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Lightning

Unthinkable? A miracle? It's bigger than that

By GARY SHELTON
Published June 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

TAMPA - Impossible. Unbelievable. Amazing.

The players moved around the ice, dreamlike, the colors swirling and the noise rising. They moved slowly, sweetly, in the delightful dance of champions, carefully handling the most precious trophy of their sport, perhaps of all sports. They kissed the precious chalice, holding it as they held the moment, and they invited the hearts of their fans to rise with their own.

Once hopeless, helpless, hapless, the Lightning is now champion of the world.

Now gritty, gutty, glorious, the Lightning has won the Stanley Cup.

They glided from end of the ice to the other, the trophy going from one set of hands to the other. From Dave Andreychuk's to Tim Taylor's to Vinny Lecavalier's to Martin St. Louis' to Brad Richards' to Fredrik Modin's to Nikolai Khabibulin's, and on and on. The crowd was a blur, and the sound pierced the night, and the moment seemed as if it would last forever. Perhaps it will.

The Lightning, the Lightning, won the NHL championship Monday night. Tampa Bay held off the Calgary Flames, a team only a half-step less resilient, only a quarter-ounce less resourceful, to win Game 7 2-1.

A local team wins a major championship on its home turf. Has there ever been a better moment in Tampa Bay? Has there ever been a greater transition than this team's?

Glance around the ice. There was St. Louis, the hero of the season, and Richards, the hero of the postseason, and Ruslan Fedotenko, the hero of the night. There was the ageless Andreychuk and the bulletproof Khabibulin. There was coach John Tortorella, snarling and snapping and spitting out shards of glass.

They were on the ice, and they would not leave. Andre Roy danced. Pavel Kubina slid headfirst. They were small boys, leaping into each other's arms, savoring every second, every song that blared from the loudspeaker. They posed. They played. They let loose every emotion, the way a man does when a dream is realized.

Stunning. Miraculous. Magnificent.

Who would have thought Tampa Bay fans would have lived to see this? Who would have thought mankind would have lived to see this? The Lightning, the team from the wrong side of the tracks, the short side of the wallet and the bottom end of the standings, rules the NHL.

Lord Stanley, at age 163, is relocating to Florida.

Welcome, Stan. A lot of Canadians your age live here.

This is impossible. Perhaps you thought you had seen a miracle 17 months ago when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Hah. That was pigs flying; this is pigs going into space.

What a ride. Two easy series. Two nail-biters. Heart-soaring victories. Heartbreaking defeats. Conspiracies. Controversies. Pain. Pressure. Dizzying heights. Recurring doubts. The Lightning stood up to the clinging defense of the Islanders, to the storied history of the Canadiens, to the fury of the Flyers, to the fierceness of the Flames.

It was two dangerous, delightful months spent on a white-knuckle thrill ride. It was exhausting and exhilarating, draining and delicious. If Frodo could say one more thing to Gandalf, it would be this: "Wow. That took a long time."

Give this to the Lightning. It was down to gristle and bone, and it had to win two games in a row over an admirable opponent. It did.

What this team lacks in tradition, what it does not have in history, it makes up for with grit and will. It is a team of players with 80-pound hearts. It never blinked. It never backed up.

This is astonishing. Five years ago, the Lightning seemed a hundred years away from this moment. This was beyond sight, beyond sense. The Stanley Cup was going to come to Tampa Bay? Sure. And Wimbledon was going to relocate to Kenneth City.

The uninformed might suggest this is comparable to the Clippers winning the NBA title or the Cardinals winning the Super Bowl. It isn't. It's like the Milwaukee Brewers winning both.

Even now, as it looks over the conquered land of the NHL, even as it has redefined its image and erased its past, the Lightning should take time to remember. Only then can it truly appreciate its ascent.

It has been a dozen years now since the Lightning snuck into a town that was heartbroken over football and yearned for baseball. Admittedly, hockey took a great many of the natives by surprise. There were some who thought ice was something that came out of the front of the refrigerator, others who didn't know what color a blue line was.

All these years later, we remain heartbroken over the football team, and we still yearn for baseball. Ah, but bless a moose's jaw, we have become a hockey town. Anyone who doubts it isn't paying attention.

The St. Pete Times Forum was electric, one of the best buildings you could imagine, with fans contorting with every shot, with faces tortured and triumphant.

Shocking. Extraordinary. Staggering.

Hello, engraver? A few words for you.

One "c" in Andreychuk, okay? You know Andy. He's the guy who played hockey with Lord Stanley when they were both kids.

Two "o's" in Fedotenko. Got it? Fedotenko entered the playoffs looking like a man who cost too much in a trade. He ended it with two goals on the night, 12 in the playoffs, and from here, he looks as if he's on the edge of stardom.

Two "i's" in Khabibulin. Khabibulin faced more shots than Clyde Barrow on Monday night. He stood up to all but one. Hard to believe he was considered the weak link going into the playoffs, isn't it?

Richards? It's spelled just like it sounds. Simple guy, Richards. He simply has matured a decade since last year's playoffs. It was no fluke he won the Conn Smythe Trophy for being the playoff's most valuable player.

Don't capitalize the "C" in Lecavalier. Except when you call him a champion. It was Lecavalier's wonderful pass that led to Fedotenko's second goal.

St. Louis? Scratch his name in the hard way, the way he's made it in the league. Want to know the difference between St. Louis, the player, and St. Louis, the franchise? Marty has a won a cup.

Unbelievable. Remarkable. Astounding.

If the journey of a franchise seems like a long wait for you, it is not. It has been 43 seasons now since the Chicago Blackhawks won a Cup. It has been 37 for Toronto, 29 for Philadelphia, 22 for Boston. In 64 seasons, the Rangers have won just one, and it's been a decade since. The Blues have never won one. Nor have the Sabres, Kings or Canucks.

Tampa Bay? It grips the Cup as if it will never have to let it go.

As for next season, can you wait? During the playoffs, this looked like a team coming into its own. Compare your images now of Richards, of Fedotenko, of Kubina, even of Khabibulin, to what they were going into the playoffs.

In the meantime, let's build a ski lift, a bobsled run, a luge. Let's throw up some mountains, import some snow and build a dome over it all.

After all, this is the home of the wonderlads.

You know, the new kings of winter.

Unforgettable.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:01:17]


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