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Off/beat

Greatest memories are kept on NHL ice

By STEVE LEE
Published May 16, 2004

I know all about Good Friday, having been raised an Irish-Catholic in a Boston suburb. For me, April 9 of this year always will be remembered as Great Friday.

As a sportswriter and hockey fan, I have covered and attended professional hockey games in a half-dozen cities across the country. But never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined skating on National Hockey League ice.

That opportunity came between Games 1 and 2 of Tampa Bay's playoff series with the New York Islanders (which the Lightning won in five games). Granted, I only played in a scrimmage against other non-pro players, but it was on NHL ice.

So there I was, heart racing as I donned my goalie gear as the Lightning finished its team practice at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"Off the ice, boys. It's our turn," I thought, although I didn't dare voice that sentiment to a Lightning player.

As a hockey player, I might be a little crazy, but I'm not stupid.

Moments after stretching and positioning myself in front of the goal by banging my goalie stick off each post to make sure I was centered in the crease, an unknown skater in a blue jersey broke in and whipped off a wrist shot.

Thunk went the puck off my left leg pad before harmlessly gliding away toward the boards. Save. Though there would be plenty of goals scored in the net I guarded, I had saved the first shot.

A smile creased my face at the thought of trying to keep pucks out of the same nets manned by Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin and the Islanders' Rick DiPietro the night before and the day after.

That next afternoon, I sat in the Forum's press box somewhat distracted as the pros were back in their rightful domain. I was there at Game 2 to compile statistics for the Times' playoff wraparound section, but I kept thinking back to the night before.

Peering down at the ice, I recalled some of the saves - of course I'd recall the saves, and not the ones that made it into the net - in Friday's two-hour scrimmage with several Lightning employees and season ticket-holders at the St. Pete Times Forum. I got to play when my friend, Scott Renke, called me to fill in for a goalie who canceled.

The closest I ever thought I would come to skating at an NHL rink would be to shell out big bucks for one of those fantasy camps that pro teams organize. That fantasy, I figured, would remain a dream, considering I live on a journalist's salary.

Although there were no retired NHL players on the ice at our scrimmage - there always are ex-NHLers at team fantasy camps - this was actually better because none of us on the ice that night was famous. Some, like me, had grown up in other states or in Canada playing hockey while some were newcomers to the sport.

"Pretty cool, eh?" Renke asked as we unlaced our skates afterward in the locker room.

Er, way beyond that, Scotty.

In my family, it completed a unique trifecta. Playing hockey at the St. Pete Times Forum made me the third of three Lee brothers to skate on NHL ice. David, who works for Delta Air Lines, has played on company teams that competed in tournaments at the Omni in Atlanta, former home of the Flames who now play in Calgary. And brother Tom, a postal worker who also has played on company teams, has skated at Maple Leaf Gardens, former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Finally, I owe the opportunity to skate at the Forum and, for that matter, being able to watch professional hockey in Florida, to Phil Esposito. The Hall of Fame center who led the Boston Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972 and won five scoring titles is the founder of the Lightning. It was Esposito's salesmanship that sold the NHL on hockey in the Sunshine State.

And having grown up with Esposito and Bobby Orr posters on the walls of a bedroom shared by myself and my brothers, it still is baffling how the legendary scorer, who ranks fifth on the all-time goals list (717), was instrumental in forming a team in Tampa Bay that is now making a run at the Cup.

Thanks for the memories, Phil. The old ones and the new ones.

[Last modified May 16, 2004, 01:00:38]


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