Fans forgive and forget

LIGHTNING 5, PANTHERS 0: A crowd of 18,288 welcomes the team home for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup.

Published September 25, 2005

TAMPA - Perhaps a few years ago, back in Jacques Demers' days when there was a revolving door to the dressing room and the Lightning was losing 50 games a season, Saturday night would have been different.

Perhaps the crowd would have been thin, apathetic. Sore over a sorry team and the cancellation of a season because of a labor dispute, local hockey fans, what few there might have been, might have treated Saturday's preseason home opener as something to do only if there was nothing else to do.

Instead, Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum became a rocking event. The crowd stood. They cheered. The oohed and aahed.

But, mostly, they seemed to forgive.

Showing no acrimony from hockey taking a 15-month hiatus, a crowd of 18,288 jammed the Times Forum and welcomed the Lightning back home for the first time since Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup on June 7, 2004.

And they were given quite the treat as the Lightning looked every bit like defending champions with a 5-0 victory against the Florida Panthers.

Painted on the ice near both blue lines in dark blue letters was a message from the team to its faithful:

Thank You Fans!

It hardly seemed necessary considering the crowd's reaction picked up right where it left off that June night more than a year ago.

A boisterous crowd gave the Lightning a standing ovation when the team hit the ice prior to the game. When lineups were introduced before the opening faceoff, they cheered wildly for Vinny Lecavalier, got louder for captain Dave Andreychuk, then shook the building with screams when MVP Marty St. Louis was announced.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that the fans have stayed with us," Andreychuk said. "I run into people all the time and they still talk about the experience they had watching us win the Cup. That's not an easy thing to get rid of."

The fans' willingness to forgive and forget has not gone as smoothly in other non-traditional markets. In some places, such as Raleigh, N.C., fans have apparently turned their attention to other sports and other things. Only a couple thousand bothered to show up for the Hurricanes-Lightning game Thursday night.

In some Canadian cites, fans have returned, but Andreychuk said they haven't forgotten. Even after the lockout, he heard angry mutterings from fans on the streets in Ontario.

But Tampa Bay appears to have put the past in the past. More than 90 percent of season-ticket holders from the Cup season renewed their tickets. In 2003-04, the Lightning had approximately 10,500 season tickets. That number jumped to 13,500 right before the lockout.

And now? The Lightning, counting full and partial season-tickets, estimate its season-ticket base to be about 14,000.

"In a lot of other markets, there is still a lot of bitterness there," Lightning forward Chris Dingman said. "I know there had to be disappointment here. The fans had so many lean years and then the team finally wins and we go away for a year.

"But there was never any animosity between the players on this team and ownership here. That helped. And the organization did a great job while the lockout was going on."

The players could not celebrate with the fans, but general manager Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella went on the speaking circuit lugging the Cup behind them. The public relations department held Cup parties for corporate sponsors, special groups and fans. One day the Cup would appear at a bar on the beach. The next day it would show up at a nursing home. The next day it would show up ... somewhere.

In a strange way, the lockout helped the Lightning celebrate with the Cup for 12 months more than previous champions could.

"Winning the Cup certainly helped," Dingman said. "It's easier for fans to support a winning team. But there is a bond here, it seems, between the fans and this team."

The bond appears as strong as ever.