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Veterans, troops thrilled to be honored by Lightning at every game – even the extra ones

A video screen grab shows audience members standing for the National Anthem prior to the start of a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game.

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: May 19, 2018

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Bill Kingdon has packed a lot into his 92 years, but what they have planned for him Saturday night rates as a truly special moment for the World War II veteran and former Salem, N.H., fire chief.

Shortly before the puck drops at Amalie Arena for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup's Eastern Conference finals, Kingdon will take the ice as part of the Tampa Bay Lightning's National Anthem presentation ceremony.

"I'm so excited I can't even sleep," said Kingdon, who served on a repair ship in the Pacific during World War II and now is retired from a career in firefighting and living in Dade City.

Kingdon, along with Army Master Sgt. Matt Parrish of U.S. Special Operations Command, will be the latest in a line of veterans and troops honored by the Lightning in one of the nation's most military friendly cities.

The tradition got a boost when John Franzone, the team's vice president of game presentation/production, came over to the Lightning a decade ago from a similar job with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Franzone, 52, gives credit to Rays senior adviser and former sportscaster Dick Crippen, who taught him the ropes about MacDill Air Force Base.

"I was new to Tampa Bay and unfamiliar with how the base worked," Franzone said. "It was right at the height of 9/11 and the early days of the conflict in the Middle East. Dick was a great primer on the inner workings of the base, all the commands there, and we took it upon ourselves to honor the military."

In 2004, when the shock and awe of Operation Iraqi Freedom had worn off and the war was dragging on, the Rays started honoring people as they returned from deployments.

"Fast forward to 2008, and when I came to the Lightning, there already was a military program in place, but I felt I could bring more heft to it and restructure how we did the presentations."

The Bolts now take an opportunity, often two, during each game to honor those who have served.

The first often comes during the National Anthem. The second, a fixture at each game, is usually during a TV timeout in the second period when the team presents the USAA Standing Salute.

Over the last 10 years, an estimated 700 recognition ceremonies have taken place, as well as an occasional enlistment ceremony where recruits are sworn into the military.

Those honored are selected in several ways, Franzone said.

The team taps a dozen local military commands for nominees, most of them based at MacDill. They include SOCom, U.S. Central Command, Special Operations Command Central, the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the 927th Air Refueling Wing, the Joint Communications Support Element, and Marine Forces Central Command. Other commands include Coast Guard Station Clearwater, the Air Force ROTC, Army Medical Command in Pinellas Park and Army recruiting programs.

To find older veterans, Franzone's "ace in the hole" is Mark Van Trees, who runs Support the Troops, an organization that sends care packages to military forces around the world.

"Mark has been invaluable in terms of steering us to veterans," Franzone said, especially since his other contacts in the military frequently rotate out of Tampa.

Other times, fans will write in to nominate themselves or relatives.

Each person honored receives a letter of appreciation on behalf of the organization and a signed photo from Dave Andreychuk, former team captain and the Bolts' vice president of corporate and community affairs. They also receive a custom-made Lightning Military Coin, which Van Trees helped make possible.

"Staging these moments is a privilege for me," Franzone said. "It is truly humbling. After you learn of these warriors' stories and the sacrifices they and their families have made, it truly puts one's petty daily issues in perspective."

Another recent Lightning honoree was Lt. Col. Aaron F. Morris, a Tampa native and Army aviator who serves as assistant to the SOCom chief of staff. Morris' moment came during a playoff game against the Boston Bruins; getting to the playoffs means more games to honor more service members.

Morris gazed at snapshots of his career and images of his family displayed on giant screens in the darkened Amalie Arena to the applause of 19,000 people – an experience he described as surreal.

"I've been a Lightning fan since their inaugural season and I watched them win the Stanley Cup while I was deployed to Iraq," he said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "I never expected to see two areas of my life I'm passionate about – the Army and the Lightning – displayed to so many people, and it is hard to put into words what it is like to hear their response."

Veteran Kingdon, who served two years on active duty and another eight in the reserve, grew up in New Hampshire as a Boston Bruins fan and moved to the Tampa area in 1981. Ever since the Lightning was founded during the 1992 NHL expansion, Kingdon has been part of the Thunder – the team's community of fans.

Saturday night will mark his first time seeing the team play in person.

"I'm a big Lightning fan and watch every game on TV," he said. "It's a great honor for me to be honored this way and I hope I represent all the veterans well."

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