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In the end, Flyers fan turns believer

The friendship of two Orlando men with divided loyalties endure the tension of a heated game that catapults the Bolts to the Cup.

Published May 23, 2004

TAMPA - Up here in Section 317, Row K, the rafters aren't much more than an arm's reach away.

The place belongs to the diehards, ordinary folks. The beer flows like water and the curse words flow like beer.

Up here in the dark, another battle played out Saturday night during Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers.

Tampa Bay fan.

Philly fan.

Side by side in seats 16 and 17.

Steve Sisto, 22, and Nathan Cagle, 29, live in the same apartment complex in Orlando. Sisto is a Philadelphia native and diehard Flyers fan. Cagle is a rabid Lightning fan.

After destroying Cagle's apartment during the excitement of Game 6, they bought tickets for Game 7 on the Internet, drove over in their respective jerseys.

It starts friendly enough. Sisto predicts a 4-2 Philly victory. Cagle scoffs. The battle begins.

As game time approaches, wrestling star Hulk Hogan steps onto the ice: "Are you ready!?!?"

Sisto strokes his long goatee, leans in and says: "Rocky could take Hogan any day."

* * *

It's Cagle's first trip to the St. Pete Times Forum. He keeps getting so excited that he falls from his seat. He falls when the Lightning score. He falls when the Flyers get a penalty. He bangs his ThunderStix relentlessly.

Cagle sits quietly. At least during the first period, he'd rather talk about food.

"Anybody who thinks a Cuban beats a Philly cheesesteak has never had a real Philly Cheesesteak."

The men regularly disagree on calls and shove each other nearly as much as the players on the ice.

But when the Lightning cheerleaders venture up to Section 317 late in the first period they clap and howl together.

* * *

When the Lightning scores, Cagle lets out a bizarre howl.

When the Flyers score in the second period, Sisto raises his arm and lets out a long "Whoooooooo!!!"

Cagle punches his shoulder. Lightning fans slap Sisto with their ThunderStix.

* * *

Chaos accompanies the start of the third period. The concourse of the third level is slick as the ice below.

Philly fans and Lightning fans are shoving one another in the hallways, no longer joking. In the bathroom, Lightning fans start to chant ugly insults.

Sisto seems amused.

"It ain't over yet," he says.

* * *

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... the Times Forum explodes with noise.

Cagle has climbed on top of his seat. He hugs two women behind him. His Lightning have won, and he's celebrating with his newest 100 friends in Section 317.

Philly fans begin to file out. Sisto sits in his seat with Zen-like calm, a blank look on his face.

Cagle looks over at his friend. "We should probably beat the traffic," he says.

Sisto shakes his head.

"I want to see them get the trophy," he says, and starts to clap.

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