St. Petersburg Times
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Win or lose, fans came to play

Published June 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

TAMPA - It was supposed to be a hockey game. Tampa turned it into Mardi Gras.

And that was before the Lightning even won the Stanley Cup.

Monday's sun began to fall and the people flowed like rivers down Jefferson, Pierce and Morgan streets, headed for the St. Pete Times Forum.

Win or lose, the fans were going to party.

They came by car, by motorcycle, by boat, by foot. They tailgated from the back of pickup trucks. They wore shiny beads. They filled the bars along Channelside Drive.

Jack Brady came from Inverness with his son, Bill. He wanted to let people know that Citrus County is "in the house!" He couldn't afford a ticket to the big game, so he forked over $25 for parking, "just to be here."

On the teeming plaza in front of the Times Forum, a rock band played and rap music blared from 6-foot speakers.

Young women in skin-tight shirts and short-short skirts sold beer and cigars. Gray-haired men showed up with their faces painted blue, and beach balls floated over the crowd.

The people were loud and lively and raucous and, depending on whom you talked to, a little tipsy.

Then the game started.

* * *

While the Times Forum raged like a beehive Monday night, the buzz of Game 7 reached throughout Tampa Bay.

At the Falkenberg Road Jail, whoops went up in Pod 4-A when the Lightning scored during the first period.

"Go Lightning, man!" said inmate William DeJesus, 23, giving a thumbs up.

Inmates at Hillsborough's jails normally get only public television, but Sheriff Cal Henderson decided to let them watch the final Lightning game, much as inmates were allowed to watch the 2003 Super Bowl.

About a third of the 72 inmates in the pod gathered around two overhead color TVs.

Inmate Kevin Palmer, 38, has never ice skated in his life. But he perched himself in front of the television.

"I just like seeing them fight," he said. "It's the manly part of it."

* * *

At Sport Zone 2 in New Port Richey, an inline hockey rink, a dozen fans and their kids showed up to soak in the ambiance and eat pizza.

"People say Tampa's not a hockey town, but these guys have whipped the area into a frenzy," said rink owner Jim Grassini, 51.

And with that, the fans gathered around a television and erupted at the sight of Ruslan Fedotenko's first-period goal.

* * *

John Silva, manager of Byg Kat wine bar and tavern in Safety Harbor, doesn't usually do business on Mondays. But he and his son opened the doors.

They set up three TVs and let in several customers.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Silva said. "Who would think Florida would go to the Stanley Cup?"

Much less win it.

* * *

Back in downtown Tampa, two worlds - the throng inside the Times Forum and throng outside - exploded with joy when the Lightning won.

Thousands of ticketless fans had spent the evening watching the game projected onto the wall of a nearby parking garage. The fire marshal closed off the plaza with temporary metal barricades for safety, and disgruntled fans shouted at police officers, several of whom wielded batons.

Ultimately, police reported few arrests but said they charged one man with striking a law enforcement horse. Also, fans tried unsuccessfully to overturn a radio station truck.

None of it mattered in the end.

Drunk with victory, fans formed a makeshift parade on Channelside Drive as people spilled out of the arena.

They waved extra editions of newspapers. They shouted and screamed and shrieked. They pounded Thunderstix, creating a ceaseless, blissful beat.

Fireworks exploded. Car horns pierced the night air. Joy, everywhere.

Glenn Street and Louis Kelemen, Flames fans from Calgary, sat outside the Times Forum after the game shaking hands with at least a half-dozen Lightning fans, the hands of strangers.

"Hey man, congratulations," Kelemen said. "Hard-fought series."

Hard fought, indeed. And a party hard earned. Midnight came, and Monday turned to Tuesday, and a city kept right on celebrating.

And every few minutes, lightning flashed off in the distance.

- Staff writers Graham Brink, Tom Zucco, Saundra Amrhein, Josh Zimmer, Katherine Lee, Leonora Minai, Alex Leary and Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 12:35:46]

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