Months of pain and weeks of strain took the backburner on Sunday as the Lightning finally hit the ice for the start of training camp.
Nearly four months late and following a 119-day lockout that kept the NHL in a freeze that frustrated fans, players and owners alike, hockey returned. Any lingering hard feelings were put aside to celebrate the return of Lightning hockey as an estimated 5,500 people showed up to The Forum for the first day of abbreviated Lightning training camp.
Fans were treated to autograph sessions, merchandise discounts, question and answer sessions with team owner Jeff Vinik, general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher as well as team founder Phil Esposito. And as the players hit the ice just after noon while "Welcome to the Jungle'' blared over the speakers, the fans erupted into a thunderous ovation welcoming the team back to the ice.
"I think everybody is excited that we are playing hockey again,'' Marty St. Louis said. "I think we understand what the fans have gone through, and we have gone through it with them as players … and it was flattering to see the amount of people out there today hungry to see some hockey. And I can't express how terrible we feel about what went on.''
For a little more than 90 minutes, Boucher put the players through a calculated practice that started with puck work within the framework of the team's system, followed by a shootout drill and ended with conditioning laps. As things were wrapping up, the players came together at center ice and raised their sticks in salute to the crowd, which brought about another loud ovation from the fans.
"I've said we are trying to be and we think that there is no reason the Tampa Bay Lightning can't be the Green Bay Packers of the NHL,'' Vinik said. "We have very high aspirations for this organization and hopefully all of our fans stick with us. Hopefully a lot of new fans come along and I can understand if they are frustrated and disappointed but the early returns are excellent In terms of what we are hearing and what we are seeing form the fans. But there is nothing more important than treating our fans with the utmost respect.''
The fans gave some of that back as the merchandise shops were packed with shoppers taking advantage of discounted deals as well as purchasing single-game tickets, which went on sale during the event.
"There were so many people here today and they were very excited,'' Boucher said. "I jus think people, from what I gathered, they were just unhappy they didn't get to see what they like, and it was the same for us. We were not trying to hurt them and vice-versa. I think people just stayed positive, frustrated yes, but not to the point that they start hating people or players.''
As excited as the fans were to return and see the players, the players were just as excited to be able to get back to doing what they do – play hockey again.
"It almost feels like my first training camp,'' right wing Teddy Purcell said. "Every training camp feels different, you feel the nerves and you are excited. But this one here is just that much more different. This was going through my first lockout and just been waiting to play since April. So there is maybe a lot of nervous energy.''
That sentiment even holds true for those who endured the previous lockout, which wiped out an entire season and kept the game off the ice for 14 months.
"It's great, I definitely missed it,'' captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "Just to be here back in the locker room, hang out with the guys, it's something I've done for so long that when you don't do it, it feels weird, it's not the same. So it's nice to be back on the ice and in front of the fans, that whole atmosphere of getting back in it, it's exciting.''