TAMPA — To celebrate the start of the Lightning's 20th anniversary season, five players from the inaugural team were recognized at center ice before Saturday's game.
Four wore retro Tampa Bay jerseys: Brian Bradley, the team's first All-Star; Chris Kontos, who scored four goals in the franchise's first game; Joe Reekie and Pat Jablonski.
But to founder Phil Esposito, the fifth was just as special — even if he came off the Capitals' bench: Roman Hamrlik, the only active player from that team.
"I said to him, 'You're skinnier now than you were when you were 18,' " Esposito said, laughing. "He says, 'When you get older, you have to get thinner.' "
Before the Lightning made Vinny Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos top overall picks, Hamrlik, a strong, two-way defenseman currently listed at 206 pounds, was their first ever draft choice (No. 1 overall in 1992). And though Hamrlik, 38, has since played for five other teams, he said he holds his first 51/2 seasons in the league in special regard.
"It's really crazy," Hamrlik said before the game. "I have so many memories from here. It's where I started, and I had the opportunity to play with some great players. It's a new season now, and I'm with a different team now. But it's incredible. I'll never forget this place."
Hamrlik, traded to the Oilers on Dec. 30, 1997, also played for the Islanders, Flames and Canadiens before joining the Capitals last season. Saturday, he played his 1,380th game, most for a Czech-born player, and he missed nearly 150 more because of three lockouts.
To stay in the league, Hamrlik had to stay healthy — and evolve.
"When you get older, you train harder every summer," Hamrlik said. "And you play a little bit smarter. You try to play with your experience, stick on the ice, learn like (Red Wings star defenseman) Nicklas Lidstrom. I always look up to some of the older guys, how they play and try to learn from them so hopefully I can still bring something to the team."
Hamrlik, in the final year of his deal with Washington, said he still has passion for the game and is driven by the goal to win his first Stanley Cup. But he admitted he never envisioned being here, more than two decades removed from his debut, for the Lightning's commemorative celebration.
"It's going to be a special night for me; a special night for the fans, for the Tampa Bay Lightning, for the organization," Hamrlik said. "I'm really lucky to still play hockey right now at this level, and I'm going to try to enjoy every day of it."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.