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Two-thirds of the former Triplets Line, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat practice stick-handling.

Sometimes I wish my hockey writing sisterhood wasn’t a group of enablers.

When I posted on our private Facebook group on Monday night that I was contemplating driving an hour and 20 minutes to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s open practice on Tuesday morning, the ladies weren’t exactly going to be called for interference on that play.

Catherine Gayle was first to point out that maybe I was asking the wrong people for that kind of favor, a statement that six others quickly agreed to. I felt like John Scott asking if he should go to the NHL All-Star Game.

With those kind of friends…I mean, I did have a legitimate excuse of wanting to see an NHL practice. What better way to research for my current writing project.

I arrived at the Brandon Ice Forum a few minutes late the following morning and the Bolts were in the middle of running some type of power play drill. I attended Tampa Bay’s Development Camp in the past but this was something different. That was a day full of practices and scrimmages. Back in college, practice lasted at least a couple of hours. I discovered that day that an NHL session only runs a little over an hour on the ice. The players, though, go full on the entire time with a few opportunities to rest as the coaching staff instructs on the intricacies of the next complicated drill.

One thing I wanted to observe was how the players interacted, but that type of focus didn’t seem to allow for much brotherly rough housing or anything outside of asking for the puck on a drill. Once or twice they applauded a particularly brilliant play or goal.

Although with such complicated drills, I think I would need to concentrate, too. I’m not sure that the World of Warcraft includes so many crazy maneuvers. As far as I could tell, the Lightning worked on power plays, five-on-five and even three-on-three situations. The last drill was the most complicated. It seemed as though the players were switching lines mid-rush. I was dizzy watching.

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Head Coach Jon Cooper (standing, upper right) gathers the troops.

Practice ended with the usual fire circle. Instead of singing “Kumbaya” this one ended with a shootout twist. Fresh off a joint trip to the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville, where their Atlantic lost to the Pacific in the final, Captain Steven Stamkos scored top shelf, glove side on goalie Ben Bishop.

The players split up soon after, working on their own skills. One particular drill that I know I would have flunked after my recent failure at PNC Arena was the stick-handling obstacle course that Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Killorn and Brian Boyle conquered. I still don’t know how they knew which puck was theirs given that they used more pucks instead of cones.

More interesting than the practice itself was the player’s interaction with the few fans that had attended the practice. Leaving the ice, they stopped for autographing. One little girl had Ryan Callahan sign a puck he threw to her at a game last year and she received a fist bump from Killorn.

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Brian Boyle reassures a young fan by comparing pinky injuries.

My favorite moment was Boyle comparing war injuries with a young boy wearing a splint on his pinky. The kid had slammed the digit in a car door and Boyle offered his condolences, explaining that he’d broken his multiple times.

I think I walked away with plenty of insight so maybe peer pressure isn’t so bad after all.

(Please note that I will not be posting again until the week of February 14 because I will be cruising with Darth Vader in the Caribbean.)

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Fun with Cedric Paquette and Victor Hedman at the 2nd Annual Bolts Family Carnival

Sometimes I feel like a bit of a traitor to my Carolina Hurricanes, but to be fair, thanks to the new alignment in the National Hockey League, I see them play live at most twice a year unless I happen to go to Raleigh for one reason or another.

Because I live in Central Florida (and I only recently opted to buy the Center Ice package to see my beloved Canes on a nightly basis), I became an avid watcher of the Tampa Bay Lightning by default. Of course, that also meant becoming very familiar with their players. No contempt here.

It’s become tradition to attend a couple of live games at the Bolts’ Amalie Arena each year, although at least one time I’m inclined to wear red and cheer for the opposing team – Carolina, of course. I have also gone to the Bay Area to see the Lightning Development Camp in July, participate in the pre-season Fan Fest and run in the Bolts 5K.

I had such a great time at the Bolts Family Carnival in 2015 that I pulled my mother and a friend into joining me for the event this year. Like the Skate with the Canes I attended earlier in January, this day gives you the opportunity to meet the player’s off the ice. Although to be fair, this particular event wasn’t as well organized and unless you purchase separate meet-and-greet tickets for specific guys, you aren’t guaranteed to see anyone specific.

Fans – 3,200 was the announced number – packed the Amalie Arena floor from the open of the event. We hopped into the short line for photos with Nikita Kucherov, arguably the Lightning’s most prolific scorer this season (sorry, Stamkos). But he was in the penalty box of all places. I then joined my friend in line to throw bean bags at milk bottles and say hello to her favorite player Brian Boyle. Not fair to compete against a former baseball player, but it was fun.

Last year, I spent the extra money – which does go to the Lightning Foundation charity – to assure myself I would see my favorite Valtteri Filppula. This time, I needed Ryan Callahan’s signature to complete the photo that I’d taken at a previous event so I bought the extra ticket for him and I surprised my mother with the ticket to see her Bolt of choice Tyler Johnson.

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Spinning the wheel with Valtteri Filppula and sharing a laugh with Ryan Callahan

Callahan was exactly like I thought he’d be – personable and funny. I told him I’d been waiting 18 months to have him sign the photo. He said if I truly wanted it to be complete I’d need to find goalie Evgeny Nabakov, who retired from the NHL after being traded back to San Jose last winter. (The top of Nabakov’s helmet is in the bottom corner.)

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Finished product – even if Nabakov’s signature is still missing.

Johnson was also very sweet to my mother. So I have to thank him for that. The lines moved very quickly at the suite level so we were able to rejoin my friend downstairs to spin-the-wheel with Filppula. I don’t know if it’s the Finnish demeanor (or that smile) but he certainly makes you feel comfortable enough to even attempt (and destroy) the Finnish language.

