Sights & Sounds from the LHSHL Lightning Cup Playoffs
by Thompson Brandes @ThompsonBrandes / TampaBayLightning.com
The concept of packing up the car and heading to a Sunday of high school ice hockey didn’t exist during my days as a local youth.
But the Lightning Community & Hockey Development program has changed that. Their programs and training centers have provided opportunity and given life to one of the fastest rising sports in the area. It feels like there are more hockey pucks and fewer baseball cleats laying around the house in 2024. Things feel different now.
Now I’m on 275, wheels pointed at AdventHealth Center Ice, gearing up for the LHSHL Lightning Cup Playoffs the best way I know how: with the Top Gun soundtrack at an obnoxious volume.
The day is loaded with four games and eight teams, all vying for a spot in the free-to-the-public semifinals at AMALIE Arena. I had no idea what to expect. But what ensued was a perfect Sunday bottle of wholesome nostalgia and unquestionable fun. Here are our sights and sounds from a day at the Lightning Cup Playoffs.
A game-viewing experience unlike any other
The first thing you notice walking into the AdventHealth Center Ice complex is that it’s massive. There are ice rinks everywhere you turn. And on a day in which eight high school teams and a free skate are on the docket, it’s a lot of action. Just when you think you’ve seen all the hockey this place has to offer, there’s another rink on the other side of another wall with two more squads behind the curtain.
Luckily, at the center of it all, is a glorious communal food haven: Top Shelf Sports Lounge. It’s here where you can perch yourself atop the bar, grab a tuna bowl if you please (not a hot dog, a tuna bowl), and get your bearings. To the right, you can plop yourself down in the vertical stadium seating to catch Manatee fight off a late Palmetto run. On the other side, you can hang up top and watch Plant High attempt a comeback against lights-out contender Steinbrenner. You also have the option to head downstairs to take in the action up close from the glass. Perhaps the best seats of the afternoon, though, landed in a nook right outside Top Shelf, a twofer wing where you can watch the high school games and a beer league at the same time. You’d be hard-pressed to find a viewing experience that allows you to watch BOTH Plant v. Steinbrenner and Rum Runner v. Puck Norris, but here we were. Two for the price of none.
Hockey parent fandom lived up to the hype
I’d forgotten what sports parenting felt like. The noble attempt to cheer on your kid, keep your general composure and make sure you get their best plays on video, all while your other younger kid is rolling around in an enormous puddle of hot chocolate they just spilt on the ground. At one point, I even overheard a child explaining to his grandmother who Drake was. That’s the good stuff right there.
Luckily, Top Shelf serves its dutiful Sunday moms and dads with cold, available beer. Beer! In my prior experience, dads had to pack a cooler and pop a lawn chair down behind right field to indulge in their beverage of choice. Not in hockey. Ice skates and Labatt Blue were practically invented together. And the tradition holds strong at every level.
These high school unis are top-notch
There wasn’t a bad sweater in the house. Newsome’s rich blue Wolves jerseys looked like a sleek collaboration between UNC and Connecticut. The Land O Lakes Gators came through in a classy navy and yellow number with their crest emboldened on the front. And the aforementioned matchup between Plant and Steinbrenner was an aesthetic beaut’, during which, “How do I buy a Plant Kousnetsov jersey?” was an actual thing I googled. And as it turns out, you sort of can! Almost every school’s jersey is available with full customization, just in case you’re in the market for some under-the-radar local team swag.
If there’s any indication that Tampa is a hockey town, it’s this
The Steinbrenner Warriors, Manatee Admirals, Wiregrass Ranch and Cypress Creek Coyotes will all move on to play in the semifinals at AMALIE Arena Tuesday night. But it was Sunday’s moments from every school competing that will punch my ticket there. I enjoyed watching Palmetto try to climb their way back from a 5-2 deficit against Manatee. Steinbrenner’s empty netter to seal a fiery win over Plant put a smile on my face, even if it did come at the expense of my alma mater. Hayden Hunter’s four-goal performance was the spotlight of the day for Cypress Creek. Collin Freidrich’s two third-period goals to lead Wiregrass over Newsome were a fun cap to the evening.
I went into Sunday’s Lightning Cup Playoffs with zero expectations. I left with a really good feeling. The work that the Lightning Hockey Development team puts in year over year is delivering for a community embracing new experiences. Now that the league has had time for its talent to round into form, it’s shaping into something spectacular.