Ridin Solo to the Stanley Cup!
Warning: If you are not a true sports fan, 80 percent of this post will not make sense. Words cannot explain what it is like to truly be a hard-core fan of a sports team.
I went to college in Tampa (University of South Florida, 93-98) and really loved my time there. In 1994, I went to my first ever hockey game. I quickly fell in love with the sport and the hometown Tampa Bay Lightning, despite many losing seasons. I attended many games, often taking advantage of college student discounts and group rates. In 1995, I arranged for a private tour of the new arena, then called The Ice Palace with some friends.
I was at their first ever home playoff game in 1996, a thrilling 5-4 overtime win over Philadelphia. But they lost the series and 6 years of losing seasons ensued. After a brief stint actually working for the team (sales) in 1998, I followed the team even after moving to New York in 2001. I watched game 7 of their Stanley Cup winning victory game while eating dinner in Missouri for a work project in 2004...not how it should be.
That team steadily declined after that first ever team championship until 2013, when they started making the playoffs every year and finally winning another cup during the Pandemic in 2020. Those games were watched from my couch in New York, until the final few wins. Those, I watched from a pandemic trip to Las Vegas and a Stanley Cup victory that took place in Edmonton in front of zero fans.
The team made another run this year (2021) and my circumstances allowed me to hop on a flight to Tampa to witness some of it live! My usual hockey game buddy was out of town, but I had to go...had a good feeling. It was all done last minute, as the team just kept winning. The opportunity just could not, and should not be passed up.
I used Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a non-stop first class flight on United. I got in by 12:30pm and decided to take a public bus from the airport to downtown. My timing was a little off, but eventually made it onto the empty bus which dropped me off at the main bus terminal downtown in about 20 minutes. The cost was $2.00. If there is a way to save money on the transit to/from the airport, and I have the time, I am game to try it. Walking from the bus stop to the Marriott Waterside Hotel located right next to the arena took 15 minutes. Thanks to my trip to Dubai and a great Marriott promo, I had two free nights that I was able to use at this great hotel.
Throughout the day, while enjoying the pool at the fancier JW Marriott next door, I checked both Ticketmaster and Stubhub and eventually landed on a really good seat in the lower level for about $500. That is a lot of money, but it was the lowest priced lower level ticket, and a great seat. Somehow, I discovered that the arena had a deal for Chase credit card holders and after downloading the NHL app and loading my Chase card, I had a $30 credit to use. Food and drinks at sporting events are insanely expensive and a terrible value, but it is very hard to sit there and not eat or drink.
I must admit to being a little nervous to be at the game alone; never done that before, but figured this may be my only chance to see a Stanley Cup finals game and would be among thousands of fellow Lightning fans. I ordered a Papa Johns personal pizza and a beer and headed to my seat...all covered by the chase credit. To my horror, I saw two Montreal Canadiens fans sitting right next to my seat. This scenario is not fun for me. Luckily, a few minutes later, two Lightning fans sat down on the other side of me, and we quickly became friends.
I was really thrilled to be at the game, especially after over a year of no events during the pandemic. I got emotional during the national anthem as a giant Lightning flag was passed over our entire section. It had been about 4 years since my last NHL game.
The game itself was awesome; a 5-1 win made me a happy camper. What a view!
Two days later, I found an upper level seat for game 2 at $250 and decided to take it a few hours before gametime. I also decided to sneak in a giant Kit Kat in my back pocket. This game was also amazing. Surrounded by Lightning fans, the game was much closer and although my team was actually outplayed, they still won the game, 3-1!
Games 3 & 4 were in Montreal and I watched one in my hotel room and one at the hotel bar where I met WWE Legend Ric Flair! He was actually watching his daughter wrestle on TV.
Game 5 was back in Tampa with my team one win from another Stanley Cup. The chance to be in the building for a Stanley Cup win is once in a lifetime... I was checking ticket prices all day and it was expensive at least $550 for an upper level seat. I thought maybe I could snag a last minute deal right before gametime, but I waited too long! There was an outdoor screen setup near the arena, and I watched the first period there until the skies opened up and everyone ran for cover and to the bathrooms. The lines for food were also the same so, I decided to go back to the hotel bar, which was one of the only places that wasn't packed. I ran into a few people I had met a few nights earlier and watched as my time squeaked out a 1-0 victory to clinch the Stanley Cup! After paying my bill, I ran over to the arena just as fans were coming out and the victory was celebrated in the rain where I was able to genuinely enjoy a championship win in person. Its been a wild ride. Two Stanley Cups in less than a year during a worldwide pandemic? I'm thankful to have witnessed part of it. This trip was truly magical, and I was able to do it while still NOT spending a lot of money (Minus the game tickets....those were expensive). My only regret was not buying a ticket to witness the game inside the arena.
First 2 nights at Marriott Waterside Hotel - Free using certificates obtained from previous trip to Dubai (stay twice, earn two free night certificates)
Next 2 nights - Hyatt House Downtown - $198 per night (used $200 gift card purchased 5 years ago and Amex Biz Platinum card - $297-$29 Hyatt Amex cash back = $268 Total
Next 5 nights - Marriott Aloft Midtown - 77,500 Marriott points (20k back for issues during stay) - 57,500 Total Marriott points
Food - Walmart $3.50, Shake Shack $19, American Social $25, Grubhub $22, 7-11 $4.00, CVS $7.00, Bakery $4.00, Bright Ice Cream $7.00, Lightning $13.00, Food truck $8.00
Transit - Buses $4.00, Bike $15, Scooters $9.00
Hockey event tickets - $800
Bar food game 4 - $45
Bar food game 5 - $45
Hilton Hotel - Last night in Tampa - $190
Uber to Airport - $18
Flight back home - $6 plus 25,000 AA miles, first class flight to JFK via MIA
$1621 Total including game tickets, $821 Total without game tickets for 10 nights/11 days
Plus 16809 Hilton points gained
Plus 20,000 Marriott points gained
Plus 4816 Hyatt points gained
Plus 2822 Delta Miles gained