After losing 2-0 thanks to an own goal, I really wanted a table hockey rematch with Filppula but had to cap off the day with a quick five-minute game of scoreless table hockey against a couple of willing fans instead.

Guess, I need to wait for 2017 for that rematch.

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Maybe a rematch next year?

In part one of my Skate with the Canes recap, I talked about the first of three sessions that allowed for a lot of interaction with the players, including my some of my favorites – Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Eddie Lack and Kris Versteeg.

The second session of the day didn’t allow for as much one-on-one time with players, but I did have the chance to tell rookie Noah Hanifin that I bought my skates at Medford Square Sporting Goods long before he was even born. (And, yes, that makes me feel very old!)

Hanifin was one of four players posing for a group photo in the team’s weight room. I snuck in between Riley Nash and Brett Pesce while Brad Malone was on end opposite from Noah for what could have substituted for an old school photo. Everyone is so prim and proper.

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Locker Room Photo sessions with Captain Eric Staal and the boys.

The second photo op featured me sandwiched between Victor Rask and Eric Staal with Michal Jordan and Brock McGinn as bookends. As much as I enjoyed seeing the locker room area with all its murals and hockey equipment, it wasn’t really a highlight of the day. Honestly, I was shocked at how small the area is in comparison to other NHL and college locker rooms I’ve seen. I remember even the visitor’s at the old Capitals arena in Landover, Md. had larger accommodations.

The final 40 minutes was an autograph session with the remaining eight players and also included a brief opportunity to meet and greet the Carolina Hurricanes broadcast crew. I’ve listened to Chuck Kaiton on the radio and John Forslund as the television play-by-play since the team was in Hartford so I jumped at the chance to say hello. Forslund and I also have the Springfield Falcons in common so we reminisced about my old boss there. When I introduced myself to the Canes color analyst Tripp Tracy, I told him we had met before, that in fact, I interviewed both he and his roommate Jason Karmanos (who is the assistant general manager in Pittsburgh) twice in college. Michelle McMahon also remembered me from our interview during the 5K back in September.

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Locker Room Photo sessions with Captain Eric Staal and the boys.

Finally, we were able to step up to the tables to meet the players. I wished Phillip Di Giuseppe well as he was recuperating from a concussion at the time. He is such a spectacular addition to the Skinner and Rask line. I told John Michael-Liles, another favorite, that we’d come up from Florida and would see him in Tampa on March 5 when the Canes play the Bolts, but I was so angry later that I never took a photo with those two. Elias Lindholm and Cam Ward rounded out that four.

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Selfies with (clockwise from top left) Andrej Nestrasil and Jay McClement, Cam Ward and Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin. Plus a jersey worth of signatures.

The second table was Andrej Nestrasil and Jay McClement. I borrowed Nesty’s long arms for a selfie before moving on to Justin Faulk and lastly, Jaccob Slavin. I don’t think poor Slavin understands how to take a selfie.

Skate with the Canes may be a benefit for the Hurricanes Kids and Community Foundation but I’m not entirely certain that I didn’t benefit from the experience myself. I’d love to make it an annual trip to Raleigh.

Disbelief.

I’m pinching myself in between moments of staring at the lock screen on my iPhone.

Two weeks later, I still question whether I truly skated with my Carolina Hurricanes, but here I am wearing the signed jersey (that’s two sizes too big) and staring at this particular picture. Me. Sitting on the visiting bench at PNC Arena. Next to my favorite player Jeff Skinner.

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Hanging with my favorite player Jeff Skinner.

Pardon while I squeal in glee.

A little background…I’ve been a Carolina Hurricanes fan since they wore blue and green and were called the Hartford Whalers. And ever since I heard about the Skate with Canes event, I wanted to buy a ticket and participate. I mean, it’s the chance for fans to get close to the team for the afternoon, participating in three activities each with a different set of players at each station.

As part of the silver group, our first stop was the skate. The opportunity to skate on NHL ice. Serious quality, fresh NHL ice especially because we were the first group. Even if I wasn’t there with my boys in the red and white, still the chance of a lifetime.

I bumped into Chris Terry first – almost literally. We took a quick selfie but then I noticed Skinner as I made a loop at center ice, filming each slide of my blades for posterity as they pass over the PNC Arena logo. I headed straight over to the visitor’s bench to hop in the photo line. I’ve been a fan of Skinner’s since his rookie season when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. The guy can skate and has some serious skill with the puck. (I don’t know that I’ve forgiven the league for not awarding him the NHL Player of the Week when he had two hat tricks earlier in the season.)

I was also able to catch Jordan Staal in the penalty box – not that he spends a lot of time there usually – and Kris Versteeg was hanging out at center ice. I can say that I became a fan of “Steeger” that day. Such a laidback guy, but I wouldn’t expect any less of a Lethbridge boy.

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With (clockwise from top left) Chris Terry, Jordan Staal, Kris Versteeg and Ron Hainsey

Before we moved on to the locker room. I also tried my luck at stickhandling and shooting. Not many times, you have the opportunity to shoot on an NHL goalie. Eddie Lack was a very helpful coach, pointing out when I left the puck at the last cone – how embarrassing. Once I retrieved it, I shot and scored!!! I wasn’t as lucky against defenseman Ron Hainsey, missing the net entirely. His comment: “You have to dump the puck in sometimes.” Indeed.

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She shoots, she scores! Sorry, Eddie.

Stay tuned for the second part of my recap to be posted tomorrow. I survived the Canes locker room and had a reunion with Tripp Tracy, John Forslund and Michelle McMahon before the player autograph session.