And There Was Gare

Tuesday, 12.11.2012 / 5:06 PM
Matt Sammon  - Lightning Radio

As an NHL player, Danny Gare had a magic touch when it came to “firsts”. His first goal came on his first shift on his first shot just 18 seconds in to a game against Phil Esposito’s Boston Bruins. His first playoff goal came on his first shot in the 1975 playoffs against Tony Esposito’s Chicago Blackhawks. The first overtime game-winning goal for the Buffalo Sabres in their 1975 Stanley Cup run? You guessed it—off the stick of Gare. So with a chance to be part of a first in the NHL, professional hockey in the state of Florida, naturally Gare jumped at the opportunity. “I was unfortunately going through a divorce at the time, and I wanted to start something new and Phil gave me the opportunity. I thought it was great to be able to do something at the grassroots level with the team, to bring hockey to Florida.”

At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Danny Gare was in many ways the Martin St. Louis of his time: speedy, talented, and deadly on the power play. He twice scored 50 or more goals in a season, twice was a captain for two different NHL teams, and was the first Sabre to lead the team in scoring while not playing for the “French Connection” line. A chronically sore back ground his career to a halt before he turned 33, and after dabbling in broadcasting in Buffalo for a few seasons, he had a chance to get back in the booth in Tampa Bay. He also had a chance to get out and be active in selling hockey to Tampa Bay, something that was required of everyone in the Lightning’s front office that first season. “I did the Street Lightning program with Becky Cashman, I did sales and marketing with Gerry Helper and Jon Swenson, and then I did television with John Kelly and it just kept going on and on. But that’s the type of thing… we all had to pitch in and help out.”

That first season was so memorable in many ways for Gare. Being out in the market meeting fans face-to-face more often than most broadcasters, he could see first-hand the seeds of hockey being planted in virtually virgin soil. “They had that open house at Expo Hall [in August 1992], and people would ask, ‘Could I get a ticket near the 50-yard line?’ It would be the same way [in St. Pete] because it was a baseball stadium, ‘Could I get a ticket near the dugout?’ We had some exciting teams then, they drew pretty good there [at Thunderdome], they had the $99 season ticket which I couldn’t believe in the 300/upper levels, but it was fun, I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Pounding the pavement set up the sellout opening night on October 7, 1992, a game everybody wanted to be a huge success on and off the ice, mostly so as not to let down team founder and general manager Phil Esposito. “Everybody in the organization had worked hard to get the place sold out, to bring hockey in—Phil had worked very hard at doing that. I didn’t think they wanted to disrespect Phil in that way. I thought that they felt that they didn’t want to let him down. It was loud, it was exciting, there was a lot of energy in the building and I think the players just fed off that and boy did they take off.”

The opening night win, a 5-1 win at Madison Square Garden several weeks later, and Doug Crossman’s 6-point night on Long Island all stood out in Gare’s mind as memorable pieces of the early days of the club. And even though the organization went through the usual ups and downs of an expansion club, witnessing history from high atop Expo Hall in the swinging broadcast gondola was exciting. Yet as the summer of 1993 rolled around, Gare had a chance to experience another first. For the first time in his professional career, he was moving down behind the bench as an assistant coach. “I looked at it as an opportunity to do what I always felt what I wanted to do being a former captain was to help teach young players and mentor young players. Phil thought I was a little nuts doing it, he says, ‘You could have stayed in Tampa Bay and done TV the rest of your life!’ But I wanted to coach and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Gare could have enjoyed the creature comforts of broadcasting for the rest of his life, but given the challenge of molding a team that was quickly changing from cagey veterans to up-and-coming talent, Gare couldn’t resist. Given that 79 of his 354 goals (a tad over 22% of his career output) came on the power play, Gare assisted in the growth of the Lightning’s special teams while occasionally serving as an “eye in the sky” for an overall perspective of the team’s play.

While the Lightning’s power play efficiency dipped a bit in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons, thanks mostly to player turnover common with expansion teams, Gare’s coaching helped get the team’s young stars producing early on in their careers. Players like Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton, and Alex Selivanov all got plenty of ice time on the power play unit. And even though Gare was not with the Lightning during the team’s 1996 playoff run, his students all played key roles in their upset bid of the Philadelphia Flyers. In fact Selivanov lead the team (with Brian Bellows) in power play tallies with 13, while Hamrlik was a close second with 12—many of those coming from a lethal slapshot at the point.

After leaving the team in 1995, Gare once again became active in the broadcast booth, and he did so in Buffalo where his career started. He was also active in the Sabres’ youth hockey and community outreach programs, and after a brief stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ broadcast group, he is once again in Buffalo chipping in wherever the Sabres need him. It’s not unlike his first days in Tampa Bay, 20 years ago, and he still has many business and alumni ties in the Bay area. With several visits to the area every year, one of the first broadcasters and coaches in team history sees nothing but good things for the team he helped get off the ground in the near future. “When you look back at the 20 years, to win a Stanley Cup is unbelievable. Now with the new ownership with Mr. Vinik and my old friend and teammate Steve Yzerman as the general manager I think it bodes well for the future. He’s a guy that understands the game, he’s a humble individual that is intelligent about the game and I know that he will, along with Mr. Vinik, will find away to get you back to the Cup.”

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