While the actual birth of the Tampa Bay Lightning occurred almost two years earlier, the team took its first baby steps when 72 players gathered on the choppy ice at the Lakeland Civic Center on September 12, 1992. Among the Lightning hopefuls gathered to try to catch the eye of General Manager Phil Esposito and Head Coach Terry Crisp were NHL regulars (Rob Ramage, Marc Bergevin, Doug Crossman, Adam Creighton), retreads hoping for another chance (Ron Duguay, Larry Melnyk) and unknowns such as Kevin MacKay, Rich Braccia and Daniel Shank.
Before long, previously unheralded players such as Brian Bradley, John Tucker, Chris Kontos, Danton Cole, Wendell Young and Rob Zamuner would become household names for some of the NHL's most loyal fans. With the roster trimmed of the Manon Rheaumes and Jeff Bloembergs of the world and with top draft choice Roman Hamrlik having signed hours before the opening faceoff, the team made an unexpected and unforgettable debut with a 7-3 vixtory against the Campbell Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks before a sellout crowd of 10,425 at Expo Hall.
Kontos - an NHL journeyman with previous stops in New York, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles on his resume - would be the man of the night, scoring the franchise's first goal only 4:43 into the game and adding three more to establish a single-game mark that still stood entering the 2001-02 season. The seven-goal offensive outburst by the Lightning also stood as a team best until the 2000-01 season.
The unexpected beginning would prove to be a signal of more surprises to come for the "Hardest Working Team in the NHL," which apparently didn't know it was supposed to roll over. One of the high points of the season came on November 13 at Expo Hall. That evening goaltender Pat Jablonski backstopped the first shutout in franchise history (1-0 vs. Ottawa) and the 9-8-2 Bolts found themselves atop the Norris Division with Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, St. Louis and Minnesota in their rear-view mirror.
However, the next 12 games would bring the team back to earth, as a 1-11-0 stretch put the Lightning at the bottom of the division. Excitement was never an issue for the inaugural season Lightning team, which could dominate a traditional NHL power (as evidenced by a 6-1 trouncing of Edmonton on October 20) or score five and yet lose by five (in a 10-5 loss at Detroit on November 23).
Memorable highlights from the season include: The franchise's first road victory, 2-1 at St. Louis on October 13; Defenseman Doug Crossman's six-point night (another record that still stands) in the team's first overtime victory, 6-5 at the NY Islanders on November 7; A 6-4 home victory against Detroit on November 11; The final home game on April 10, 1993 as the entire team was named the first star of the game and returned to the ice to salute the fans.
In the end, the team would post a better-than-expected 23-54-7 record, and Bradley would set an NHL Expansion record for goals on a non-WHA team with 42. Before season's end the team would part with originals 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.
Those fortunate enough to enjoy the 1992-93 Tampa Bay Lightning in action remember a team that came up short on the scoreboard frequently, but was never outworked. They also remember a special season that laid the groundwork for a decade of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey.