I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. As Tampa Bay Lightning fans, we are part of an organization that, in the opinion of many, sits well above the rest. Part of the reason for that class is because we, as fans, are truly a part of it. The Lightning are really going out of their way to include the fans like never before. Even the compaign this year, ‘Be The Thunder‘, is all about the fans. From the top of the organization (Jeff Vinik, Tod Leiweke, Steve Griggs, Martha Fuller) to the Hockey Operations Staff (Steve Yzerman, Julien BriseBois, Pat Verbeek, Al Murray, Tom Mulligan, Mike Poirier, Ray Thill, Rob Kennedy, Clay Roffer), to the players, to the people who work at The Forum, the team is top notch.
I’m not saying that the franchise wasn’t classy or fan oriented before, but since Jeff Vinik purchased the team their reputation here in Tampa has gone way up. Every time a new owner comes into town there’s promises made and visions expressed. This time those promises and visions are coming true. Last year was exciting. We didn’t know what to expect! In the off season they found ways to stay connected with us through out the summer. For me personally there was no real state of off season hockey withdrawals because there was always something going on. During the playoffs they hosted watch parties on the plaza of The St. Pete Times Forum and broadcasted the games up on the side of the parking garage. They had give aways, concerts, and discounted food and drinks.
The connection strengthened during the playoffs, but the bond really formed on that day when they flew in from Boston after being eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals. When they flew out to Boston for game 7, the offices organized a way for the fans to see them off and show support. Over 500 of us turned out to the airport, wearing blue, and formed a giant human lightning bolt. They said that the guys were fighting for window space so they could see us. When the returned, hundreds of us greeted the airplane to show them support and thank them for an awesome year. Some of them drove past with windows down, stopping to sign autographs and thanking us for being there. Most of the team got out of their cars, walked down the long line of fans that were standing on the side of the road, and took the time to meet each and every one of us personally. No security separating them, no player vs fan egos. That day we were all united as one. Bolt Nation. They returned their appreciation with hugs and tears on both sides. It was hot and I know that they had to be tired after that hard game 7 and long flight home. Nate Thompson walked the whole line on both sides with a boot on his leg! And Steven Stamkos after his nose injury. They weren’t made to stop. But they did. They could have just waved and driven past like superstars in a parade. WE came out to thank THEM, instead, THEY ended up thanking US. The players and especially Coach Boucher made us, the fans, feel like the celebrities that day. It was amazing! And a day I will never forget.
Shortly after the season ended we planned a draft party at a local hockey themed restaurant. Since it wasn’t a big draft year for The Lightning with having the 27th pick, the organization didn’t plan a draft watch party themselves. We promoted ours on Facebook just among our friends. The offices contacted me and they really made the party into a party! We couldn’t say it was an official Tampa Bay Lightning party, because it wasn’t. They carried our completely fan based party to a whole different level by putting it up on the official Facebook page and tweeting it out from their Twitter account. We had over 50 people pack the tiny restaurant. The Lightning donated t-shirts, rally drums, and towels for us to give away. They sent a media relations representative to stay with us for the party and Tweet pictures from it. She had us fill out a paper with any ideas that we might have because they wanted to hear what the fans really want straight from the source. Us. To prove how they actually do listen to the fans, is when they revealed the new uniforms, they didn’t have a bolt on the shorts. Several fans spoke up and said hey! We want the bolt back! With that and the words of Phil Esposito, the bolt was replaced. The highlight of the night was when Thunderbug crashed the party! To the Tampa Bay Lightning staff, I would like to thank you again for making that night special.
The Lightning Foundation does various things around the community. They acknowledge a ‘community hero’, a person who has worked hard to help others and charity at home games. They donate $50,000 to a charity of that person’s choice. They do hands on work for things like Treats For Troops and Habitat For Humanity. A couple of weeks ago I was volunteering with Operation Helping Hand by serving dinner to wounded soldiers and their families at the local VA hospital. To my surprise the Ice Girls, Brittany Zion, and many other Lightning staff members were there working. Thunderbug even helped by taking the desert tray around. I founded a group called The Lady Bolts. It’s a place for women to feel comfortable talking hockey and to be educated about the sport, but more than that, it’s a group of female Lightning fans who want to do good in the community. We are currently having a drive to collect hats for children with cancer. The Tampa bay lightning is donating 20 brand new hats to us! Several of the players and staff have already donated hats personally as well.
Brittany Zion, Dolly, Thunderbug, and George at the James A Haley VA Hospital with Operation Helping Hand.
They had a Lightning Launch party to kick off the season for us. They announced the roster for the 2011-2012 season. The players came from the audience and walked through the people, greeting fans along the way, to the stage. They even had The Steve Miller band in concert for us! Tonight for the first game of the season, because it was a road trip, they hosted a watch party at a favorite restaurant in Tampa. The Ice Girls were there, Brittany Zion, Thunderbug, and Dave Andreychuk. They had give aways and pumped the crowd for the game… it was really fun. And again, I would like to thank the Lightning for organizing these events for us so we could be part of the beginning of the season!
Yesterday Mr. Vinik received a commendation from the Hillsborough county Board of County commissioners for his partnership and dedication to the citizens of Hillsborough County. It is well deserved. Jeff Vinik is really making a difference in our community. I am proud to be a Tampa bay Lightning fan and am humbled to be part of a true world class organization. I am the thunder. You are the thunder. WE ARE THE THUNDER! (I encourage you to click on the links embedded in this article, as there are some great photo galleries and videos from the events spoken about.)