TAMPA — You don’t have to tell this bunch twice when it’s time to shout. Or once, even.
Sticks of Fire is a self-directed cheer group, some 30 or so Tampa Bay Lightning fans who just came together this year, all of them riding high Wednesday night as their team kicked off the NHL playoffs in a thrilling, back-and-forth home contest against the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s infectious,” said Michael Tully, 27, of Tampa, whose group occupies part of Section 307, just south of the ceiling.
“You’re not just sitting. You’re part of the game. It feels like you are part of the outcome.”
Sticks of Fire joined a capacity crowd at the Forum, delivering chants, cheers, songs, shouts and synchronized claps before, during and after the game. They helped energize everyone from the folks around them to the men with the working sticks down on the ice.
Most of the Forum crowd sported the blue and the white of the home team, but this bunch accessorizes with black bandanas around their necks.
Season ticket holder Vince Calabrese usually sits in section 309. He’s listened all season long to the well-practiced chants from the Sticks of Fire crew. His wife even follows them on Facebook, he said.
On Wednesday night, he scooted over to Section 307.
“I think it’s great,” said Calabrese, 68, of Brandon. “It puts some excitement into the atmosphere and it drowns out the other fans.”
Sticks of Fire, which takes its name from one theory on the origin of the word “Tampa,” was born in the preseason when Tully and his friends Kent Glisson and Sean Ruane decided to bring to the ice some of the cheers, chants and songs they learned following the U.S. National Soccer team.
The three men are members of a soccer team fan base called American Outlaws, known for their inspiring cheers and rabid support of the country’s national squad.
Using some of the American Outlaws’ techniques, they thought they could answer the Lightning’s marketing challenge — “Be the Thunder.”
What started as a small group has grown and drawn attention, from five to 10 Facebook likes in the beginning to nearly 700 today. Their enthusiasm is the subject of much discussion, online and in person.
Ruane said that even hours before the game, far from the Forum downtown, people hail him when they spot the black bandana.
“We didn’t know how it was going to come on,” said Ruane, 24, of Tampa. “Other season ticket holders began to embrace the culture. It feels really good to be a part of the culture in Tampa.
“They expect it at the game. If we weren’t there, people would be wondering what’s going on.”
Two hours before game time, the Sticks of Fire crew meets at the nearby sports bar Hattricks for food and refreshment and to get the energy flowing.
Then they march to the Forum, where each fist pumps the bronze Phil Esposito statue to give the NHL great his due for helping bring hockey to the bay. As they walk up the steps, the chants begin and everyone takes notice. They sing in synch, glorifying the Lightning, as they ride the escalator up and up. It’s a long trip to Section 307.
“You can hear us coming in, for sure,” said Glisson, 37, of Wesley Chapel, who comes to games with his wife Miah.
“Once people get a taste of it, it’s addictive,” he said. “Tampa fans like being loud and are capable of it. It’s a lot of fun. When you start getting going with it, it’s hard to resist.”
Hockey tends to draw devoted, hardcore fans, and their energy inspires the home team, said Dave Fischer, a spokesman in Colorado Springs for USA Hockey, a governing body for the sport in the United States that works closely with the NHL.
“Many people say home ice advantage is worth a goal a game,” Fischer said.
Detroit Red Wing fans used to throw octopus onto the ice. Many fans toss hats when a player scores a hat trick — three goals in one game.
The visiting team is conditioned to block the cheering and the noise, Fischer said, but the home team soaks it in.
“It has a positive affect on the home team and the energy level it brings,” he said. “It gives an extra boost to the home team.”
Knowing they make a difference inspires the Sticks of Fire crew.
“We want it to be loud,” said Shawn “Shaggy” Dare, 26, of Tampa. “We want it be a home ice advantage every game. The players feed off the energy, the momentum.”
These fans dress the part, too.
Dare wore a black suit with blue vest and gray-and-blue tie for Wednesday’s game. His friend Richard Studebaker came as the Greek god Zeus, whose many titles include “God of Lightning, complete with white toga, white beard, blue Lightning scarf and a cutout of a Lightning bolt.
Sticks of Fire started with a few friends but has grown into a family with people who never knew one another before.
All they have in common is the Lightning. And all season long, into the excitement of the playoffs, as they dream of repeating the team’s improbable Stanley Cup win a decade ago, that is enough.
“This is my hockey passionate family,” said Dare. “We can’t get this in many places.”