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Theme nights for the Tampa Bay Lightning are special days. From Military Appreciation to Fight Cancer Night, fans have come to expect an immersive experience that not only highlights the theme but moves the crowd to both tears -and cheers.

One theme night in particular has grown just as the need for help has exploded across the region – and even the world: Mental Health Awareness.

For the past several years, the Tampa Bay Lightning has hosted Hockey Talks Night to break the stigma of getting help for mental health, bring mental health conversations to the surface, and highlight resources available to those who need it. It is also a night to recognize organizations that work for mental health advocacy throughout Tampa Bay.

“We’ve all been through so much the last three to four years,” said Sarah Costello, manager of the Lightning Foundation and Community Events. “It’s something that we want to remind fans: it’s okay to talk about; it’s okay to feel like you’re not having a great day, week, or month. But if you feel like you need help, there is help available. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed.”

Vinik Sports Group created a mental health committee made up of 15 staff members who come up with internal and external programming ideas for Hockey Talks night and throughout the year. Costello serves as chair of this all-volunteer group, which has expanded Hockey Talks Night each year.

“Our goal is that the moment you walk onto Ford Thunder Alley Plaza, you know it is a special night for us,” she said.

Hockey Talks Night greets fans as soon as they step foot onto the property with custom puck art to green balloons (green is the official color for mental health awareness.) Social media throughout the day features interviews with players who discuss why mental health is so important to them. The team donates 250 tickets to mental health nonprofit organizations for the game that night, which also features in-game presentations on the big board, along with facts and figures about mental health and resources for getting help.

Hallways are decorated with Hockey Talks cards. These cards are filled with affirmations by staff and fans and placed in the player locker room hallway so that the players can see them during warmups and the game.

“We know mental health is just as important as physical health,” Costello said. “The Lightning has created a safe space for our fans…to help break the stigma.”

The Lightning asks fans to nominate fellow fans who may be in need of an uplift. During the game, that fan receives a “touch of kindness” during a seat drop that includes handwritten notes of affirmation from a member of the Lightning Mental Health Committee, a cupcake from the bakeshop, and a signed player cup.

“We are a hockey team, so we aren’t the subject matter experts in this space, but we are fortunate enough to have 19,000 people in our building and thousands upon thousands of social media followers. If that message reaches just one person and they can get better, that’s what we want to use our platform for: making a difference, continuing the conversation, advocating for mental health as an organization, and working with partners like Tampa Bay Thrives, which does the work every day.”