This is the first of a four-part series written by fans of the four conference finalists. We begin with SI.com's executive editor Ryan Hunt explaining how much the Lightning mean to him and his life.
Ruslan Fedotenko woke up my five-week-old daughter.
O.K., O.K., it was me. But Fedotenko was the catalyst. When he scored the second of his two Game 7 goals in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals—the wrister from the slot that would be the eventual Cup-winner; Gary Thorne’s call still resonates Score! He’s got another one! FE-DO-TEN-KO!—it was all but impossible to stifle my reaction. I let out a rebel yell that rivaled Lightning radio announcer Dave Mishkin’s trademark screams.
Upstairs, half the house away, so did my daughter. The rush of leading 2–0 in Game 7 of the final, 30 minutes or so away from a title, quickly was replaced by the angry glares of my wife.
“But, honey, it’s Game 7!”
We put the TiVo on pause, and put Amelia back to sleep. Nothing like being in the doghouse when your team is about to win its first Cup.
I celebrated silently. (Mishkin, to his credit, did not.)
The story, though, begins with Wayne Gretzky. (Don’t they all?)
Growing up in Florida, I didn’t know much about hockey until Gretzky and his Kings came to play the Penguins in the Florida Suncoast Dome in 1990. Mario Lemieux didn’t play, but an 18-year-old rookie named Jagr did. There were more than 28,000 fans in attendance. I was hooked. Those games work, NHL.
Three months later, the area had a team.
Within three years, I was camping outside the now-renamed Thunderdome to score one of the 99 available $99 season tickets they offered. ($2.41 a game!) You couldn’t beat those seats. Even the view—upper level of the dome, behind the goal—wasn’t bad. I learned a lot about the sport watching it from that angle.
Those early seasons were unforgettable, even if the hockey largely was.
In truth, the majority of the Lightning’s existence has been cloaked in comedy. Who can forget the mysterious Japanese ownership group, led by a man (Takashi Okubo) whom at one time many questioned whether he even existed? There was the smudged fax debacle over the Chris Gratton signing. The four consecutive 50-loss seasons (an NHL first). There was Barry Melrose.
But, hey, I did get to watch Gretzky … except it was his brother Brent, who scored just one goal in 13 career games between 1993-95. Little-known trivia: No NHL brothers have combined for more career points than the Gretzkys (2,681: 2,587 regular-season points for Wayne; four for Brent).
Oh, but there have been memorable players and moments, too. From Brian Bradley and Daren Puppa to Vinny, Marty and Khabi to Stammer and the Triplets. Chris Kontos’s four goals in the franchise’s debut. Alex Selivanov’s OT winner to beat the Flyers in the Bolts’ first playoff home game in 1996, an event that still ranks among the top five most exhilarating sporting events I’ve ever attended.
There was the comeback from 0-2 down to beat the Capitals for their first playoff series win in 2003.
And, of course, the magic of 2004.
Looking back—especially considering how worked up I historically have gotten during games—I don’t know how I survived the 2004 postseason. How did I handle not one, but two Game 7s with a newborn? She was born 27 hours after the Bolts finished off their second-round sweep of the Canadiens. The doctors, graciously, wheeled in a TV and let us watch Game 4 from my wife’s hospital room. The sweep allowed me to get some rest (but little sleep) before the next round.
For me, it’s fitting how many milestones in my life also have a tie with the Lightning. My 18th birthday present from my parents? Tickets to my first Lightning game, against Joe Sakic and the Quebec Nordiques, in 1992. The first time my then-girlfriend, now-wife met my parents? Again, another Lightning game. One of my first Christmas gifts to my wife was tickets on the glass to a Bolts-Wings game. Hey, she asked for that, and who was I to say no?
But now, I work in New York City. Came here for this job. Love it here. I’ve been here for more than a decade. Still, people are puzzled when they learn how closely I still follow the Lightning. Why the Lightning?, they always ask.
There’s something special about being part of something since Day 1. NYC is my home now, but my heart and soul never will leave my hometown—or its teams. Growing up in the Tampa Bay area, you get accustomed to fans from the opposing team’s town invading your building(s). I just think of myself as a small part of the exchange program. It’s only fair, right?
That’s why this series will be unlike any other for me. I have so many Rangers (and Devils, too) friends, too many to count. The storylines between the players alone—the Ryan Callahan-Martin St. Louis trade; how both Boyles (Brian and Dan) are playing their former teams; Anton Stralman to start—make this professionally enticing. Personally, my attachment to both cities only raises the internal stakes.
But it has been difficult not to think back to 2004 given how the first half of the playoffs has started.
It’s funny how things come full circle. When Tyler Johnson scored his out-of-nowhere, buzzer-beating goal to steal Game 3 against Montreal, the goal elicited a similar guttural reaction as it was Fedotenko scored.
Only this time, the glares weren’t from my wife. They were from my daughter.
”Dad, you’re lucky I wasn’t asleep yet. You would have woke me up, and it’s a school night.”