Becoming the Thunder: My son's first Tampa Bay Lightning game

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Picture Credit: James Blevins

Now obviously, me being a writer for Bolts by the Bay, I watch a lot of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey on TV.  And since I got the NHL Gamecenter Live package recently, I watch hockey pretty much every waking moment that I can.

But my son, Gavin, 10, wasn’t sold on all-that hockey, at least not initially.  I think over the years he’s started to come around to enjoying the game while it’s on the tube.  And enjoying all of the many interesting outbursts of emotion the Lightning seems to produce from me.

And I’ve caught him watching it from time to time, when he should be doing his homework, but I give him a little bit of leeway in such moments.

Now I don’t want to force him to like something he doesn’t like.  I want him to make up his own mind.  So my basic strategy was simple:  take him to a Lightning game.

It only takes one hockey game.  At least it did for me.

I saw my first game back in 1995 at the Thunder Dome when I was fourteen-years old.  The same season that saw the Bolts make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

That’s also when I started hating the Philadelphia Flyers (as they of course knocked them out of the playoffs in that quarterfinal series).

So, I looked at the upcoming 2013-14 schedule of Lightning games and resolved on the Flyers on Nov. 27.  Not because I wanted Gavin to hate the Flyers (more on that later, and “hate” is a strong word, let’s say:  strongly disapprove of), but really I wanted to welcome Vinny Lecavalier home after his June buyout that saw him go to the Flyers (yuck).

He deserved it, and I thought that Tampa Bay would give him a good send up (and they did).

I further thought that Gavin might appreciate the atmosphere on such a night.

Bottom line: I wanted Gav and me to share something more (besides Doctor Who, blood and last names).

I wanted my son to celebrate the “highs and lows” of our favorite hockey team, and maybe one day, take his son or daughter to their first Lightning game and continue the tradition.

Maybe he’ll say to them, when they ask why they’re going to a hockey game, because “my dad took me to games when I was little.”

“And they were some of the best times we ever had together.”

The very thought warms my heart and (truth be told) wets my eyes a little bit.

So onwards we go to the game that was – my son’s first Lightning game.

First things first:  attire.

I had just received my Lightning home replica jersey in the mail that very morning (perfect timing) so I was set.  But Gavin didn’t have really anything to wear so that he felt a part of the fan base.

Thankfully, my mom came to the rescue.  She had this old fleece jersey (almost like paper it’s so old) that she’s had since back in the mid-90’s when I went to my first Lightning games.

In fact, I think I had one just like it in middle school.  Perfect.  Picked that up on the way to the game and let my little red-headed son wear one of my Lightning hats and we were set.

Got to Downtown Tampa is record time, honking horns and all.  The two of us grabbed something to eat at Sparesville, where I destroyed my hand bowling for the first time since I was very young.  It’s amazing how hard it is on your 32-year old hand to lug a 14-pound bowling ball across a bowling lane a few times while eating a cheeseburger.

Out into a very chilly and windy night, we made our way to the Tampa Bay Times Forum in all of its grandeur.  I think my son was very taken with the way the Lightning organization gets you pumped before the game, with DJ’s, cheerleaders, Thunder Bug and his drums.  I know I was.

And my son loves Thunder Bug, obviously.  Who doesn’t?

Once inside the arena, first thing on the agenda:  nachos.

I had to get Gavin nachos.  He was adamant.  It was one of our preset conditions before the game.

Found a vender and ordered up some nachos with massive amounts of cheese spread all over the chips.

“Those are some serious nachos.”  Gavin said to me once setting eyes on the finished product.

“Yes they are.” I said while smiling.

Once finding our seats up in the nosebleeds (which are still pretty good for watching and enjoying a game, I find) we settled in for the game.

“I can’t believe we’re here,” Gavin said.  “I’m so used to watching this on TV.”

I smile again and agree.  I smile a lot throughout the game, as my son and the Lightning gave me so much to smile about.

“This is like a ride.”  Gavin said, and I knew exactly what he meant.

Gavin clapped his hands and yelled, just as the arena asked him to do.

Gavin was game.

He screamed to get the TECO energy levels as high as he could.  He danced around in the hopes of getting on the big screen in front of the whole crowd (alas we didn’t get spotted, too high).

It was pure joy to see Gavin enjoying himself in the atmosphere of the game, just as I remembered it for me almost twenty years ago.

First period done.  Both teams tied at zero.

“The periods goes by so fast here.” Gavin said.

“I know.  I think it’s because it’s so much better watching it live, we’re just caught up in it.”

“But it is a little weird not hearing someone talk about the game while you watch it.”

“You just read my mind,” I replied.  “I was just thinking the same thing.”

Gavin started asking me questions during the second period:  wondering what a power play was; what a penalty kill was; what icing was; what a short-handed goal was (thanks Ondrej Palat for that one), and so on.

I answered them all with glee.  Asking those very same questions is how I remembered starting on my journey as a hockey fan.

When the Lightning scored the first goal in the second period, the arena erupted, and Gavin and I erupted along with it.  We stood up in our seats, clapping and hollering, screaming our joy out into the din of the Forum.  We shared a moment, father and son, which I felt so powerfully, to move me to tears later on the drive home (and right now) when I get to thinking about it.

By the end of the second period, the Lighting was up 2-0 on the Flyers and I couldn’t have been happier.

Top of the third period and Gavin is already calling it a Lightning victory, God bless him, after Victor Hedman scored his second goal of the night on a 5-on-3 power play to make it 3-0.

But then of course Vinny scored at 18:07.

“That’s okay. It’s Vinny.  We’ll give him that one.” I said, clapping.

The guy with a Lecavalier jersey sitting in front of us quickly turned around to agree with me.  And we all stood up and appropriately applauded.

Then Mark Streit scored 40 seconds later.

“No.  We’re not okay with that one at all.” Gavin and I seemed to say in unison.

Things were starting to look tense all of sudden, but Tyler Johnson, and shoddy puck possession by the Flyers, sealed the deal with an empty net goal with under a minute left in the game.

Lightning won 4-2.

Gav and I collect our stuff and begin climbing down from our seats when I hear him sort of make a “tsk, tsk” noise as he looks behind me, like he was disappointed in something.

I asked him what he’s tsk-tsk-ing about.

“Flyers fans.” He says to me with disdain, in a voice and with a face well beyond his one-game Lightning fan years.

I look behind me and see a rather loud and disgruntled Flyers fan who quite obviously “strongly disapproves of” our Lightning team.

I look back at my son, and inside I’m doing my own Marty St. Louis goal-scoring “celly” (and yes, I fall down too), because that’s Lightning fan talk right there to be tsk-tsk-ing Flyers fans.

It’s like my son just raised his Lightning consciousness to the “all-knowing” fan level, and now, Gav and I are on somewhat of the same Lightning wave length.

Me:  the Lightning Jedi Master, to Gavin:  my Lightning Padawan Learner.

I put my hand on his shoulder and helped guide him down the arena steps, smiling the whole while.

It felt really good to be in that moment, warmed by my son’s words and the massive amounts of affection it brought welling up from my heart.

It felt like my work there was done – another Lightning fan born.

It only takes one game.  But better make it a Flyer game.

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