Lightning History Rooted in Humble Beginnings
Looking back two decades, Phil Esposito pressed all the right buttons to bring Tampa Bay a successful first year of hockey
The Tampa Bay region is widely considered famous for its natural landscape.
Extending over 400 square miles of Florida’s largest open-water estuary are sandy beaches, abundant fisheries and lengthy stretches of watershed coastline that lines portions of five of the state’s counties. Believe it or not, there is an even a 200 x 85-foot man-made ice rink nestled right in the heart of downtown Tampa, but even with that, the area still makes much of its living from mother earth.
So, as the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate their 20th Anniversary season, perhaps there was no better place after all for Phil Esposito and an upstart hockey franchise to take root.
Success is often a product of foresight and opportunity, and there is no doubt Esposito took full advantage of both.
A Hockey Hall-of-Famer in his own right, Esposito was all of 48 years old when he arrived in Tampa Bay to usher in the second coming of a so-called Ice Age – approximately 2.6 million years following that of the Pleistocene epoch, although this one was met with a bit more excitement and anticipation than the original.
Anyways, after the National Hockey League gave the area rave reviews, an official franchise was granted to the region on Dec. 6, 1990, and with an appropriate choice of words fitting for a Bay Area resident, the rest was “smooth sailing,” Esposito said.
That, for the most part, was accurate, at least when it came to choosing the Lightning name.
“The truth is, I didn’t come up with the name Lightning,” Esposito said. “I wish I could say I did, but I didn’t.”
In reality, Esposito was attending a party on the back porch of a friend’s home on Davis Islands, that of well-known Tampa attorney Bennie Lazzara, and it wasn’t until a large black cloud and impending thunder storm rolled over the bay that Lazzara’s mother had her famous eureka moment.
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“All of a sudden the sky lit up and she got scared,” Esposito recalled. “She said, ‘look at that lightning!’ and I immediately turned around, pointed at her, and I said, ‘yes, that’s it.’ It was absolutely perfect.”
Always the idea man, Esposito then needed to create as much publicity as possible.
“I wanted to do things differently, and I knew I was going to have to since hockey in Tampa Bay was new,” Esposito added. “You have to remember, none of this had ever been done before.”
That was true.
A lot of this had never been done before.
At least not in the way Esposito was about to do it.
At the time, the Lightning’s staff was still relatively small, consisting of about 40-50 staff members. As a result, the organization had little choice but to initiate its own grassroots marketing initiatives, in which each employee was to take their sales skills to the streets. That even included, of course, Esposito himself.
“I would go all over, to the malls, restaurants, and parking lots, and I literally just started putting Tampa Bay Lightning stickers on people’s cars,” Esposito said. “I once put a sticker on the back of George Steinbrenner’s Mercedes. I didn’t know it was his car at the time, but yeah, you better believe he got one.”
Then, when it came to actually assembling a team, Esposito’s decision-making appeared just as calculated.
“There was always a reason behind everything I did,” he said. “Sometimes there were people who didn’t agree with it, but I was the boss, and I was going to do things my way.”
In order to get the team off to a successful start on the ice, he selected defenseman Roman Hamrlik with the team’s first ever draft selection. The only trouble was, Hamrlik was an 18-year-old kid from the Czech Republic who spoke little English and whose shyness in front of a camera was likened to a junior high student at his first school dance.
So, in came Brent Gretzky, the biological brother of hockey great Wayne, for some good press, as well as female goaltender Manon Rheaume, who was offered a tryout at the team’s training camp, naturally for some more headlines.
“I knew what I had to do to get the fans on board,” Esposito said. “Some of the decisions weren’t popular, but I knew that once we got them in the building, we had them. I would go out and tell people, ‘look, you folks love boxing, you love wrestling, you love football, and you love car crashes. Come out to a hockey game, and you get all of that in one place.’”
Eventually, they did.
The date was October 7, 1992, and sure, the natives had witnessed lightning before, but not like this.
It was that night when the Lightning hosted the Chicago Blackhawks in the franchise's inaugural game inside Expo Hall, a small indoor arena suited more for housing livestock each year at the annual state fair.
Humble beginnings, one might say, that was until the puck actually dropped, in which shortly after it appeared that the league's newest kid on the block brought some bite to the Bay Area.
Led by Chris Kontos' four-goal game, a franchise single-game record that still stands today, the Lightning defeated the Blackhawks 7-3 to officially usher in a new era of hockey in Tampa Bay.
“I'll never forget that night,” Esposito said. “The building was packed, and right then and there, I knew we had these people's attention. And, on top of that, we won, too.”
Before long, previously unheralded players such as Kontos, Brian Bradley, John Tucker, Danton Cole, Wendell Young and Rob Zamuner would become household names for some of the NHL's most loyal fans.
After all, the newly-assembled group did make for a stunning debut, but as Esposito would say later, it hardly went off without a hitch.
Take for example the home team's facilities, which came equipped with standard locker stalls and changing areas, but wasn't quite spacious enough to house the training table on which players would often lie to receive treatments for sore muscles and other various ailments common to athletes.
“The place was so small, we had to put the training table outside of the dressing room,” Esposito recalled.
Actually, outside of the building was more like it, specifically under a set of palm trees that could be seen about 100 feet out the locker room's back door. In fact, rumor has it those were the same trees where Hamrlik was seen serenely fishing under one time before a team pre-game meeting.
“They were a bunch of characters,” Esposito said. “All of them.”
Generally speaking, all is well that ends well, and that night in particular certainly did.
The unexpected beginning would prove to be a signal of more surprises to come for the Baby Bolts, who apparently didn't know they were supposed to roll over and play dead following the first month of the season.
In mid-November, goaltender Pat Jablonski pitched the first shutout in team history, and the 9-8-2 Lightning found themselves on top of the Norris Division with league heavyweights Detroit, Toronto, Chicago and Minnesota all taking a back seat.
However, the next 12 games would bring the team back to its humble beginnings, as a 1-11-0 stretch put the Lightning at the bottom of the division.
In the end, the team would post a better-than-expected 23-54-7 record, and the club would part ways with Ramage, Crossman, Basil McRae, Anatoli Semenov, Peter Taglianetti and Mike Hartman, as Esposito stockpiled young talent and draft picks with an eye toward the future.
But those fortunate enough to enjoy the inaugural game of the 1992-93 Tampa Bay Lightning remember a team that never stopped working for a full 60 minutes. They also remember a special season that laid the groundwork for now what has become two decades of Lightning hockey.