Thursday night we were again reminded what sets the Tampa Bay Lightning organization apart; it's fans. Despite playing in a market where hockey would seemingly be an afterthought, the franchise has continued to grow and gain support from the local community. On this particular night, the community returned some of that support.
During a day game against the Boston Bruins on Monday afternoon, Lightning fan's worst dreams become reality. In a moment that can only be described as heartbreaking, young NHL star Forward Steven Stamkos collided with a goalpost resulting in a broken tibia in his right leg. (Video below isn't too graphic but hard to watch nonetheless)
This type of loss could easily have fans questioning the future of the team. But instead, the Lightning fan-base chose a different question; "How is Stammer doing?". In a move that defines class, one of the local Tampa Bay sports radio stations, 620 WDAE , created a "Get Well Soon" card to be circulated around the Tampa Bay Times Forum during Thursday night's game against the Anaheim Ducks . What resulted is perhaps one of the coolest outpouring in fan support in recent sports memory. Fan after fan lined up to sign the giant card pictured below, demonstrating the type of rapport this community has with one of it's favorite players. (image courtesy @620wdae).
Having the opportunity to personally oversee the signing, I got the chance to read some of the messages left by the creative minds of Lightning fans. Let's just say it was a unique sampling of support, humor, and sarcasm, equaling an awesome demonstration of fan expression. Below are 10 of my favorite messages spotted throughout the card. Is yours one of them?
I see what this fan was trying to go for on this one. I'll assume alcohol consumption had more to do with this grammar than intelligence. The fan still gets an "A" from me for properly identifying the correct bone in question...
This signature is obviously lacking in sympathy. However based on the "Tis" and the emphasis on getting back to work, I'm pegging this fan as a possible elitist (or Monty Python fan). They just can't relate to the plight of the working man. Tis but a shame...
This message is just full of positive vibes. Although this fan may be onto something as the Lightning have gone 2-0 since Stammer's injury. If the team continues to fight through adversity this good luck may very well propel them into the Playoffs where a healthy Steven Stamkos is sure to be waiting.
This signature perhaps claimed the largest amount of real-estate on the card, but in my mind may have deserved it. For one, any subtle James Bond reference should be celebrated. But more importantly if this fan truly came all the way from Russia to lend their support to Stammer, then by all means use all the space you'd like, call it a cosmonaut.
Despite the obvious political incorrectness (calm down people), this signature encompasses the passion Stamkos evokes in both men and women alike. In related news, the only phone number left on the card was by a dude as well. Love obviously conquers all barriers.
A little redundant here but the point is clear. It will be Stammer-Time, in no time, once again. Hard to argue with that logic so I'll just nod my head in agreement. *nods head*
While I always appreciate a good NFL reference, this one is quite a graphic example. If you've never seen what this Joe Theismann shoutout refers to, go find the clip on youtube , but don't say I didn't warn you. Season ticket member "Meg A." rounds out her message by keeping a positive outlook on Stamkos playing in the upcoming Sochi Olympics, though the organization may not want to put that aggressive of timetable in place for his rehab. A surprise return for the Olympics would no doubt be an Adrian Peterson like recovery, just of the hockey variety, and would be a lift to the landscape of the entire sport.
In another great example of bro-love, "Kyle L." gets very descriptive in how he wishes he could help Stammer in his time of need. The world would no doubt be a better place with Kyle's pain reducing tears in it. Someone send Stamkos a bottle of "Kyle Tears" immediately...
As a believer in the power of positive thinking and good karma, this signature by "Cheryl P." is spot on in my opinion. No personal message, well wishes, or other references, just plain ol' miraculous healing power. Exactly what the beloved Steven Stamkos needs most right now. Touche Cheryl.
This signature is perhaps my favorite. Why? Because it reminds us that it's not just us humans that'll be missing Stammer during his recovery. If inanimate objects could communicate, I'm sure the entire Tampa Bay Times Forum would be expressing it's support of the best player that calls it home. I'd like to think that on this night "The Left Circle" was acting as the buildings official spokesperson. However I wouldn't expect the same support coming from the goal nets he abuses night in and night out...
