Stanley Gets A Tan In Tampa

It’s been more than a week now that the Stanley Cup has needed serious sunscreen. Presumably all of Canada — and perhaps Philadelphia — have now accepted that the Cup is in the Tampa Bay area, where hockey will never be more popular than football or NASCAR, where Channelside Drive will never morph into a frozen tundra and where the Forum will never be an NHL cathedral.

But the Cup does accompany the best hockey team in North America, and the Lightning has been embraced for the classy, hard-working winners they are. No team had more skilled players than the Bolts or more resilience. None had better coaches or a savvier front office. Tampa might as well be Toronto-South right now. A lot of locals may not yet know a poke check from a pork chop, but the Stanley Cup flat-out belongs here.

Moreover, people who know will tell you this run to the Finals may not be an aberration — as it was with other expansion franchises in non-traditional markets such as Carolina or Anaheim. This is no one-hit wonder. The team was good last year — and then kept on getting better. A Sun Belt Cup may not be a novelty for long. One prominent ex-skeptic, ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose, now thinks playoff runs into late spring could become commonplace around here.

“This team is deep and it’s young,” Melrose noted after the Calgary series. “The future is very bright for Tampa Bay.”

That future, of course, is clouded by variables ranging from a September labor lockout to a rash of injuries to key players. For the here and now, however, this much was evident:

*What just happened here is about as good as it gets in the context of sports. For two months, culminating in climactic series against Philadelphia and finally Calgary, the Tampa Bay Lightning was able to give fans and bandwagon passengers a most welcome respite from, well, you know. All the reminders of what’s wrong with the world. No need to repeat them here. The timing couldn’t have been better. Certainly beats “Day After Tomorrow” for escape.

*Sports success — with its collective psychology and vicarious achievement — has the unique capacity to rally a region, galvanize a city and unite its residents. More than, say, getting a new art museum out of the ground or bringing reclaimed water on line — as important as those projects are. It just does. To quote the legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant: “It’s hard to rally around the Math Department.”

And this metro area, where a bay can sometimes seem like a gulf, can benefit more than most. To that end, last week’s Bolt’s parade and rally also reserved roles for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst. Nice touch. We are neighborhoods and cities –and a regional market.

*While national TV ratings were weak, the Finals played well across Canada and were televised to more than 200 countries. The media crush was unlike anything since the last Super Bowl. It was priceless exposure for the area, and the chamber of commerce and the convention and visitors’ bureau felt blessed — as did hoteliers and restaurateurs. Even contrarian economists would acknowledge that there was significant outside money injected into the local economy.

*It couldn’t have happened to a better bunch. Too often sports is about the spoiled, especially at the pro level. Hockey players are largely from blue-collar backgrounds and haven’t forgotten their roots. It’s not a hip-hop culture. They remember what it was like to have Stanley Cup dreams and look up to the Wayne Gretskys. They’re more than accommodating to fans — especially kids. These are uniformly high-character guys.

Before the Bucs had their rings, they were already attracting notoriety with a weapon-waving, road-rage incident and a domestic assault. Don’t expect to see Lightning players showing up on police blotters in the off season.

*As with the Bucs’ Super Bowl victory, the ad hoc post-game celebration and the parade-rally went off without incident. Tampa — unlike Los Angeles, Oakland, Detroit, Denver and a number of other big league cities — can be Titletown without trashing itself.

*Kudos to the Bolts’ organization for prominently recognizing all its support personnel — from trainers to equipment managers — at the parade and Forum celebration that followed. It reinforced the club mantra that, indeed, “It’s all about team.” General Manager Jay Feaster, when he wasn’t doing his best Howard Dean impersonation at the podium, put it succinctly when he described the Bolts as 25 guys who “played for the logo on the front, not the name on the back.”

*To the uninitiated, the chorus of cheers that greeted Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin at the post-parade celebration might have sounded like booing. What were bona fide boos, however, were the sounds emanating in response to the name of Gov. Jeb Bush, who issued a proclamation in honor of the Lightning. So much for that respite from reality.

*Head Coach John Tortorella directly and appropriately acknowledged the world apart from sports. He prefaced his accolades and expressions of gratitude to players, families and fans by saluting America’s armed forces, including personnel at MacDill AFB, some of whom were in attendance. The “real stuff,” he said. Another classy touch.

*The taciturn Brad Richards, MVP of the playoffs, summed up the mood with a comment that could not have been scripted better by Mayor Pam Iorio or her civic songwriter: “We love playing here, and we love living here.”

Cue: “We Are the Champions.”

And cue Jay Feaster again: “Yeeeeaaaah!”

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