Wednesday, August 15, 2018
News Roundup

Engine No. 9 serves as sanctuary for Chicago Blackhawks fans in Tampa Bay Lightning country

ST. PETERSBURG — Around 10:40 p.m. Wednesday, after the hometown Lightning surrendered a second goal to the Chicago Blackhawks to cough up Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, a strange noise emanated from the corner of First Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

Raucous, joyous cheers.

The source of this out-of-place excitement? Engine No. 9, a bar and highly regarded burger joint in St. Petersburg where the Blackhawks fan-per-capita is often higher than anywhere else in Tampa Bay. It's designated an official Blackhawks bar by the team — the only one outside of Illinois and Wisconsin — and will be hosting Chicago fans again when Game 3 starts tonight.

"I felt like we discovered a little piece of Chicago," said Matt Pinkowski, seated at the bar in his Patrick Kane sweater for Game 1 with his wife, Julie. Pinkowski, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette but moved to the Tampa Bay area in 2008, has watched games at Engine No. 9 all season, he said.

How does a bar in the middle of Tampa Bay Lightning territory end up as a destination for Chicago's faithful?

The bar's owner is Jason Esposito, son of legendary Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito. That also makes him the nephew of Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame center for the Hawks and Boston Bruins who co-founded the Lightning.

Engine No. 9 is an homage to the family's hockey heritage. Signed jerseys of Tony and Phil hang on the red and black walls on either side of a Blackhawks flag. Burgers and sandwiches named "Blackhawk" and "Windy City" dot the menu. During the NHL season, no matter who is playing, but especially if it's the Blackhawks (or Lightning), TVs are tuned to hockey.

When he opened the bar in 2012, Jason Esposito, who has a culinary background, hoped he was tapping into an under-served niche by catering to hockey fans in St. Petersburg. The bar has served as a local destination for followers of many NHL teams, but playing up Esposito's Chicago roots helped create its distinct following.

"Our idea was just to have a little corner kind of bar and it turned out to be a lot more than that," Esposito said. "It's kind of nostalgic. It reminds me of home, of Chicago."

Growing up, Esposito didn't see much of his father during the eight-month hockey season. He remembers listening to Blackhawks games on the radio (the team kept the games off television for most of the 20th century) to hear how his father performed.

Tony Esposito, who worked for the Lightning under his brother in the franchise's early days, lives in St. Pete Beach and frequently visits Engine No. 9.

"To be able to watch games with my father in our own setting, it's something I never got to do growing up," Jason Esposito said. "I get to hear him talk about the game, get his thoughts on it, and that's something I never had before."

Tony O, as he is affectionately called, stopped in Thursday and said he soon found himself surrounded by about 20 Chicago fans eager to say hello.

"It's fun going there, and I meet a lot of people and take pictures and talk with fans," he said. "I'm just happy to see he's successful. He stuck his neck out, and it worked out well for him."

With its unique draw, Engine No. 9 serves as a small reflector of Tampa Bay's reputation as a vacation destination with a transient sports culture.

It attracts both homesick Blackhawks fans — reminded during the team's seemingly perennial playoff run just how far they are from friends and family in Chicago — and acts as a homing beacon for Illinoisans visiting Florida.

The Gilbert family from Schaumburg, Ill., didn't expect their vacation in Madeira Beach to run into the Stanley Cup final in Tampa, and they briefly toyed with buying tickets for the series opener but balked at the price. They were thrilled, then, when their daughter, Liz, found Engine No. 9 a short drive away.

"It felt a little safer to be here with Blackhawks fans," Dorene Gilbert said while wearing a red Hawks T-shirt.

"We're not afraid of any damn Tampa Bay Lightning fans," her husband Jeff Gilbert jokingly retorted from inside the Hawks sanctuary.

Bigger than a hole in the wall but a fraction of the size of nearby Ferg's, Engine No. 9 was stuffed for Game 1 with several dozen Blackhawks fans. They meshed cordially with a few handfuls of vocal Lightning backers, instilling the atmosphere of a friendly rivalry that grew more tense as the tight game went on.

