TAMPA — It was 1992 and between periods at Expo Hall, the fairgrounds barn of a hockey rink for the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning, the first NHL team in Florida. Terry Crisp, the team's head coach, stood in the cramped dressing room (what wasn't cramped at the Hall?) and ripped his players for particularly lousy play. Five minutes into Crisp's eruption, the door swung open. A father and son, holding popcorn and a snow cone, walked into the room.
"Is this where the bathrooms are?"
Oh, that first season.
"Crispy couldn't even talk," said Brian Bradley, a center on that first Lightning team. "He didn't even say anything. I think (defenseman) Rob Ramage said, 'No, this isn't the right place. We're in a game right now.' Terry went in his office. … The whole team started laughing."
It's hard not to laugh and smile when thinking about the 1992-93 Lightning, the inaugural season, the men who went first, 25 years ago, owners of one of the great opening nights in sports history, then losers a lot more times than winners, but always scrappy and creating hockey fans as they went. The team will be honored at Saturday's Lightning game.
That first season wasn't always pretty, but it was straight from the heart, whether it was the players on the ice or the fans who learned the game inside that bandbox arena. The whole season was so cozy. Everyone was part of it, including that father and son. There was no pretense and clearly no dressing-room security. Everything was on the fly.
Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito spearheaded the drive to bring hockey to the Sunshine State and became the franchise's first president and general manager. Esposito is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He scored 717 goals and was part of two Stanley Cup winners. Never mind that. He points to the Lightning.
"It's the greatest achievement I've ever done in hockey," Esposito said.
There was nothing like that first Lightning season. The first Lightning coach knew it. The first Lightning players knew it.
It was all so new. It was all so fresh.
"We were the ground floor, hockey in Florida," Crisp said.
"We were pioneers in a way," said Basil McRae, original Lightning.
Esposito was the point man, the carnival barker, the dancing bear. He drafted Gretzky — Brent Gretzky, Wayne's kid brother. He signed a woman, Manon Rheaume, to play goal during the preseason.
"I definitely look back at it as if we were part of something," said John Tucker, the second-leading scorer on that first Lightning team, behind Bradley, the team's representative at the All-Star Game that season.
There was training camp, held in Lakeland. The night before the Lightning hit the ice for the first time, Esposito spoke to the players, as did his brother, Tony, a fellow Lightning executive and Hall of Famer. Crisp spoke. Lastly, there was assistant coach Wayne Cashman, Phil's former Boston Bruins teammate, who spoke directly to the subject of hockey in Florida.
"Cash walked up to the microphone," McRae said. "He says, 'I'm serious, guys. Listen up. If you're golfing and an alligator comes running out, run in circles. They can't turn. Don't try to outrun them.' That was the opening message: Make sure you run in circles when an alligator chases you. Away we went with training camp."
Most of the 70 or so players who gathered for camp felt something nipping at them. The Lightning led the league in chips on shoulders, players having been discarded by their previous teams.
"Oh, for sure," said Bradley, who was selected in the expansion draft from Toronto and who scored 42 goals and 86 points that first season. "We were an expansion team. Everybody wanted to prove themselves, a second chance, a new lease on life."
They'll never forget the regular-season opener, Oct. 7, 1992. Phil Esposito's friend, Alan Thicke, hosted the opening ceremonies, which featured ice dancers, a laser show and fireworks. Then the new hockey club overwhelmed the Chicago Blackhawks, 7-3. Chicago had been to the Stanley Cup Final the previous season. Chris Kontos, an NHL journeyman, scored four goals.
Kontos also provided a signature first-year moment with his third goal. Ushers tried to remove fans who threw hats on the ice. Esposito had to jump in.
Hey, hey, it's a hat trick!
"What's a hat trick?" an usher asked.
The original Lightning was 9-8-2 in November, atop the Norris Division, but faded and finished in the division basement with just 23 wins and 54 losses. But it won converts. It created hockey fans.
"Every night, we came to play," Bradley said. "We got our noses dirty. We competed."
And there was their building.
"It was our barn," Phil Esposito said.
Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. It was home for the inaugural season, before the Lightning moved across Tampa Bay to the renamed Thunderdome. Expo Hall was metal stands and low ceilings and gondolas and obstructed views. It was shoebox-sized locker rooms. It creaked. And it was glorious. There were 24 sellouts that first season — 10,425 was the magic number.
"When those fans got the hang of stomping their feet on the metal, God, that place was loud," Crisp said.
Best of all was when the Florida State Fair and Lightning were going on at the same time. You could hear screams from the thrill rides as coaches did news conferences outside after games because there was no room inside.
"The (dressing) room would smell," Tucker said. "Hot dogs, cotton candy, Italian sausage. The food was right outside the room."
Expo Hall was where home and visiting players would tape their sticks in the sun. Expo Hall was where players like Lightning rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Roman Hamrlik would fish in the pond next to the arena, even before games. And Expo Hall was the tent next to the building, where Lightning brass and players congregated after games, as did fans.
"We would go in the tent with the fans and have a beer," said Pat Jablonski, an original Lightning goaltender who had the first shutout in franchise history.
"We felt like we knew them," said Shawn Wolf, an original Lightning fan who was 24 that season.
A lot of original Bolts fell in love with the area. Bradley, Tucker and Jablonski still live here.
Esposito remembers children waiting for the Zamboni to leave a present outside Expo Hall.
"They'd drop the Zamboni snow out there and the kids would be making little snowballs," he said. "They never saw snow before."
It was all so new. It was all so fresh.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.