly enforcing the mask requirement at the celebration. "I can't afford to go back to no work and no interaction," she said. "None of us can."

It wasn't a full house, purposely limited due to the pandemic, but they made a lot of noise pounding the seats.

They had watched their team on TV in the biggest numbers in years, according to the ratings, but on Wednesday they knew the players, and not just their neighbors, could finally hear their cheers.

The players, staff, executives and local government officials, including Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, took the stage for a series of speeches.

"Thank you all for giving us a lifetime of memories," said Hillsborough County commissioner Ken Hagan, who referred to playing through the bubble as "the most difficult run in Stanley Cup history."

After Phil Esposito took the microphone, he introduced "the best owner in professional sports," Jeff Vinik.

"I was warned that when you win a Stanley Cup, when you celebrate over a couple days in this great Tampa Bay area, when you have this wonderful ceremony with our awesome fans in Raymond James stadium, that the fans are gonna get rowdy," said Vinik. "Little did I know, it's the f _ -ing players that are getting rowdy!"

How rowdy? A few moments later, Kucherov interrupted his speech to try to pour a Bud Light into Vinik's mouth.

"There's two things I missed since I've been in the bubble. You fans, and my jet ski," Killorn said. He said he was thrilled to be back to both with the Stanley Cup in tow.

Stamkos, the captain, spoke last.

"This is unbelievable. I've been in this city for 12 years, but this is by far the best experience of my hockey life," he said. "I could not be happier to share it with every single person in this building tonight. I love these guys so much.

"Mr. Vinik, you started it, you started the culture on this team. It's not only the players on the ice, but the community around us. I don't give a s _ what they say about Florida and hockey, this is the best hockey town ever."

Then came the fireworks.