Though outnumbered, Tampa Bay fans held court for most of the game, loudly and proudly cheering on their one-goal lead. But it was the Blackhawks fans who screamed, hugged and high-fived when the final horn went off.

Jason Esposito considers himself a big fan of both teams, as evidenced by the Lightning flag also hanging in the bar. Whereas his father is squarely for the Hawks and his uncle roots for the Lightning, Esposito insists he's Switzerland and the matchup is a best-case scenario for him and his bar.

Esposito is pulling for one particular outcome: "Game 7, triple overtime."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

     
   
Comments
Couple looks to plant new South Tampa church at the Tampa Garden Club

Couple looks to plant new South Tampa church at the Tampa Garden Club

Pastors Chris and Erica Allen know many millennials feel disconnected from the Christian church. "For a lot of folks, church hasn’t seemed relevant to their lives," Erica Allen said. "That’s why we don’t expect people to come to us. We want to come t...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Pasco sheriff: At least three wounded by gunfire in Hudson

Pasco sheriff: At least three wounded by gunfire in Hudson

HUDSON — A shooting left at least three people wounded on Wednesday night, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.Some of the victims suffered serious injuries, the agency said.Deputies received a call at about 7:55 p.m. that a shooting had t...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

It is real news that the Hillsborough County School District said this week it will accelerate testing for lead in drinking water and release the results after the Tampa Bay Times reported testing would take years and that until we asked families wer...
Updated: 2 hours ago
As Jonchuck nears trial, defense takes novel approach to gain any advantage

As Jonchuck nears trial, defense takes novel approach to gain any advantage

In the coming trial of a father accused of tossing his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge to her death — a crime for which he faces the death penalty — nothing is normal.That has certainly been true for the flurry of motions filed by defendant John Jon...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Remember Trevor Dooley? His stand your ground case returns to court for appeal on Tuesday

Remember Trevor Dooley? His stand your ground case returns to court for appeal on Tuesday

TAMPA — Remember the case of Trevor Dooley?He’s the Valrico man who fatally shot one of his neighbors back in 2010 during a fight over a skateboarder on a basketball court. He later unsuccessfully invoked Florida’s stand your ground self-defense law....
Updated: 4 hours ago
Keswick coach Phil Hayford back on the field after spring’s gruesome leg injury

Keswick coach Phil Hayford back on the field after spring’s gruesome leg injury

It's going to take more than a nasty leg injury to keep Keswick Christian coach Phil Hayford off the football field. Hayford, 70, was injured in April when he got too close to a player during a drill. The cleat from one of his players peeled off the ...
Updated: 4 hours ago

AfghanistanDozens of soldiers, students killed in pair of attacksSuicide bomber: A suicide bomber struck a private education center in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul on Wednesday where high school graduates were preparing for university entrance exam...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Video shows driver intentionally run over gopher tortoise outside Pinellas County school

Video shows driver intentionally run over gopher tortoise outside Pinellas County school

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s office is looking for a driver who appeared to intentionally drive over an endangered gopher tortoise Saturday afternoon.The driver was in the parking lot of the San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin at around 3:20 p.m. ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
For starters: Rays at Yankees, with Jake Faria on the mound

For starters: Rays at Yankees, with Jake Faria on the mound

UPDATE, 6:25: The lat strain sustained by RHP Wilmer Font in June has proved to be serious, Cash saying today: "In all likelihood it will be really challenging to see him at any point the rest of this year."UPDATE, 6:07: Cash said they are expecting ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Stand your ground shooter has three-lawyer team

Stand your ground shooter has three-lawyer team

LARGO — Three lawyers have signed on to represent Michael Drejka, the man who shot and killed Markeis McGlockton in what authorities initially deemed a stand your ground shooting.Whether Lysa Clifton, John Trevena and Bryant Camareno will use that de...
Updated: 4 hours ago