Lightning may not get chance to strike again

If you don’t know (or don’t care) that this season’s edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning is now one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Since they don’t ride on a pirate ship, many Tampanians are missing this experience. And soon, it could be gone for good.

The Bolts have home-ice advantage throughout the remainder of the playoffs, including the Stanley Cup Finals. Foward Martin St. Louis and centers Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards are among the best players in hockey. St. Louis is a finalist for the Hart Trophy, given annually to the NHL’s most valuable player. Veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is playing out of his mind in the playoffs, with a save percentage of .946.

Plus, hockey press all over the United States and Canada say this team is fun to watch, and they play a fast-paced brand of hockey.

However, despite the riveting playoff tournament the NHL is enjoying, what people aren’t talking about is the looming labor dispute between the players and owners that will almost certainly result in a lockout after the season, and possibly in a stoppage of play that will reach into next season. A complete overhaul of the sport’s collective bargaining agreement is in order, and one of the results could be the contraction of teams. Rumors in the press indicate that the Lightning could be a team considered for contraction due to lack of revenues stemming from paltry attendance figures.

All this comes at a time when the Lightning are hotter than ever. Ex-NHL coach and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose — owner of the best mullet going — who has been notorious for not giving the Lightning their due, finally came around after the Lightning’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers in game one of the Eastern Conference finals, saying, essentially, that everyone should root for the Bolts because they play the game the right way: clean, tough and beautiful.

There is no good reason why everyone in the city should not have sprained something leaping onto this team’s bandwagon.

You can’t blame management. They have gone to extreme lengths to sell this team, from putting local radio personalitites on the roof of the St. Pete Times Forum to sell out playoff games to having Tampa native and hero to our generation Hulk Hogan come to the games and fire up the crowd (it works; I’m saying my prayers and eating my vitamins). They have even offered $8 tickets on the days of the playoff games in an effort to fill the building; eight-dollar playoff tickets!

Don’t think that there aren’t real hockey fans here, either. All in all, the support has been great. But great isn’t good enough. This team deserves the passion and loyalty that this town reserves for the Bucs.

Until we realize that as a community, the rest of the sports-loving nation will continue to view Tampa as a second-rate sports town. Hate to be the one to say it, but they would be right.