TAMPA — Welcome to a modern-day fairy tale romance.
Born online, bred through social media, Lightning forward J.T. Brown and Lexi LaFleur Brown forged a lasting relationship.
Brown, the professional hockey player, and Lexi LaFleur, the amateur weekend goaltender working on a doctorate in education.
The kid from Minnesota who worked his way up through the minor leagues met the girl from Ontario in upstate New York.
It’s not a classic love tale that began in storybook fashion, but it’s been happily ever after.
“When you can just talk to somebody and you feel you can be yourself, that’s big,” said Brown, who will spend part of Valentine’s Day playing a game against the St. Louis Blues at Amalie Arena.
The couple, married Feb. 6, 2015, did not meet in a traditional manner.
Brown was in his first full season of pro hockey, signed by the Lightning as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and playing with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League in 2012-13. LaFleur had recently finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph-Humber outside Toronto and was set to begin working on a Master’s degree in public relations at Syracuse in the summer.
Trying to make contacts in the Syracuse area before starting school, LaFleur went to Twitter looking to follow anybody related with the city. Brown followed her back.
A few direct messages led to a handful of text messages, which led to conversations over the phone.
It was a long-distance relationship, Brown playing in Syracuse while LaFleur was back in North Bay, Ontario, before starting school. The conversations were kept to the phone.
Even in the age of FaceTime and Skype, it was the more traditional communication through which they got to know each other.
And a connection was felt.
“I knew what kind of a person he was going to be,” LaFleur said.
But there was still the matter of the first face-to-face meeting.
After months of back-and-forth on the phone, LaFleur made the move to Syracuse and the two were eager to meet.
How eager? It came on the day of Game 6 of the Calder Cup Final, June 13, 2013, the same day LaFleur arrived in town. After the morning skate, Brown skipped his game-day routine of an afternoon nap and eagerly went to knock on LaFleur’s door, uncertain of exactly who would be on the other side.
“I had my skepticism,” Brown said. “Driving up to her house, I had a little bit of nerves, because what if who opens the door was not the person I had been talking to? But I was relieved when she opened the door and we were able to hang out from there.”
It just felt right, right away.
“It was really natural, so that’s how I knew,” LaFleur said. “As cheesy and cliche as it is, you kind of know right away. He was really easy to talk to and it didn’t feel like I was meeting somebody for the first time. We felt like we knew each other forever.
“That’s how I first knew. I just loved him right away and I just always wanted to be with him right away.”
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After the game — the Crunch lost the series to Grand Rapids — the first official date came at the Saltine Warrior Sports Pub, where many of the players hung out after the game.
The couple moved in together a short time later. A marriage license had already been applied for and the wheels for the next step in the relationship were already in motion.
But that didn’t stop Brown from setting up a memorable moment for the pair before the wedding.
It came All-Star weekend in 2015 during a trip to Key West. After a couple’s massage on the beach, Brown set up a chartered private boat ride. After the 30-minute trek away from shore, Brown put on a show. With the sunset serving as the backdrop, John Legend’s “All of Me” playing on the stereo and the captain of the boat holding a GoPro camera, Brown dropped to his knee and asked LaFleur if she would marry him.
She said yes.
“It was very romantic,” LaFleur said. “When he has to turn it on, he can do that.”
Two weeks later, the day after the Lightning returned from Dallas to cap off the team’s annual father’s trip, the couple married in a small ceremony at the courthouse in downtown Tampa surrounded by immediate family. A more formal wedding with more than 100 guests will be held in July in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the couple spends the offseason. An official honeymoon will take place in Jamaica.
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Yes, the two have shared a sheet of ice. What else to expect from husband and wife who both play the game?
One day back in North Bay, they decided to rent ice time so LaFleur could put on her goalie equipment and let Brown take some shots. No, not the kind he unleashes on Ben Bishop during practice.
“I like to say I took it easy on her, but she made some good saves,” Brown said. “It’s a lot different shooting on her at 5-foot-5 compared to Ben. I still tried to find those corners.”
The roles wound up reversed as Brown put on the goalie gear and let LaFleur fire some shots at him.
“It was a big showdown,” LaFleur said. “And he was much better (at goalie) than I thought he would be.”
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A friendship that blossomed online continues to grow, even a year after marriage.
The pair often share pieces of their private life in the public eye, whether through Twitter or photos posted on Instagram. From interacting with each other or the pair of dogs to the honey-do lists LaFleur leaves for him, often with the reward for extra time on the Xbox for tasks completed, the two show their playful side.
“They are just two different kinds of people who are both set in their ways, but they just get along so well together,” said Tyler Johnson, who has spent time with the Browns since he and J.T. were teammates with Syracuse, including a vacation in Mexico over All-Star weekend with Ondrej Palat.
“They are the perfect couple and mesh so well. They know each other so well. They know what each other wants and they have fun doing it. They are both awesome and some of my closest friends.”
Something very evident from their accounts.
“We have a lot of fun back and forth, we always try to catch each other slipping or with comments,” Brown said. “That’s just the way we are together.”
Together, creating their own fairy tale.