TAMPA - As a child skating on the backyard rink his father built in Minnesota, Jason Franke dreamed of being in the Stanley Cup final.
Before Game 5 Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum, he was the first person on the ice wearing a Lightning sweater.
But unlike those worn by the players, Franke's was stretched over a 10-pound costume with detachable head, antennae and size 25 shoes.
Franke is the Lightning's mascot, ThunderBug.
"I may be mascoting, I may not be starting line, but how many of my friends in Minnesota would love to be here right now?" Franke said.
Franke, 29, of Tampa, no doubt felt differently as he perched atop the arena roof for 19 days at the start of the playoffs. He and Sean Henry, the Lightning's executive vice president and chief operating officer, hatched the stunt last season to generate media exposure until the team sold out its home playoff opener.
Though he enjoyed some comforts of home (furniture, television, DVD player) along with a few perks (restaurants brought him food), Franke had to endure 80-degree-plus weather while mostly remaining in costume.
"This was an appearance where you take one for the team," he said.
Franke has completely revamped the mascot since arriving in Tampa five years ago. He jettisoned the team's second mascot, LadyBug, pouring all resources into ThunderBug, and increased mascot appearances from 30 to more than 300 a year.
In the process, he helped make the mascot one of the most recognizable in sports. ThunderBug has appeared in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN, ABC and CBC.
"We're growing every day," Franke said. "My goal is no mascot or no figure can ever be big enough. There's always room to grow and room to get better."
Of course, there is such a thing as "too big" to children. Franke's 3-year-old son used to fear ThunderBug was hurting his father until Franke brought home the head of the costume.
"Now, when he sees a character, he runs up to them and says, "Take your head off,' " Franke said.
In 11 years as a mascot, including stints with the Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons, Franke has learned to gauge children's reactions by looking at their eyes. If a child appears frightened, Franke won't approach, but will extend his hand and let the child come to him.
Franke never removes ThunderBug's head in public. Though his name has been used in print, he declines to be photographed without his costume.
"Things like that I take pretty seriously, and the team does too," Franke said. "I have friends around town who know I'm ThunderBug, but they never reveal it. It's almost like a mascot law."
If they could see under the mask, they would see there is no ventilation. Franke pulls his jersey forward when dancing to get fresh air. He looks out through the mouth, limiting his vision, and stumbles around in shoes three times as wide as his own.
He works 80- to 90-hour weeks during the season. Thursday started with a live shoot for ESPN2's Cold Pizza at 7:30 a.m., followed by shots for ABC and CBC and, finally, the game. He drinks 1 to 2 liters of Pedialyte and 10 to 15 bottles of water to stay hydrated.
Still, Franke said the only downside to being ThunderBug is the time it takes away from his family. He has not had a weekend off since August.
A small price to fulfill a childhood dream.
"Every day I'm happy going to work now, so it must be the right job for me," Franke said. "Even though I wake up in the morning with different bruises . . . it's definitely worth the whole cause."
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