Tampa Bay Lightning fans gather around Amalie Arena to applaud in person

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TAMPA, Fla .– Good luck wishes have come from miles away – from small, hand-made signs placed in rural strawberry fields along Interstate 4 to electrical video boards on beaches near St. Petersburg. A season after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup in the National Hockey League – the team took to the ice Monday night at the Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa with the opportunity to repeat the feat.

And this Florida community was ready.

Thousands of fans braved the 90 degree heat in the early evening, arriving at the outdoor observation area of ​​the “Thunder Alley” arena, hours before the puck fell. Smiles and greetings, spontaneous cheers, frequent beer toast and lots and lots of Lightning Blue dominated the landscape. Fans who didn’t score playoff tickets were still thrilled to be there, in the moment, and watching the game live on huge outdoor video screens.

Although not a single drop of rain fell on this enthusiastic crowd, there were sometimes thundering noises in the distance. And lightning struck inside.

Tampa Bay began defending their title by handing it over to hockey’s most iconic opponent, the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 at the end of the night. Best of Seven Series Game 2 is in Tampa on Wednesday.

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“They said they would open at 5pm and we were there,” said Kurt Thoreson, 35, of Tampa, who scored a Lightning “pole position” – lining up 10 lawn chairs directly in front of the giant screens for the family and friends still at work and arriving later.

“It’s the Stanley Cup. It’s the championship, and we can finally watch it in person rather than having to watch it at home while they play in a bubble in Edmonton (Canada), ” Thoreson said. “We’re aiming for back-to-back wins, we’ve just had a Super Bowl win here, we’re ‘Champa Bay.’ We have to show up. ”

“It was frustrating not being able to make it last year, but now that we’re here in person we’re saying we have to win twice in a row so we can start over and be here with the team this time around.

Tampa Bay Lightning fans watch Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final from

Canadiens fans also head to Tampa as border still closed

Immediately alongside Thoreson’s group, a pair of fans clad in Montreal jerseys – “sweaters” if you’re Canadian – drank their first beer and sportingly endured mostly playful jabs as an opponent. The two friends, one in a Guy Lafleur sweater and the other in a Patrick Roy sweater, drove the 22-hour drive from Plattsburgh, New York, to the Canada-U.S. Border, to attend at the match.

Both Americans hold season tickets for Canadians, but due to COVID travel restrictions, they could not easily cross the border to watch games.

“We got those tickets on Saturday, packed our car and got out immediately,” said Jason Therrien, 37. “We just jumped in line to try to get tickets, waited in the queue and our number came up, so we had to.

“We had.”

After last year's playoffs unfolded in a bubble, Tampa Bay Lightning fans had the chance to watch Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final in person on Monday, June 28, 2021.

The Canadian supporters were not alone – the red noticeable in the Blue Bay. The DiPardo family – Toronto natives now living in Nashville and Atlanta – took selfies dressed in their Montreal jerseys and reminded those nearby that “in Canada, hockey is more than a sport, it’s more than a sport. is a religion ”.

“I’ve been here before,” said Andrew DiPardo, 24. “And the atmosphere really surprised me. The Lightning fans are amazing and they have a great team. But this is the first time in my life that Montreal has participated in the final so I hope to see them win. ”

As the family were taking photos, Damion “Gator” Dominguez, wearing a Lightning jersey holding a blue and white “champion’s belt” similar to a professional boxer’s belt – came over and asked for a photo with the family. in honor of the dueling championship. He proudly allowed other fans to wave his belt “ode” to the Stanley Cup champions.

Surrounded by Canadiens fans, Lightning fan Damon Dominguez poses with his blue and white 'championship belt'

“It has been a very difficult year with the pandemic going on, but what matters is that we have all stayed together and now we have the chance to cheer on our team here,” Dominguez said.

As the outdoor seating area began to fill up with lawn chairs and ticket holders began to line up to enter the arena, a series of spontaneous gatherings erupted nearby – large groups of fans beating drums. and waving huge “Go Bolts” flags.

Besides the crowds, Lightning legends Brian Bradley and Vinny Lacavalier led their families inside the arena, smiling and acknowledging fans as they walked with their families. Two Canadian broadcasters filmed live nearby, capturing the electric atmosphere. Due to quarantine and travel restrictions, they had to choose between working games only in Florida or working games only in Canada.

“We’re here,” the cameraman offered with a smile.

For many, fans’ first chance to root for a recent Tampa title in person

It was indicative of the good atmosphere of the evening. Being able to cheer on the team in person, create that championship feeling is something this region missed three times last year with the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl and the Tampa Bay Rays. playing in the World Series – minus the full-fledged hometown crowd.

“I think the fans are bringing something that an empty arena can’t,” said Hunter Jones, 22, who came from Lakeland with his father Kevin.

“I’m excited for them this year because it’s so much more exciting to see the Lightning play in person and experience it all with other fans and have the opportunity to cheer on our favorite team, especially like today ‘ hui because of the atmosphere in the area during a playoff game and especially the Stanley Cup final, said McKenna Hampson, 17, also of Lakeland.

Game 1: A Lightning fan holds up a sign for Tampa Bay star Brayden Point.

The feeling was undeniably present. Sport has a unique and tangible way of uniting people, providing escape and helping to heal. In this area, where three of his professional sports teams all excelled in a time when fans couldn’t be there, this Stanley Cup experience feels like a social antidote.

“From where we were last year, it was nice to see them win from a TV standpoint, but there is that feeling of ‘wanting to be here’,” said Eric Hess, 53, holder. a season pass to the Lightning, Tampa. “From the moment they won the Stanley Cup you start to think, when could that happen again, if ever. We never know.”

“To be here now, we are so happy.

His wife Robin, smiled and leaned in, “You can just tell everyone is so excited to be here. You just want to be a part of it.”

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Canadiens at the Lightning 8 p.m., NBC SN


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