30 Games, 30 Nights, 30,000 Miles. Now I’m ready for 30 hours of sleep! I arrived home after midnight and slept for 13 hours. You have no idea how good it felt not to hear an alarm clock today!
Yesterday was my 30th and final game back home in Tampa Bay as the Lightning hosted New Jersey. The Devils have eliminated the Lightning from the playoffs twice in the past five years, but there isn’t the same animosity toward them as there is when the Flyers or Panthers come to town. To make a long story short, The Devils won 3-2, although the Lightning had the tying goal disallowed on a review from the war room in Toronto. I must admit, they made the right call as players, goalies and sticks crashed into the net, but somehow the puck never crossed the line.
The Lightning have been supportive of my trip from the beginning, and they invited me on to the ice before the game to say the invocation. I mean the three magic words you hear before every game in Tampa (and Minnesota too), “Let’s Play Hockey!” Standing out there while the anthem is playing and looking up at the thousands of fans sent tingles down my spine, and I imagine the players feel the same way.
Similar to the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, most of the fans enter the St. Pete Times through one main entrance, which adds to the allure of any building. After a big win, there’s no better feeling than walking down the twin giant stairways into the plaza along with thousands of cheering fans. The open plaza is filled with activities for kids of all ages before the game. There’s always a live band playing, and I remember bopping to Cheap Trick out there before a playoff game a couple of years ago. There’s even a snow machine set up on the roof of the building that sprinkles snowflakes over the plaza, a nice touch when its 80 degrees outside.
The Lightning invited a bunch of friends and I to sit in Club Level seats and treated us to dinner before the game. Most arenas have a fancy restaurant where privileged ticket-holders can eat buffet-style before the game. In Pittsburgh, I ate at the Igloo Club which had potato and mushroom croquettes to die for. Tampa Bay’s buffet restaurant is called Medallions, but this buffet is no tacky Golden Corral, we’re talking succulent roast beef, grilled sea bass, tasty veal medallions and a huge selection of sugary desserts. Plus the biggest, freshest shrimp I’d ever tasted. After an hour of non-stop gorging, Bronner, Carmen, Cary, Heather, Larry, Mike, Paul, Paula, Susan and I were stuffed, But fear not, I deliberately saved room for a hot dog later in the game!
Inside, the St. Pete Times Forum was plainer than I remembered, especially compared to themed buildings like those in Dallas and Minnesota. I had my 30 Games jersey made up at the customized jersey booth inside the arena before my trip started, and the guys at the booth greeted me with high fives as they were so excited that their handiwork had been shown off all across the country.
The scoreboard in Washington was the best I'd seen so far, but the one above center ice in Tampa is simply spectacular. They shoot all the in-arena footage in HD and it's like watching a movie on the huge wraparound scoreboard. But with the HD cameras, that show every wrinkle and imperfection, I probably looked like Rod Brind'Amour when they zoomed in on me as I did the "Let's Play Hockey" thing! So I won't show that sight, I'll show you this good-looking view instead.
New this year in Tampa is the Five Guys stand. This chain started in Washington and serves burgers that are too greasy for my liking, but I love their bacon cheese dog! They slice the dog open before they grill it, and the bacon is super crispy. Mmmm mmmm good. The St. Pete Times Forum has a number of name brand concessionaires. Only in Tampa can you grab a medium rare steak from Outback and eat it in the comfort of your seat.
On my trip, I saw eight Tampa Bay games, and the Lightning went 1-7. That was disappointing, but I’m sure I had more fun watching the games live and experiencing each arena than if I’d had to watch those depressing games at home on TV.
I haven’t mentioned Vincent Lecavalier as much as I should have. He’s the leading scored in the league and for those of you, especially in the Western Conference, who haven’t seen him play in person, you must buy tickets when the Lightning come to town. Vinny has matured into the most solid player in the league. You can see on TV that he has wonderful hands and a wicked wrist shot, but you can’t appreciate how strong he is without seeing him in person. The goal he scored in Carolina on Friday night while shrugging off Bret Hedican who was trying to tackle him like a linebacker was simply unbelievable!
My trip is over, but I’ll continue to share some thoughts on this site for a while. I’m going to go through my notes and rank the teams and their arenas in a number of categories, share a few more stories that I didn’t have time to write about, and thank a number of wonderful people who made this trip special.
Planning, traveling and watching 30 Games In 30 Nights has been the most gratifying challenge I’ve ever attempted in my life, and to have succeeded is a sensational feeling. I have had a smile on my face every night, still feel like a million bucks, and look forward to one day being the doddering guy telling my 30 Games In 30 Nights story to my grandchildren, great-grandchildren and any one else in the old folks home who will listen!