So there you have it, the Top 10 signatures on the official "Get Well Soon" card for Steven Stamkos. I can only imagine the warmth he will feel when presented with this tangible example of the Tampa Bay community's appreciation for all he does on and off the ice. Special thanks again to 620 WDAE for this great idea, and to the Lightning organization for facilitating this awesome message of support from the fans.
Nearly four years ago, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, stood at a podium in Springfield Massachusetts and said;
"I don't look at this moment as a defining end to my relationship with
the game of basketball. It's simply a continuation of something that I
started a long time ago. One day you might look up and see me playing
the game at 50. Oh don't laugh. Never say never. Because
limits, like fears are often just an illusion. Thank you very much.
Looking forward to it."
This was Jordan's well publicized closing to his acceptance speech while being enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.While many laughed off the notion of Jordan coming back and playing at 50, I can't help but to look at the situation a little deeper. If you bring a couple factors into consideration, the move makes more sense now than ever, and as the greatest ever said himself, he's looking forward to it.
No doubt one of the most frustrating sports topics this year was the Derrick Rose injury watch. The star Point Guard and 2011 NBA M.V.P. of the Chicago Bulls faced unrelenting criticism this season while coming back from a devastating knee injury suffered in last season's playoffs. On one hand, people felt that as the face of the franchise, and a young face at that (24), Rose should take as much time as possible to make his return and assure the injury was completely healed. However on the other hand, many fans and pundits believe otherwise, continually saying disparaging things about the young man while he struggled to return to the court.
While it was true that team doctors gave Rose the green light to return near the end of this latest season, he felt the mental side of his game, namely the confidence in his new knee, wasn't close enough to where he could help the team. In this day of speedy recoveries (thanks Adrian Peterson), the pressure to return from injury for players has risen to nearly unfair levels of expectation. The only thing that kept some fans from turning against Rose was the fact that the Bulls were surprisingly winning without him. You would think this would buy the star point-guard more time to heal, but that sentiment ended once the Bulls progressed to the second round of the playoffs and ran into the powerhouse Miami Heat.
Let's get something straight. Rose hadn't played a single game all season. To expect him to lace up his shoes and step on the court, in a potential seven game series against the regular season's best team would be ridiculous. Not to mention the success the Bulls were having to that point represented a comfort level and chemistry the current lineup had built without him. That surely would've been stirred up with Rose's return, for better or for worse. At the end of the day it may end up being the best decision of his young career to wait for next season to return.
But what happens when he does come back? The anticipation to return to his original form is going to be greater than ever. The attention surrounding him and the Bulls at the beginning of the 2013-14 season will garner endless media attention and countless pundits sharing their commentary on his progress back. If only there was something else for the Chicago and National media to cover while Rose gets readjusted...
Enter Michael Jordan stage left.
Now before you blow off this notion as a complete pipe-dream, let's look at some of the indicators this is even possible. First, there's obviously Jordan's comments during his Hall of Fame speech. Claiming we may see him play at 50 years old it only takes a quick peak at a calender to realize Jordan will still be 50 when the 2013-14 season starts at the end of October. When is Jordan's 51st birthday you may be asking? February 17th, or in basketball terms the day after the 2013-14 NBA All-Star weekend comes to a close.
This bold proclamation by Jordan not only aligns with the beginning of this season, but also leaves him with a perfect exit strategy in case 51 year-old Jordan decides playing an entire season may be out of the question. But if he were to join the Bulls, the first half of the season may be all they need from him. The media and cynical fans alike would all but forget about Rose's return and allow him the time to regain his form as Jordan collects the spotlight. This surreal situation could then come to an end during a final farewell ceremony at the All-Star game, maybe even having Jordan participating as a "Legend" in my Slam Dunk Contest format. (See article on my dunk contest brainchild )
The next question we'd have to answer to complete this dream scenario is if the retired icon could even physically keep up in today's NBA. But I'd challenge you to tell him he can't. In perhaps the best piece about Jordan I've ever read, "Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building ", the author Wright Thompson discusses how Jordan lost 13 pounds in nine days after a vacation. He also believes he won't stop at 248 pounds, instead aiming for 218; his old playing weight.
