TAMPA — With long lines snaking through a concourse inside the West Plaza entrance, thousands of Lightning fans stood patiently in place Monday night before arriving at their cherished destination.
The aptly named Paradise Cove.
Sitting behind several autograph tables were some of the players, coaches and executives who turned Tampa Bay into Hockeytown a decade ago as the Lightning embarked on a 23-game postseason run, culminating in a Stanley Cup championship.
“For a lot of us, it’s actually been 10 years since we’ve seen each other,’’ former Tampa Bay defenseman Jassen Cullimore said. “And you know what? It’s like nothing’s changed. We went through a lot together and that season will always be special. I remember (center) Tim Taylor saying during the finals that if we win this, we’ll walk together forever. I’ve got goosebumps right now just saying those words.’’
During a group dinner Sunday night at a Tampa steakhouse that included former head coach John Tortorella, the 2003-04 champions reminisced about their unforgettable journey.
“The fun part of it for me this weekend was watching our guys,’’ former general manager Jay Feaster said. “It seemed like no time had passed at all. I got a kick out of the wives getting together and seeing how genuinely excited they were. There’s no question this group is linked forever.’’
Amid the laughs and tears, there were some regrets.
Because of a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, the Lightning were denied an opportunity to defend their title. By the time hockey returned, Cullimore and star goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin had signed with Chicago as free agents.
“We were a great hockey team,’’ former associate coach Craig Ramsay said. “And what is really disheartening was to have that lockout year and never having a chance to defend. I felt so good about our club, from top to bottom. We could play any style you wanted and beat you.’’
Lightning season-ticket holder Sam Harbert of Palm Harbor made the most of Monday’s pregame autograph session, accompanied by his 11-year-old son, Trevor.
“Ten years later, these players look more like regular guys now,’’ Harbert said. “But even if you see one walking around, you know who they are the moment you see that championship ring on their finger.’’
Former left wing Fredrik Modin said the ensuing decade has given him a new appreciation for what the Lightning’s band of brothers accomplished.
“It’s times like this that allows you to look back and realize how everything came together that year — not just the players, but the coaches and support staff, too. And don’t forget about our fans. This building was crazy. It was nuts, and we loved every last minute.’’