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We're a validated hockey town

Published May 23, 2004

TAMPA - Now we know what happens when hell freezes over.

Shortly thereafter, Brad Richards snaps his wrist and shoots a puck toward the net, and it pinballs off Martin St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko and bounces past the stick of the devil.

Just like that, and it feels just like heaven.

The Lightning is going to the final.

The Lightning, the dreadful, accursed, pitiable Lightning, is one series away from bringing Lord Stanley's Cup to the Sunshine state.

It was the most unexpected sight you will ever see and the most unheard of thing you have ever heard of. The Tampa Bay Lightning, which has spent most of its history as the stepchild the NHL wouldn't talk about, earned its way into the NHL championship series Saturday night. In a packed house, in a pressurized game, against a potent opponent, the Lightning held off the Flyers 2-1.

This is a night that took a million promises, and to most of us, it seemed it would take a million years.

It was glorious, wasn't it? It was spectacular and outrageous, raucous and unnerving, electric and unbelievable. And on and on. Remember how it felt when the Bucs went through a team from Philadelphia to earn a chance to win a title? It was like that all over again.

Repeat: The Lightning has reached the Stanley Cup final.

Who knew the meek could skate like that?

Remember the images. Fredrik Modin standing in a crowd of Flyers, refusing to back away, knocking in the winning goal. Nikolai Khabibulin, standing up to Keith Primeau on a breakaway. St. Louis, weaving in and out of traffic, keeping the pressure at the Flyers' end of the ice.

And then the players were spilling onto the ice, embracing, knocking the goal into the wall behind Khabibulin. Remember the packed crowd, roaring again and again, defying anyone to doubt the validity of Tampa Bay as a hockey town or as a hockey team.

They are Tampa Bay's team, all right. Only the playing surface is foreign.

Like the rest of us, they are a melting pot from other places, working together to make the heat a little more tolerable. Like the rest of us, they don't earn as much money as those from other places; the players make 50 cents for every dollar the Flyers are paid. Like most of us, they aren't as appreciated as they should be. Maybe there is a little more sweat on their shirts than on some people's.

But, oh, can they play hockey.

And, man, have they come from the other side of nowhere.

The Lightning is in the Stanley Cup final. To those who have watched this team struggle throughout its history, it is a staggering realization.

It was not long ago - only moments, it seems - that Tampa Bay was considered the worst franchise in all of professional hockey. At one point, it had had nine losing seasons in a decade, and in four straight seasons, it lost 50 games or more (counting overtime losses), and it lost 200 more times than it had won.

It was a franchise born of winks and promises, operated with smoke and mirrors, pieced together with chewing gum and duct tape and paid for with next month's rent money. There were clowns and jokers on the ice, brought in by the goofs and gaffes of the front office. There were fans who knew little about the game and owners who knew less. The only thing emptier than the stands was the hope.

Has any team had an odder collection of characters than this one? There was the invisible owner, Takashi Okubo, whom no one from the franchise ever met. There was Art Williams, who came in preaching of studs and duds. There was Manon Rheaume, the woman goaltender. There were Phil and Tony and Terry and Jacques and the rest.

Put it this way: It is impressive enough to climb Mount Everest. The Lightning, however, did so after starting in the Marianas Trench. Also, it had to walk across Death Valley. There also were blizzards, sandstorms and locusts. And a bad fax machine.

Today, all the old, painful stories are worth a chuckle. At the doorway to success, the journey always seems worth the pain. In hindsight, the memories of those wretched nights in empty arenas seem sweet.

Tampa Bay has this night, and these players, to thank for that. This is a team that answered every challenge, that got up every time it was knocked to the ice. To the rest of us, there was a creeping feeling that when they lost a lead Game 6 with 109 seconds to play, the memory would haunt them forever. It didn't bother the Lightning. Every time it lost, Tampa Bay came back better, sharper, smarter.

Talk about your rags-to-riches story. This is more amazing than the Mets, more breathtaking than the Bucs and darned near as miraculous as the '80 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which, after all, only had to beat the Russians once. It is a better story than Joe Namath's Jets, more surprising than Buster Douglas and more memorable than Seabiscuit.

It is the team composed of St. Louis, who is supposed to be too small, and Dave Andreychuk, who is supposed to be too old. There is too unreliable Khabibulin and too lackadaisical Pavel Kubina and too underappreciated Modin. There is Richards, who was paid too much, and Fedotenko, who cost too much, and Vinny Lecavalier, who didn't get it, and John Tortorella, who was wound too tight.

All of them have redefined themselves. And in so doing, they have redefined a franchise.

Listen to the sound of them. Once, this was a franchise full of bluster and blarney, promising tomorrow and delivering yesterday, twisting in its own cliches. Now, you can hear the celebration of victory and the assurance that, as yet, no one is satisfied.

Look at the sight of them. Once, it was hopeless, hapless, helpless. Now, a different night brings a different star, and no one seems to care which direction he comes from.

Enjoy the feel of them. All the wasted nights, all the wayward stars, was simply a step in the process.

Say it in the same breath: The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Stanley Cup.

Gee. Don't you wonder if there is room in the trophy case.

[Last modified May 22, 2004, 23:38:10]

Go to photo gallery
Lightning page
Main story
John Romano: Andreychuk's journey finds reward
Gary Shelton: We're a validated hockey town
Coaches toss aside all else
Safety forgotten in victory
Up next: Calgary
In the end, Flyers fan turns believer
Sariches deal with the scars
Wait for Cup opponent finally ends for Flames
Flyers stick with the line that clicks
No surprise: Special teams swing game
Richards revels in the moment
Game 7: period by period
Goalie comparison
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