Dear Lightning: An Open Thank You Letter

Dear Tampa Bay Lightning,

I’m writing you today to simply say thank you. You see, winning that Stanley Cup Monday night was so much more than one season, one series of work. It was the culmination of so much for so many far beyond the walls of Amalie Arena or the playoff bubble. For me, it’s deeply personal.

I think back to 1999. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost the NFC Championship to the St. Louis Rams in heartbreaking fashion. Then they got rocked by the Eagles in 2001. I remember watching those games with my dad wondering if our beloved Buccaneers could ever get the job done, if they could ever get to a Super Bowl.

Then they did.

Watching that Super Bowl with my dad meant everything to me back in 2002. Our team, that we suffered with together through heartbreaking losses, won the championship and we were able to share it with one another.

It was in the early 2010’s that I began getting into hockey. I was listening to so much local sports talk (the podcast boom hadn’t happened yet) to hear any and everything about the Buccaneers that I inevitably started learning about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ironically enough, I watched only one Stanley Cup Finals in my life and it was in 2004 where I was immediately drawn to Nikolai Khabibulin. I found myself cheering on the Lightning in that series, they won, the NHL locked out, and I moved on.

So as I began indirectly following the Lightning, I started to notice NHL games being broadcast on television a little more. So I’d find myself watching. See, I live in Ohio so I didn’t have the access to local broadcasts the way we can get them now. So I watched when I could, I read the articles and recaps to follow along, and that was about it.

Until 2015.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were thrust into the spotlight with a young coach, a young core, and were making a playoff run to remember. It became appointment viewing. My wife and kids began looking at me and saying stuff like, “since when do you watch hockey this much?”

I couldn’t stop.

My kids – 11, 9, 6, and 4 at the time – began to watch with me. We’d yell, we’d cheer, we’d scream. It was one of the few things that all of us would do together without one complaint. There was no arguments, no debates – the Lightning were on and we were ready to watch.

It was a blast to do that together and although you guys didn’t win the cup, we enjoyed those games as a family. However, football still reigned supreme in our home.

My oldest two had some flag football under their belts and my 6-year old – Beckett – was about to play his first year. We did that, we watched another season of Buccaneers football, and then we drifted back to hockey after the football season.

Then it happened. The conversation that would change the course of my life for the next four years and beyond.

I was working in my office, writing for The Pewter Plank at the time, and Beckett came in during intermission of a Lightning game. See, up until that point he kept asking when I was going to sign him up for peewee football where he could play “for real.” He looked me dead in the eyes, with fear in his, and asked me “Dad, will you be mad if I don’t play football?” I laughed and told him of course not. I wasn’t going to be the dad that forced his kids into playing sports that they had no interest in. It was about them discovering what they liked. I asked him why he decided all of a sudden he didn’t want to play anymore. He simply said, “I want to be a hockey player.”

I explained to him how much work he would have to put in before he even had a chance of getting equipment and playing hockey. That he would have to go through numerous skating lesson sessions. No stick, no puck, no pads – just him and some skates. That it may be two or three years before he would ever get to play. So, that’s what we did. Multiple sessions a year, going to open skates, going to “try hockey free” day. All of it.

He played his first season last year at ten years old. It was a lot of early mornings, a lot of overnights, a lot of dinners on the road heading home from games. Missing family parties, racing out the door to practice. His team made the league championship and won 2-1 and Beckett had a goal and an assist. I sobbed. Then they went to an end of season tournament where they were eliminated in an overtime shootout. He sobbed.

I say all that to say this – some of my favorite moments I have had or will ever have are with him at his practices and games. With busy work schedules and four boys to raise, time together is at a premium. I cherish every second that it’s just Beckett and me on another hockey trip. And last night, I got to share the Lightning winning a Stanley Cup with him the way my dad shared the Buccaneers winning a Lombardi with me. It was one of the most incredible feelings I’ll ever know

And it’s all because of you.

Without you my son doesn’t fall in love with this beautiful sport. Without you, those weekend escapes and moments with him on the ice practicing don’t exist. Without you, my life is not as full and amazing as it is today.

And for that, I can never thank you enough.

So while seeing you win the Stanley Cup was incredible and thrilling, I think back to how it means so much more. It isn’t just that my team won their championship, it’s that I’ve traveled this journey with you in a sense. That, for me, this run began in 2015 with you that would change my life forever. That journey culminating in a Stanley Cup was just icing on the cake.

From the bottom of my heart, Lightning, thank you. Thank you for the gift you’ve given me, my son, and so many other children who fell in love with hockey because of you and who have now seen where all the dedication and work can take them. You’ll never know how much it means to them.

With sincerest thanks,

James