There's also the story about Jordan playing one-on-one with a player on the Charlotte Bobcats, the team Jordan currently owns and chairs. While it was a mystery for awhile, it was finally revealed that the player was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist , the second overall pick for the Bobcats in the 2012 NBA Draft. That's right, the projected second best player coming out of college couldn't beat Jordan in a pick up game. That either indicates that the Bobcats are continuing their trend of bad play, or that the fiery Jordan still has something left in the tank, even at 50.
This monumental comeback would not just help Chicago in terms of publicity and viewership, but rather the entire league. At a time where the league is fielding more talented teams than in recent memory, the 2013-14 season may have already been in for historic numbers. Add the return of the games greatest player of all time to the mix and David Stern will be giving the fans all they can ask for in his last season as NBA Commissioner.
Now will any of this actually happen? In all likelihood, no. But as passionate fans often are, I'm a dreamer. Whether this dream was brought on by sleep or pipe, I think it would be an incredible event in the history of sports. Derrick Rose gets the pressure taken off him, fans get a story to tell their grand kids, David Stern leaves the league on a high note, and Jordan gets the closure of knowing he backed up his once laughed at proposition. Those who think this isn't possible, I'll leave you with another quote from the g.o.a.t. himself;
"I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying." -MJ
Wednesday night marked an important step in my insertion into the Tampa Bay sports scene. After living in the area for nearly three years now, I finally made it over to Al Lang Stadium in beautiful St. Petersburg to watch the Tampa Bay Rowdies defend the Bay. I could not have picked a better game to be my first. In a third round match up for this year's U.S. Open Cup, the Rowdies, who currently play in the North American Soccer League, met one of Major League Soccer's best teams in the Seattle Sounders. The game represented a great chance for the Rowdies to not only test their skills against a true competitor, but also get the opportunity to garner national attention in the chance they could pull off a victory. Needless to say, "Ralph's Mob" and the Rowdies showed up ready for a fight.
Walking up to the box office on this cool May night, my anticipation for a great match was quickly building. Echoing throughout the area surrounding Al Lang Stadium was the sound of beating drums and chanting fans. I would soon learn that Ralph's Mob, the teams faithful followers, were responsible for the spirited ambiance. Watching a soccer match with the sound of passionate fans adding a chorus of support in the background adds an unmeasurable energy to the game, and no doubt gives the on-field action a heartbeat.
The Mob was even good for some comic relief when their chants began targeting the section of Seattle fans in attendance (about 15 or so). Included in their songbook was my personal favorite; "To hell, to hell with Seattle, To hell, to hell with Seattle, To hell, to hell with Seattle, the cesspool of the West!".
The living soundtrack of the stadium was just the beginning of Al Lang's unique atmosphere. Behind the stands you can see the masts of boats docked at the bay, and the image of them swaying in the evening breeze provides the stadium a unique waterfront location. This succeeds in giving a field full of intensity, a relaxing backdrop that encompasses the essence of St. Pete.
This style is also evident at the opposite corner of the stadium where there is a grassy area surrounded with some of Florida's trademark palm trees. The area was filled with children playing the night away, realizing little that they may be the future of the teams fan base.
There was one more moment in which I knew I'd be coming to another Rowdies game soon. Upon first entering the stadium and walking past the concession stand I saw something that instantly made me feel classier being a fan of soccer. Import beer being sold. Not just the watered-down domestic trash that every other sporting venue is complacent in serving. Not sure if it's the foreign demographic soccer tends to draw that prompted this beautiful offering of beverages, or if the distributors are just trying to keep up with the hipster soccer fan, but either way I like it.
The game itself continued the theme of an all around great experience. Although the forecast called for rain in the Bay area, it stayed dry, and the Rowdies proved capable of weathering the storm anyway. The first half was mostly uneventful besides what seemed like 30 whistles in the last 30 seconds of the half but something tells me the Rowdies were more than happy with the first 45 minutes of play and subsequent 0-0 score. As the players headed back to the locker room the sound of "Sweet Caroline" came over the speakers along with a few drunken renditions from the crowd, marking the close of the first half.
