Flee­ing Irma: 148 peo­ple, 14 pets on ‘strange trip’

Tampa Bay Times - - Lightning - Joe Smith can be reached at joe­smith@tam­pabay.com. Fol­low @TBTimes_JSmith.

TAMPA — When the Light­ning’s rookie tour­na­ment char­ter to Nashville last week­end be­came a Hur­ri­cane Irma evac­u­a­tion flight, it made for a sur­real scene.

Owner Jeff Vinik in­vited play­ers and staff mem­bers to get their fam­i­lies out of harm’s way. And fam­ily ap­par­ently in­cluded an­i­mals. There were three cats and seven dogs on the Boe­ing 737, with cap­tain Steven Stamkos’ 100-pound Swiss Moun­tain Dog, Trig­ger, curled into a coach seat be­fore take­off.

“It was a lit­tle crazy,” Stamkos said. De­fense­man An­ton Stral­man brought the largest con­tin­gent — 10 — which in­cluded four kids, three bun­nies (Char­lotte, Lisa and Char­lie), and a dog, Lizzy.

“It was like walk­ing on the ark,” coach Jon Cooper said, laugh­ing. “I was just wait­ing for a bird to fly over­head.”

“I said, ‘What if some­one had a pony?’ ” quipped Ryan Belec, team di­rec­tor of travel ser­vices. “I think we’d just been like, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

It was the most chal­leng­ing — and crazy — ex­pe­ri­ence in Belec’s 10 years man­ag­ing the team’s travel. Think about it. Plan a trip for 148 peo­ple (and 14 an­i­mals) in 48 hours, and do it with a hur­ri­cane loom­ing. It took the gen­eros­ity of Vinik and a mas­sive amount of co­op­er­a­tion from the char­ter air­line, Mi­ami Air In­ter­na­tional; bus com­pa­nies and Nashville’s Gay­lord Opry­land Re­sort.

The Preda­tors were gra­cious hosts, their staff help­ing as the Light­ning rook­ies com­peted in scrim­mages against Nashville rook­ies and vet­er­ans held in­for­mal skates.

Still, it felt like a mir­a­cle for the Light­ning to open camp on time Thurs­day. The team re­turned Tues­day to sunny Tampa skies, put its pets in their crates and went home.

“It worked out well,” Belec, 40, said. “But it prob­a­bly knocked a cou­ple years off my life.”


It started with a text mes­sage Belec sent to team man­age­ment Sept. 5.

Irma was then ex­pected to be a Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane when it hit Florida, and though ini­tially it was headed for the east coast, Belec wrote, “Can we dis­cuss this to­day?”

It didn’t take long for the Light­ning’s four-team rookie tour­na­ment in Es­tero that week­end to be can­celled; Ger­main Arena was an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter. The Panthers soon pulled out of the event, evac­u­at­ing their team, and the Cap­i­tals stayed put. By Wed­nes­day, the Light­ning and Preda­tors had worked out a plan to scrim­mage in Nashville.

But it soon be­came an evac­u­a­tion sit­u­a­tion.

“Ev­ery­one thought (the hur­ri­cane) was com­ing to the east coast. No­body out west took it se­ri­ous,” said Cooper, who has stayed in a ho­tel since his Tampa home lost power. “Un­til all of a sud­den it was com­ing at us. So now what do we do?”

Stral­man said he and his wife, Jo­hanna, wa­vered about what to do.

They boarded up their South Tampa home and bought sand­bags, just in case.

“All of our guys were in the same sit­u­a­tion as ev­ery other Florid­ian,” gen­eral man­ager Steve Yz­er­man said. “Should I stay or go? Where do I go? What do I do with my home, my car, dog, cat?”

When the Light­ning wel­comed play­ers and their fam­i­lies to join the rook­ies’ flight Sept. 8, leav­ing be­came an easier de­ci­sion for most. The hard part was the ex­e­cu­tion.

Belec got lucky with Mi­ami Air hav­ing an avail­able plane, though this was the first time he re­quested no first-class seats. He said Nashville is the tough­est city in the NHL in which to find ho­tel rooms, but with Opry­land’s mas­sive 3,000-plus-room cam­pus, 55 rooms were avail­able.

“It’s a lit­tle more ex­pected to be in Bos­ton and have a snow­storm and can’t get out,” Belec said. “When it’s a hur­ri­cane and then an evac­u­a­tion, you’re tex­ting your en­tire team say­ing, ‘Let me know how many,’ and they’re writ­ing back, ‘Four kids, wife, two dogs, three bun­nies.’ That’s cer­tainly noth­ing I had ex­pe­ri­enced.”

“Look­ing back, I’m sure it’s funny now. But at the time, I’m like, ‘I can’t be­lieve I’m do­ing this.’ ”

De­fense­man Bray­don Coburn brought wife Na­dine; their two kids, daugh­ter Rory, 5, and son Blair, 3; and their two res­cue dogs.

“You saw it with (Hur­ri­cane) Har­vey, peo­ple don’t want to leave their pets,” Coburn said. “They don’t want to sac­ri­fice a mem­ber of the fam­ily.”


Belec said his 5-year-old twins, Car­son and Ry­der, felt like it was a va­ca­tion, re­mem­ber­ing their sum­mer trips to the Gay­lord re­sort in Kis­sim­mee.

Stral­man took his kids mini-golf­ing and go-cart­ing, and they watched movies in their room.

“It was a strange trip,” Stral­man said. “But we made the best of it.”

The coach­ing staff went through typ­i­cal meet­ings in the ho­tel con­fer­ence rooms and watched the rook­ies play in scrim­mages Satur­day, Sun­day and Tues­day at Ford Ice. Vet­er­ans held in­for­mal skates, like they would have done in Tampa, to pre­pare for camp. “It was busi­ness as usual,” Belec said.

The trip back? Not so much. With com­mer­cial flights scarce com­ing to Tampa after the storm, the Light­ning had the 18 ros­ter play­ers who had been out­side Florida through the or­deal come to Nashville so it could get an even big­ger char­ter plane back. It used 148 of 168 seats and ev­ery inch of cargo space.

“We didn’t think we’d get it on, but we did,” Belec said.

They put a an­i­mal-re­lated Dis­ney movie on for the kids on the un­event­ful flight home.

“One thing I want to com­mend ev­ery­one was that, sur­pris­ingly, all the pets were potty-trained,” Cooper joked. “They knew they had to be­have.”



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