TAMPA – Damon Dominguez stood near the rows of fold-up chairs, the kind of you find under a beach umbrella or lining a youth soccer field on the weekend.
The Tampa Bay Lightning fans seated in them couldn’t snag a ticket to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night, so they did the next best thing: Arriving hours before faceoff, and watching the action on two large screens in the shadow of Amalie Arena, in a place the team calls "Thunder Alley." The 7:15 p.m. start meant extra sunshine on a beautiful evening, as fans packed in between statues of Dave Andreychuk lifting the Cup in 2004 and Phil Esposito, the franchise's patron saint, which some fans rub for luck.
Dominguez didn’t have a chair. He preferred to stand. Right next to his replica of the Cup, which he metal-shopped together before the first round.
“I didn’t bring a seat. I brought the Stanley Cup. And the Lightning and Blackhawks fans love the hand-crafted trophy I made,” he said.
The Cup was placed by a large stage where a local band warmed up the crowd, right near a digital screen showing Game 2. It was also being shown on the wall of an adjacent parking garage, although the image was faded due to the setting sun.
The fans sat in orderly rows, in cordoned off sections, under the watch of arena personnel and some unformed police. There was beer for sale at arena prices, from mobile vendors and a large Corona sponsored tent.
Puffs of smoldering tobacco filled the air, a cigarette smoker’s paradise.
“I like the outside. It’s more excitement outside,” said Dominguez, who arrived at 12:30 p.m. ET.
“The last time I was in the arena,” he said, taking out his phone and scrolling to YouTube, “I was an equipment manager for the Lingerie Football League.”
Yes. That's correct.
He calls up a video from his favorites list, like a proud parent would a clip of a toddler’s first steps. It’s an indoor football field, with scantily dressed women shoving each other around in a full-on skirmish.
“It’s a benches clearing brawl,” he said. “December 17, 2010. That was a fight between in-state rivals, Tampa and Miami. Here I am … and I get KNOCKED OVER right … there.”
He laughs, and puts his phone away as another fan walks over for a picture with the homemade Holy Grail.
“It’s a bowl from a HomeGoods store,” he says, pointing to the top of the trophy.
Less structured, but no less crowded, was a park on the side of the arena. It sits on the edge of Garrison Channel, the body of water Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik attempted to turn blue.
It didn’t really work that well. Well, unless you count the back of the boat.
The channel-side park audience watched on a big screen, their folding chairs and blankets stretching back down the block. It felt like a glorious summer outdoor concert rather than a hockey game. Most people watched. A few laid down and let the game wash over them. The sun set behind them, turning the sky pink and yellow.
There was a food truck stationed on one side and a Bud Light dispensary on the other side of the park. Next to the beer truck was a tricked out car with two “Bud Light Girls” stationed on the back.
One of them held the handle and trigger on a large cannon, with several tubes protruding from it.
“It’s a T-shirt cannon,” she tells a fan. “We’ll fire them when the Lightning score.”
The crowd at the park would test the range.
It was a chill vibe -- less packed than in front of the arena, where many of the fans no doubt attempted to sit first before it met the capacity.
On the opposite side of the arena … it was a different kind of vibe.
Dear lord, Ferg’s Live.
Ferg’s is that bar on a football Sunday that to which you’re dying to gain entry or it’s the last place you’d ever watch a game.
The inside is swank, with 30 TVs and a great sports bar vibe in the building that opened in Nov. 2014. The outside looks like something out of Fury Road, with reclaimed shipping containers, a large screen, a T-shirt stand and stations to purchase beer and shooters. Overlooking it is a balcony with a great view of the screen and the arena. When there aren’t sporting events, it’s a concert venue.
And it's packed. Super packed.
Between the first and second period of Game 2, Ferg’s is at capacity. Lines of fans, upwards of 70 people, are waiting to get in and they’re not going to, according to the security running the door. Why stand on the line? Because there's really nowhere else to go like Ferg's near the arena. It's the only party on the block at the moment.
Across the street, in front of a parking lot, there’s a much smaller gathering happening … watching the same big screen.
Rene Morris tried to get into the proper viewing party in front of the arena, to no avail. She got caught with a cooler. “I was right on the edge. The [security guard] saw me and was like, ‘Nope.’”
So Morris and a dozen other fans parked their chairs on the sidewalk across from Ferg’s, in clear view of the big screen.
They’re like the fans who used to spy on Wrigley Field from their rooftops. Before it all went to the courts.
And there they were. No standing in long lines. No sitting or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the sweaty neighbor next to you. An open cooler, next to an open road, across from a big screen broadcast of the Stanley Cup Final, and under the setting sun.
Was it as good as being inside and witnessing history? Of course not. But it’s the next best thing. And leave with your own chair.
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