TAMPA - Long before the Lightning started winning. Before Lecavalier and Tortorella and St. Louis. Even before Cullimore, who has been with the team longer than any other player.
Before the Ice Palace was the St. Pete Times Forum. Before builders broke dirt to build the Ice Palace. Even before workers fashioned that first rink in the barn at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
John Simson has backed the Lightning longer than anyone. He bought season tickets two years before Tampa Bay even had a hockey team. He is one of only a handful of original fans who have stuck with the Lightning through the lean times, through the losing seasons, through the shame.
When the Lightning was so bad that folks were pulling paper bags over their heads at games, Simson wasn't afraid to show his face. He drove to Fort Myers and Orlando for exhibition games. He has pounded the glass at more than 500 Lightning games.
It's his duty, he said.
"In 12 years, I've only missed 10 home games," he said Thursday, a half-hour before the puck dropped for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. "I always hoped we'd get here one day. But I thought it would take a whole lot longer than this."
Simson left work a little early Thursday, like he usually does on days of home games. He drove 45 minutes from the docks at Tarpon Springs to his home on Tierra Verde. "Have to wash off the fish slime," he said. He picked up his wife, Paula, and fought an hour of traffic to Tampa. Then he walked to the Marriott Waterside, where he met an old friend.
"We helped start all this," Simson said, putting his arm around Walt Spokowski's shoulder on the way to the Forum. "We've been in this together since the beginning."
When Simson and Spokowski heard that Phil Esposito might start a hockey team in Tampa Bay, they were among the first 100 people to pay a deposit for season tickets. Simson sat right behind Spokowski that first season, right behind the goal the Lightning shot on twice each game. When they heard each other talking, cheering, explaining hockey to the Floridians around them, they knew they had found kin.
"We both grew up playing hockey," said Simson, who has been in the Sunshine State for 25 years but holds fast to his Boston brogue. "We both grew up in Beantown."
Simson is 56. His short, sandy hair and moustache are flecked with gray. Laugh lines rim his blue eyes, pale crinkles in a face that has been weathered by years on the water.
He learned to skate when he was 6. He played hockey through junior college. The first time he asked out his wife was to watch him play. "It was 1965. I was playing right wing. I told her I'd take her out to eat after the game," Simson said. "Well, I got cut pretty bad during the first period and had to get eight stitches. When I went back on the ice, she was still there in the stands, watching."
Except for those two years after the blizzard, they've been together ever since.
"I was a lobster fisherman up in Boston. But that blizzard of '78 did me in," Simson said. "I told my wife, "I'm outta here. I'm moving to Florida before it snows again.' "
Paula stuck it out two more winters, then joined him. Paula is a vice president of Bank of America. Simson is "a travel agent for dead fish now," he said. "I ship snapper and grouper across the country. I always ask the fish, "You want to go to Seattle? Or Vegas?' The fish never complain."
Spokowski lived in Florida until 1997, when he moved back to Boston for business. On Thursday, he flew into Tampa to join Simson and his wife for the playoffs. Before the game, over hamburgers, they reminisced about how cheap tickets used to be - and how Florida hockey has evolved.
"We paid $27.50 for each seat for games that first season," Simson said. "This year, the tickets were $70 each per game. I'm looking at $10,000 this season, including the playoffs."
"This is our vacation," Simson's wife said, laughing. "We used our cruise money to come here."
Spokowski planned to stay with the Simsons through the weekend, watch Saturday night's Game 6 on TV, then, if necessary, be back at the Forum for Monday's Game 7. He hadn't been to a Lightning game in years.
"Do you remember that woman leaning over and asking us, "Why does hockey have two halftimes?' " he asked Simson, laughing.
"And that game when Chris Kontos scored three goals and folks tossed their caps onto the ice and officials tried to throw them out because they'd never heard of a hat trick?" Simson said.
"How 'bout that time when they had to cancel the exhibition game because someone fell through the ice at the Forum?" Spokowski said.
"Hockey in Florida," Simson said on his way to the Forum. "Who would've thought we'd be here today?"