TAMPA - On the way to the biggest game of his life, Scott Vargas' stomach started cramping. He couldn't finish his Wendy's hamburger. "Dad, I'm sick," he said.
His dad, Luis, laughed. What kid wouldn't be nervous on a night like this? "You'll be great," he told his son.
Sure. Only 22,000 people would be watching while he skated across the ice. What if he tripped? What if he fell? What if he dropped that shovel full of snow before he got back into the chute?
Scott shouldered his gym bag and followed his dad through the packed parking lot Monday night. They threaded through the throngs heading toward the St. Pete Times Forum, then turned left at the giant blowup hockey player. At 7 p.m., they met the other boys at Gate D.
"We're glad you all could be here," a Lightning official said. "You all have your skates? Your helmets?"
The three boys nodded, wide-eyed. "This is wild," Scott said, filing through a security check point where a woman wanded him and his dad. "It's the biggest game in the entire history of Florida hockey and I get to be here - skating!"
Scott is 12. Because he can't grow a playoff beard, he asked his orthodontist to put Lightning-blue bands on his braces.
Scott lives in Lithia with his parents and two little brothers. He plays trumpet in his middle school band, recently made National Junior Honor Society and is a defenseman on the traveling hockey team "No Bull" out of Brandon. He has been ice skating since before kindergarten. He has loved the Lightning even longer.
"We took him to his first game at the Thunderdome when he was 11/2," his dad said. "It's been hockey, hockey, hockey ever since."
Scott thought he would be watching the last game of the Stanley Cup final at home. But Monday afternoon, his dad called from work. The Lightning wanted him to help shovel ice off the rink again.
"Tonight?" Scott shouted. "You mean it?"
"Tonight," his dad said. "You're skating in Game 7."
A couple of months ago, Scott filled out a form at a Subway shop, one for kids who wanted to help scoop ice off the rink during a Lightning game. More than 150 skaters between ages 6 and 16 got to be on the rink during games this year. The kids scraped the ice during all three TV timeouts of the first period, then watched the rest of the game from the stands.
Scott did a regular-season game against the Capitals and thought that was the best night of his life.
Then, Monday, David Cole called again. He's the Lightning's director of fan development. He wanted Scott and two other boys back for the big game.
"I thought he was going to pass out when I told him," Scott's dad said. "Even to shovel ice in the Stanley Cup finals, it's priceless."
So Scott packed his gym bag with the yellow Subway jersey he had gotten at the Capitals game and the Mission Amp Fly skates he wears for his games. He added a black Nike helmet with American flag stickers. He made a poster, "Keep the Cup in Florida."
A half-hour before the puck dropped, he stood in the Zamboni chute, behind a wall of camera crews, watching as the Lightning slapped practice shots into an empty goal.
"I want to be out there when I grow up," Scott said. "(Martin) St. Louis has given me a lot of hope. He shows everyone you don't have to be big to be good."
Scott is 4 feet 4, a head shorter than some of the guys on his team. He weighs 84 pounds, 20 pounds less than the next-smallest player. "But he's scrappy," his dad bragged. "He can hang with the high schoolers."
Scott has already picked out his college. Minnesota, Michigan or Boston. "I've got to go to the best hockey school I can."
He wants to play in the NHL. Any team. Okay, mostly the Lightning.
But first, he has to shovel that snow.
Scott, a true Floridian, has never seen real snow. His dad, who grew up in Puerto Rico, saw it for the first time last year, on a business trip to Colorado. "I'm not as nervous now," he said 10 minutes before the first faceoff. "I mean, I've been skating for so long, I don't worry about that." Then he looked up at the packed arena, heard the thundering crowd, felt the throb. "It's just, all those people," he told his dad. "All those people looking at me."
When Calgary was assessed the first penalty, Scott laced up his skates. When the Flames went back to full strength, he buckled on his helmet. And when play stopped for the first TV timeout, Scott glided effortlessly onto the ice, proudly pushing his shovel in front of him.
He cleared the ice in front of the Lightning box. Then he braved a sea of red jerseys to scoop up for Calgary. And as he skated back to the Zamboni chute, in front of the sold-out arena, he held that shovel full of snow high in front of him - and didn't trip all the way to the gray plastic trash can.