How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Game
by Brian Beitz
Yesterday, Brian began his exciting tale as he ventured into the depths of Gator country to learn all he could about the elusive Floridian hockey fans. If you missed yesterday’s piece, see it here before reading on. When we left off, the puck was about to drop at the Tampa Bay Times Forum…
The linesman (that’s the stripey guy, Floridians) skates out to the
centre center dot and the puck drops to loud cheers and hollers. Then, the strangest thing happens. A mere 7 seconds into the game, Brian Lee gets called for an interference penalty. That in itself would not be strange—it’s important that refs call benign penalties early in the first. You put the whistles away later in the game as the play becomes more important. No, the strange thing is that the crowd continues to cheer. What are you doing, Lightning fans? The refs called that weak penalty now? Obviously it’s because Toronto’s in town. Don’t you see? They’re conspiring against your team, your people, your livelihood. Hold on, they’re showing the penalty on the jumbotron. Oh. Well that was a flagrant interference penalty. How could Brian Lee be so stupid? He’s 90 feet from his own net! Don’t keep cheering, you yokels! Get after him! He’s new to the team. You don’t owe him anything!
Nevermind. Down to killing the penalty. Good thing “we” have Dustin Tokarski in net. It was thanks to his great play that we took down Boston two days ago, earning him his first NHL win. He’s clearly ready for the big show. Trade Roloson and tell Garon to settle in on that bench. Tokarski is the goalie of the future for the Tampa Bay Ligh–Ugh. Leafs score just over a minute into the powerplay on a wrister from John-Michael Liles. The crowd quietens. Good. I hoist my half-full can of Bud Light, ready to pitch it at Tokarski. What a useless waste that guy is. He clearly has no place in this league. I look around to make sure everyone’s watching my beer-tossing ability, sharply honed by watching Canucks games for the last 18 years, but everyone has started cheering again. They’re… They’re… urging their team on? But they’ve failed you, Tampa locals! One goal down with less than two minutes played. They’re on pace to let in 40 goals tonight, a record-setting loss. No wonder franchises in the South struggle; nobody’s threatening the lives of the players. This isn’t a game, people.
The slaughter continues. Over the next 31 minutes of play, the Leafs pot two more goals and take a commanding 3-0 lead. The jumbotron shows Dwayne Roloson warming up at the bench. Thank the Lord! Tokarski’s coming out. Rolie’s had a tough year, but anything’s better than this guy. The crowd, still inexplicably happy (to the point where I almost believe they’re enjoying themselves) begins to clap. Here we go: a Bronx cheer. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but it’s also the deadliest weapon in an NHL fan’s arsenal. Once again I raise my can, thankful that I forego all bathroom breaks at hockey games as I now have something with which to fill my projectile. But I’m mistaken once again. This isn’t a Bronx cheer… It’s a real one! They’re thanking their rookie for his hard work?! But that was a game ago! This is now. I just don’t understand…
After two periods have completed, and Roloson has stoned all Leafs shots faced since taking over in net (I like the look of this guy. He’s clearly finding his form. Lead us to the playoffs, Old Wonder!) the Lightning organization cruelly play a tribute to Martin St. Louis for playing in his milestone 850th NHL game—all but 69 (the most important of hockey numbers) of those for Tampa Bay—and to Stamkos for being the 6th player ever to have two 50-goal seasons before his 23rd birthday. Thanks for rubbing it in, Lightning. Marty has managed 822 points for this franchise and he can’t grab one measly apple against Toronto? And don’t get me started on Stamkos. 50 goals this season? What have you done for me lately, Stammer? T-t-too bad you can’t make it 51! I lower my head and attempt to subtly cover the large “26” emblazoned on the front of my newly acquired cap. Amazingly, all around me, fans rise to their feet and applaud their stars. A neighbouring fan pats me on the shoulder, congratulating me on my hat as though Marty made it especially for me. While I can’t ignore the lack of justice facing the underperforming players, I find myself being caught up in the emotion of the natives.
The lightning fires from the coil again to mark the start of the 3rd. Everyone’s cheering, Lightning and Leafs fans alike. I stand and cheer with the crowd. Who cares if we’re losing? We’re going to give them a show! Stamkos runs around hitting everything that moves out there; St. Louis is denied on the doorstep time and again but will not quit; Phaneuf climbs on the ice and we boo him, because #suckitPhaneuf. Big hits, big shots, and non-stop end-to-end action. I don’t worry about the team not scoring, that we will probably miss the playoffs, or who has the best abs. I watch the players but don’t punish them for every error. It’s like playing Monopoly with children and not charging them when they land on my property. No wonder they won a Cup! Everyone thought they’d cry if they lost. I’ll let the fans live in this naive world because it makes them so damned happy. I even envy them a little.
Then, when I thought it couldn’t get any better, nor the crowd any louder, St. Louis rips a one-timer past Reimer with 25 seconds left to play, destroying his shutout bid. The crowd erupts! Fans are on their feet; beers are raised (and not in a threatening manner); everywhere, fans rub my hat and grab my shoulders. The buzzer sounds to end the game and we stream out of the arena. It’s 81°F outside (for you Canadians, that’s nice). But nobody goes home. They head for the stage and continue the party out front of the arena. To look at them, you’d never know that their team just lost soundly to a club outside of the playoffs looking in, that they just made the chances of making the playoffs even slimmer. Win or lose, they’re gonna booze, and man, it looks like fun.
I lie in bed and reflect on my venture into the primitive world of southern hockey fandom. I left this world behind on my ride back to the hotel and was sure to check the Corsi ratings of each player when I got to my room, feeling the hockey awareness washing away the exhilaration like a cold shower. But still, I can’t quite get the Lightning fanbase out of my head. Sure, they may not be a traditional hockey market; they may not live and die with every play; heck, they may not be real hockey fans at all. But damned if they don’t think they are and have a great time while they’re at it.
Kudos to you, Lightning fans. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from you after all… Nah!