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Nancy converts (a couple of) her neighbors

Most residents of her complex didn't care about hockey. Until Nancy Plummer threw a party.

LANE DEGREGORY
Published June 6, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - She kicked the card players out of the common room Saturday night.

They weren't happy about it. Five elderly women and a man grumbled as they moved their tables into the lobby of their apartment building.

"What's so important going on in here anyway?" one of the card players wanted to know.

Nancy Plummer put her hands on her hips. She cocked her head at her upset neighbor.

"Didn't you see the signs I put up in the elevator?" Nancy asked. "They're on all the bulletin boards, too."

"No." The card-playing woman shook her head.

"Hockey," Nancy told her. "That's what's so important. We're having a hockey party here tonight."

Most of the folks at the senior citizens apartment complex could not care less about hockey. Most didn't even know there was a game on Saturday night, much less the most important game in Tampa Bay's hockey history.

But Nancy had been waiting for this for 12 years, ever since her new town got a team. She watches most of the games alone, in her one-bedroom apartment with her Mainecoon cat, Milo. She doesn't have cable, so she listens to the non-network games on the radio. She knew most of her neighbors never had heard of Khabibulin or St. Louis or even Tortorella.

So last week, she invited them all to a playoff party. She magic-markered posters in black and Lightning blue. She took the bus to Wal-Mart, bought star-studded plates and cups and Bolt-blue napkins, and a new Lightning T-shirt to wear to her bash.

"I just thought it would be nice for some of these folks to get in on this," Nancy said two hours before Game 6 while pouring Cheez-Its into a bowl. "Some of these people don't get out of their rooms much. So this will be nice."

Nancy, 85, lives in a fourth-floor apartment of Casa Santa Cruz. The building houses 76 seniors. Nancy was one of the first residents and has lived there 10 years.

She was the only child of an avid baseball fan, and she grew up in Boston, going to the diamond almost every week. In 1940, Nancy was in art school while the country was gearing up for war. "They started recruiting women to work in the men's jobs," she said. "Someone came and asked me if I would want to learn to be a draftsman, since I was doing art. It sounded exciting." Through the war, and for 20 years after, Nancy sketched hulls and engine rooms and pumps of Navy ships.

While she was working at Bethlehem Steel's shipyard in Quincy, Mass., a co-worker invited her to her first hockey game. "After the first period, I was hooked," she said. "Not just on the Bruins. The whole sport just got me."

In 1982, she retired and moved to Florida. "Oh, I was so excited when Tampa Bay finally got the Lightning. Of course, I still followed the Bruins on TV. But I was so glad to have a home team to cheer again," she said.

Nancy has never been to a Lightning game. "It's hard to find transportation to Tampa." But "I've got everybody talking about this. They all keep asking me, "What hockey game?' But I told them we'd have refreshments, so I'm sure some will show up at least for that," Nancy said an hour before the opening faceoff. "We've got coffee and tonic, all sorts of sodas and snacks. And I brought my mom's bell to ring for every goal."

She put paper cups and napkins at six long, wooden tables. She filled a plastic bowl with ice and set it in the sink. She turned the vinyl-seated chairs toward the 30-inch TV and tuned it to ABC.

Hellen promised to bring Pringles. Shirley said she would bring Ritz crackers and cheese. Bertha and Claire. Barbara and Vera. Even Angie and Ruthanne, they'd said they'd come.

"They're not real sports-minded," Nancy said of her neighbors. "Except for Rita."

Right on cue, Rita Kelly showed up first. She was wearing her new Lightning-blue hockey shirt over a white polo. A 72-year-old Detroit native, Rita is a Red Wings fan from way back. By the time the puck dropped, 15 people had gathered. During the faceoff, Nancy pressed her hands together, almost in prayer. When the Flames' Jarome Iginla sped around the rink, Nancy narrowed her eyes and grit her teeth. "He's the one I'd like to kick in the pants," she told Rita. "With my skates on."

During the first commercial, Nancy got up to refill her friends' drinks and snack bowls. She sat down just as play resumed. "Hey Nancy!" Hellen called. "Thanks for doing this. But can we have the TV up a little louder? We don't all hear that well."

Nancy got up and adjusted the volume. Then she turned to survey her party, smiling above her new Lightning shirt and her old Bruins pin. She didn't think they cared.

And now they not only wanted to watch. They wanted to hear.

"You'll know for sure when we score, at least," she said, sitting back down by her bell. "I'll make sure they can hear it all the way out in the lobby, so even those card players know."

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