The first real excitement came around the 56th minute when the Sounders put together an attack that looked promising until a Seattle forward fired a shot at the goal that sailed at least 20 feet too high and almost careened into the children playing in the grassy area. Perhaps it was seeing their future fans in danger that finally woke the Rowdies up as the intensity of the game seemed to rise significantly thereafter.
Only a couple minutes after that misguided shot, the Sounders again strung together an impressive attack which caused the Rowdies Goalkeeper Diego Restrepo to come off his line and make a challenge on an attacker that had entered the box. After being clearly shaken up after the collision and resulting save, Restrepo rose to his feet and provided another great save on the following corner.
This strong defensive series gave way to the offense attempting to match this effort. In the 66th minute Rowdies Midfielder and 2-time NASL Champion, Luke Mulholland, made a series of great moves into the Sounders box and delivered a near perfect cross in front of goal, sadly without a teammate there to put the ball in the net. Although a letdown, this play clearly showed the momentum building in the Rowdies favor, and Mulholland surely wasn't finished.
The scoreless streak would end in the 75th minute. In an example of near perfect touches, Luke Mulholland fielded a pass in front of him in the Sounders box and took a running right-footed shot on goal. Seattle Goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann was able to get a finger on the laser shot that would've been enough to redirect the ball an inch outside of the far post if it wasn't for Rowdies Forward Georgi Hristov being in the right place to accurately deflect the ball into the back of the net. Once that goal was scored I began to agree with the chorus Ralph's Mob was chanting; "I believe that we will win".
The climax of the action came in the 84th minute when heart-rates throughout the stands spiked. On a Sounders corner kick, the ball found it's way past the Rowdies Goalkeeper. However no goal was scored. Rowdies Midfielder Jordan Gafa was positioned behind Diego Restrepo on the goal line and in a split second decision, with the ball well on it's way into the net, Gafa managed to punch it off the line and out of harms way. Receiving a red card for this handball, Gafa in essence gave himself up to save a goal. This scenario of losing a player in exchange for a goal would only prove successful if Restrepo could save the impeding penalty kick.
Up to the line stepped Obafemi Martins, a Nigerian footballer new to the Sounders, equipped with experience playing professionally in both the English and Russian Premier Leagues. In other words, the last person the Rowdies wanted taking the penalty kick. In the second round of the U.S. Open Cup, Goalkeeper Diego Restrepo saved a penalty kick that ended up being vital in the Rowdies 2-1 upset over crosstown rivals VSI Tampa Bay. Here he would be asked to make perhaps another game saving stop.
As Martins approached the ball for his shot, Restrepo started leaning right. He also managed to guess right. Martins blasted a low flying shot that Restrepo dove correctly towards and strongly deflected it out behind the goal. The stands erupted in the loudest applause of the evening, knowing that Gafa's decision to stop the Sounders goal, even at the cost of leaving the game, was worth it. Restrepo survived a couple more corners and the seemingly never ending five minutes of stoppage time to finish the game as the hero for the second round in a row.
This win will propel Tampa Bay into the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup where they will meet yet another MLS team from the upper Northwest in the Portland Timbers. If they can record another win, the Rowdies may be well on their way back to their glory days. Victories like this are vital to a team playing in a smaller league such as the NASL. The Rowdies have a rich history in the Tampa Bay area and having a successful team back in existence can be a real draw in the community. If the Rowdies can keep providing upsets when matched against "better" opponents, they'll no doubt put Tampa on the map of possible MLS expansion locations right alongside Miami and Orlando.
I would give my first Tampa Bay Rowdies experience an A+ for sure. Everything from the play on the field, to Al Lang Stadium's phenomenal presentation, made for a great evening and a great soccer game. I'll leave you with my favorite Ralph's Mob chant of the night; "Tampa Bay we are here, Gettin' Rowdie, drinkn' beer!" Music to this new Rowdies fan's ears...