The Winter Development Program held earlier this month at Tropicana Field could be best described as a camp that was all about teaching the future stars of the franchise how to behave like "professional" baseball players.
How to prepare their bodies for the rigors of a long season like professionals.
How to handle the media like professionals.
How to give back to the community that you play in by participating in and contributing to charity events like professionals.
How to have fun like professionals.
Wait...what?!...have fun like professionals?
Having fun was indeed on the docket for the attendees of the camp - in the form of a Tampa Bay Lightning game.
The best young talent in the Rays' farm system were treated to the experience of Lightning hockey at the recently re-named Tampa Bay Times Forum and were among the 17,630 fans in attendance at a game against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, January 10th.
As I found out out while interviewing some of the players after a workout the following day - many of them are pretty hardcore hockey fans. Those that aren't, came away from the experience with a new-found appreciation for the sport.
While the Lightning eventually fell to the visiting Canucks 5-4 in a shootout after battling back from a 4-2 deficit, the Rays' players were not around to see the exciting finish - much to the chagrin of pitcher Jacob Thompson.
"We had to leave after the second period. I think they wanted to get everyone back by ten," Thompson said. "It was a really good game after the first period. They came back in the second and were really strong. When we got home I was like 'Oh, man! We totally missed a great game!' It was fun."
Thompson may one day be pitching at Tropicana Field for the Rays, but as a youngster hockey was one of his main passions. Because of that, he watched the game from the viewpoint of a former player.
"I grew up a (Anaheim) Ducks fan being from California. I used to play hockey. I was a goalie. So I understood the game. I was getting frustrated because they weren't handling the puck."
Thompson wasn't the only Ducks' fan in the Rays' clubhouse that day - shortstop Brandon Martin grew up a fan of the team as well. But for the 18-year-old Anaheim native it is a familial affair.
"I've been a hockey fan ever since I was growing up. My Mom - she works for the Ducks," Martin told me.
Martin's Mom would be Melody Martin, who works in the Ducks' Finance, Administration, and Legal Department as the team's Controller.
The Ducks' Pacific Division rivals - the San Jose Sharks - were represented in the Rays' locker room as well. 2011 supplemental pick Tyler Goeddel grew up watching the team, but also seemed impressed by the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"I’ve been to a couple of other hockey games before - the San Jose Sharks are close to my house - but never here. Hockey games are always fun to watch. It’s a great arena. It was fun.”
When one thinks of Lenny Linsky, the first things that come to mind are sinkers, sliders, sand and surfboards. But the Rays's resident surfer/closer has hockey in his blood thanks to his father.
"The Tampa Bay Lightning game..it was unreal. My dad played hockey in college. He’s from Boston, so he grew up a Bruins fan," Linsky told me excitedly.
He was especially stoked about something he picked up while at the game.
"I got a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey with my name and number on the back. It was pretty cool. It was a great time."
Former football player and Rays 2011 first-rounder Mikie Mahtook came away impressed by the game and after lamenting about his LSU Tigers losing in the BCS National Championship game, told me about the experience.
"“I enjoyed it. First NHL game I’ve gone to. In Lafayette we had like a semi-pro team but
it doesn’t compare to that obviously. It was kind of a different type of thing. They’re great athletes."
But despite his football mentality, Mahtook isn't ready to get on the ice any time soon and cross-check somebody.
"Maybe on the football field," he laughed. "I think I would be at a little bit of a disadvantage on the ice. Something that I've never been able to master is ice skating."
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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