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The man who hated hockey

LANE DEGREGORY
Published May 26, 2004

TAMPA - He wore a Seminoles cap, a Tony Stewart tank top and a pink band around his right wrist.

"Football and NASCAR, those were my sports," he said at 7:35 a.m. Tuesday. "I thought hockey was stupid."

But Sunday, Cortland Bennett begged his sister to drive him 90 minutes from their Winter Haven home to Tampa. He spent 33 hours camping on the concrete walkway outside the St. Pete Times Forum. He slept on an air mattress, got up every two hours to make roll call, baked all afternoon in the sun.

The guy who hated hockey was trying to get two $8 tickets to the first game of the Stanley Cup final.

"They call me Hundred," he said, showing the black number on his wrist band. Because the team sells only 200 tickets for $8 on the morning of a game, he was one of the last people to get an armband. "I got here just in time."

Bennett is 20. He wants to be a carpenter and a youth minister. But he's unemployed for now. He's built like a linebacker. An auburn goatee covers his chin and full lips. His mom, a beautician, painted blond highlights in his dark, spikey hair.

He grew up playing Little League baseball and high school basketball, and watching football and NASCAR on TV. He went ice skating once, when he was a kid. "I've lived in Florida all my life," he said. "I had no use for hockey."

Bennett is the type of guy everyone was worried about back when the Lightning came to town: the native Floridian who loves the gridiron and asphalt, fishing and boating and basketball. If the Tampa Bay area was going to keep a hockey team, Bennett and his friends were going to be the biggest challenge to convert.

And there he was, standing in line for days to get tickets. Most of the people around him had moved south, from Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philly. Bennett was one of the only people not wearing a hockey-themed shirt.

"I've never been to a game," Bennett told the man behind him.

"What?" the man said. "You've never been to a playoff game?"

"No," Bennett said, laughing. "I've never been to a hockey game. Any hockey game."

Twelve hours later, he walked through the doors of the arena, proudly sporting a new $10 Lightning T-shirt he had bought at Wal-Mart that afternoon. His friend Ted Ketina, who turned him on to hockey, was with him. They headed up the escalator and into Section 323. They climbed the steep concrete stairs, all the way to the top. They looked down on the Lightning goal, where Nikolai Khabibulin was warming up.

"This is awesome. Just awesome!" Bennett shouted, pumping his fists as the lights dimmed. "Six months ago, I didn't know what a Zamboni was."

Bennett's dad died when he was 12. Ketina, a friend from church, started inviting Bennett to his house to watch sports. Ketina, a 41-year-old landscaper, became a sort of surrogate dad. "I'm a huge sports fan," he said. "I wish I knew my Bible as well as I know hockey."

For Christmas, Ketina got a 52-inch television. He asked Bennett to come over and watch a Lightning game in January. Bennett didn't care about the matchup. He wanted to see the big TV.

By the end of the first period, he was hooked. He watched every game for the rest of the season. He learned the difference between offsides and icing.

"It's a real man-sport, real physical. It takes so much more endurance than I ever imagined," Bennett said after the Star-Spangled Banner. He beat his ThunderStix, leaned forward in his seat, then stood up as the players skated onto the ice. "Let's go Bolts!" he screamed before the faceoff. "Oh, I prayed they'd win this game."

He didn't sit down until the Flames scored their first goal. He yelled at the refs for not making calls. He shouted at Lecavalier when he misssed a shot.

"Here we go!" he screamed during a Lightning power play. Then, "Aaagh!! We needed that!" when another shot missed the goal.

"This is so much easier to follow live than on TV," he told his friend. "You can see the whole ice at once here."

He said he wasn't worried, even when his team was down by two. But a loss wouldn't matter. He swore he'd camp out for the next . . . however many games. "No matter what, it was worth it," he said. "I mean, how many people get to see the Stanley Cup playoffs for their very first hockey game?"

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