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Tampa Bay Lightning

Action-starved fans return for Lightning's delayed opener

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:01 AM
TAMPA -

A half-hour before the Tampa Bay Lightning was set to return to action after a long lockout, Tyler Gump stood in Thunder Alley, his close-cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard dyed blue, and spoke of the passion of those who follow the game on ice.

"We are way more passionate than fans of other sports," said Gump, 32, a federal contractor at MacDill Air Force Base. "Hockey makes you feel like you are part of the family."

For Gump, that frozen filial piety began "back when I was a kid, growing up in Ohio."

At the time, he cheered on the nearest franchise – the Detroit Red Wings. But now the Lightning is his team, a 15-minute dye job -- and 45-minute post-game clean-up -- proof to anyone who would question his loyalty.

Wearing a blue construction helmet adorned with a red light symbolizing the beacon that goes off when a goal is scored, Joe Szumski said it's the game's action that makes hockey fans a breed apart.

"The game is so exciting that no matter who wins or loses, it puts you on the edge of your seat," said Szumski, 68, now living in Tampa and retired from the pharmaceutical industry.

Like Gump, he, too, grew up as a fan of the Red Wings before moving south -- as did his wife, LaRelle, 66, who also sported one of the light-topped helmets the couple bought for $100 each.

Terry Tozian, 46, who proofreads affidavits for a process server, showed his Lightning spirit by painting the Bolt's logo on his face, beneath his right eye.

Hockey fans, he said, are more intense than fans of other sports, but also show more camaraderie, he said.

"The thing about hockey fans is that you can yell and scream at someone rooting for a different team all night, but after the game you walk out friends," said Tozian, who has been a fan "since the Miracle on Ice" in 1980 when the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the USSR.

"Everyone likes each other," said Tozian. "Except for Philly fans."

Pushing her bicycle through the anxious crowd, Nicole Abbett, 31, summed up hockey fans in one word: noise.

"We are loud," said Abbett, a photographer from Tampa who has been a hockey fan as long as she can remember. "We are dedicated and have a lot of energy. A lot more energy than baseball or football fans. And I am a huge fan of both of those sports."

Noelle Watts knows enthusiasm. A kindergarten teacher in Zephyrhills, Watts wore face paint with the Lightning logo on her left cheek and B-O-L-T-S on her right.

A hockey fan for 10 years, she said she can't help but like the sport.

"My boyfriend plays and I always go to his games in Brandon," she said, adding that unlike other sports, hockey fans are "standing and shouting during the whole game."

While some fans showed their spirit by altering their appearances for the night, Mark Raynor, 51, a physical education teacher at Lowry Elementary School, toted a large blue Lightning flag into the Forum.

The difference between hockey fans and others?

"We are pumped up because of the pace of the game," he said. "Baseball is slow, and even football is slower than hockey. Hockey moves at such a fast pace that it pumps you up."

Despite the energy and the noise and the passion, hockey fans who come to the Forum are, by and large, a good lot, says one fan who would know.

"We don't really have much trouble here," said Tampa Police Capt. Marc Hamlin, who was supervising patrols outside the arena. Hamlin, 46, is a lifelong hockey fan who grew up in New York, rooting for the Rangers.

"The fans here are pretty well-behaved," he said.


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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