Ten minutes before the puck drops for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, Mike Parot flips a dozen burgers on the grill. He heads through the screened porch, into the living room of a friend's lakefront house and picks up his life-size replica.
"The last time we left it in was Game 6 against Philly," Parot says, setting the cardboard-and-mixing-bowl sculpture on the air-conditioning unit beside the grill. "We lost that one. So now the Cup has to stay outside."
Parot swears he isn't superstitious. But when it comes to the Lightning, he won't risk anything. He hasn't washed his white jersey since his guys got into the playoffs. He always changes his black Lightning hat for his prized University of Vermont cap just before the opening faceoff. He has to drink his Miller Lite from the same Khabibulin huggie while he watches every away game.
And during home games, he isn't always himself. Sometimes he changes his voice. Sometimes he changes his nationality.
If you call the fan club for the Tampa Bay Lightning and ask who's the most over-the-top supporter, the club president will send you to Parot. "He has a signed Vermont hat from (Martin) St. Louis that he worships like it's his offspring," Ann Marie Cairo says. "He has loved the Lightning ever since the franchise existed."
Parot says he can't afford season tickets. He went to 25 home games this season, including the first two of the Stanley Cup final. For away games, he and four of his buddies rotate hosting parties. One guy had to drop out. Parot will explain about him later.
Today it's Todd Rupp's turn. He has a 61-inch-screen TV.
"Those pictures of the real Cup have to go, too," Parot tells Rupp five minutes before the game. "No sense taking any chances."
A few weeks ago, when the real Stanley Cup made a cameo appearance at the Brandon Sports Authority, Parot and his friends waited more than an hour to touch it. "It was like electricity shooting through my hand. I waited 20 years for that," Parot says. "I never thought I'd get to see the real Cup right here in Florida."
Parot is 27. He lives in Brandon and owns a window-washing company. He plays on two adult rec league hockey teams at the rink where the Lightning practices. He plays every position, including goalie.
Parot grew up in Vermont and had a rink in his back yard. When he was 3, his dad strapped double-runner skates onto his shoes and pulled him around the ice. "I lost 13 teeth to this sport. I just lost another last week," he says, proudly showing a new gap on the lower left.
When Parot was 12, his parents split up, and he moved to Florida with his mom. None of his new friends had heard of hockey. So he took up skateboarding.
But every time he went back north to visit his dad, they would go to hockey games. "We could walk to the rink at the University of Vermont," he says.
They watched St. Louis and Eric Perrin skate all through their college careers at Vermont. Parot prizes his green Vermont hockey jersey. But not as much as his lucky yellow Vermont hat. "I don't like asking for autographs, but I had to get Marty and Eric to sign that," Parot said. "I got them to sign it at camp, when Perrin was trying out for the Lightning. This was his first NHL team. This might've been the first autograph he ever signed."
Three minutes before the puck drops, Parot's friends all are still outside. Two guys are playing pingpong on the screened porch. Two women are piling rice and corn onto plastic plates.
Parot is too nervous to eat the hamburgers he grilled. He stuffs his Miller Lite into his Khabibulin huggie and walks into the living room. He turns on the TV. He takes off his black Lightning hat and pulls on the Vermont one. "It can't be more than an inch off my head at any time during the game," he says.
He doesn't care if he watches the game alone. Fewer distractions that way. Sometimes at home games, even when he has tickets with his pals, Parot sits by himself.
"When we first started going to the Ice Palace, we couldn't afford anything closer than the 300 level," he says. "So I started pretending I was a foreign exchange student. I put on this Belgian accent and tell the security guard, "I have never seen hockey, please,' " Parot says. " "I want to see close.' "
Before this season, before the team got good and the games got crowded, the ruse usually worked, Parot says. This night, as the lights above the Calgary arena dim and flames shoot around the rink on TV, Parot's friends come in from outside. They crowd the sofa, nine people balancing plates of food on their laps. Only Matt is missing.
Matt Burnett loves the Lightning almost as much as Parot. They went to more than a dozen games together. Five months ago, Burnett's Coast Guard reserve unit got shipped to Iraq. While his friends are huddled in front of the big-screen, watching Calgary players skate onto the ice, Burnett is on a gun boat sliding down some river in Iraq.
"I gave him a tiny statue of the Stanley Cup to pack in his duffel," Parot says. "I told him, "I want you to bring this back with you. And by the time you're back, we'll have won the real one.' "