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BREAKING THE ICE

Tonight is the night Phil Esposito promised and promised would come, but many didn't believe.

The ghost of the Duke of Manchester has vanished.

The team really did ante up $50-million.

The ice system is working just fine in the Florida State Fairground's Expo Hall.

So let the pucks drop.

Tonight, the expansion team Esposito named the Tampa Bay Lightning will play its first game in the NHL _ in Florida.

The Lightning faces off against the Campbell Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks at 7:35 p.m. in Expo Hall. There is excitement and relief, depending upon who is asked.

The NHL debut is the culmination of almost three years of ups and downs and hard work for Esposito, Henry Paul and Mel Lowell _ the founders of the team. Tonight is also the beginning for coaches Terry Crisp and Wayne Cashman and 25 players, many of whom were not wanted elsewhere but have been reborn in Tampa Bay.

Here's what the Lightning's first NHL game means to the players, coaches and management:

Lowell, executive vice president:

"It's been 2} years of my life. I would say it is a very gratifying feeling for all of us. It's rewarding and a big sigh of relief.

"It's funny how we spoke about it this morning. In the bottom of our stomachs and deep, deep in our hearts, we knew we would be successful in bringing hockey here. But I can honestly say there were many days I didn't want to get up. There were days I couldn't read the papers.

"But we gritted our teeth and came to work with our heads held high. And we got through all the barriers and hills and succeeded. We thank all the deities to be that we made it."

Stan Drulia, right wing playing in his first NHL game:

"I've come a long ways. This is going to be a very exciting day for me personally. But it's going to be exciting for the organization. It's the first game for everybody here, and that's going to be exciting all by itself.

"It's been a dream since growing up and playing road hockey and junior hockey. The goal is always to get to the NHL. Now, it's here, it's hard to describe."

Rob Ramage, defenseman and oldest player on team at 33:

"This is the birth of a new franchise. We're all excited.

"I remember opening night in Maple Leaf Gardens, the bagpipes from the Toronto Mounted Police. And I remember opening night in Birmingham (former World Hockey Association team). I think back to the different places I've been for opening night. It's kind of mind-boggling.

"But this is going to be special."

Cashman, assistant coach:

"The players feel like pioneers or astronauts.

"It means a lot to me because Phil (a longtime friend and former teammate) is a founder of it. I think he's the only guy in any sport that was a star in a game and a Hall of Famer who went and founded his own team in a new market where the game was needed. It's an incredible story.

"But once the puck is dropped, it's a game. Our team against their team."

Crisp, head coach:

"I've been through it so often that to me it's another hockey game in so much as I have to keep it in perspective and stay focused.

"I just hope Phil and Tony and Mel and Henry and those guys enjoy it. I mean, the first-ever regular-season game for the Tampa Bay Lightning. I hope the fans enjoy it."

Basil McRae, 11-year NHL veteran left wing:

"I have an opportunity to be history as far as the NHL goes. I'm going to be pumped up and nervous. It's going to be a feeling like a playoff game."

"To me, I look at it as a whole fresh new start, a clean slate.

"It's a new challenge for me and my family in Florida. The transition has been tough for me _ getting the confidence back in my leg from my injury and also dealing with the transition from Minnesota. The best thing for me is to get out there and get playing. I really am starting to feel comfortable the last week or so."

Yoshio Nakamura, president of Lightning Partners Ltd. (comments made through an interpreter):

"Today is a historic day, not only for the Lightning, but also for the NHL. At times, I thought this day would never come. I feel I have aged 10 years in the last year. But hard work and teamwork got us through.

"We had faith in Phil and Tony to field a competitive group of players. But we never thought the team would be this successful in the preseason. We're real happy at how well Terry and Wayne have done in such a short time.

"We're also pleased and grateful to the community, from Mayor (Sandy) Freedman down to the hockey fans on the street. It's truly humbling for us."

Phil Esposito, president and general manager:

"Please, guys, work hard. Play well. And who knows what will happen. I mean, we're playing against a team that went to the Stanley Cup finals last year. They're a hell of a hockey team.

"To me, training camp was the thing. Once training camp opened and we had all the players here, there was no way anybody could say, "Hey, guys, you're not playing,' unless there was a strike or something.

"But now, we're going to play when it counts. I'm going to be nervous, big time."

LIGHTNING TONIGHT

What: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

When: 7:35 p.m.

Where: Expo Hall, Florida State Fairgrounds

Tickets: None remain

TV/radio: Sunshine Network (except Paragon Cable in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk and Manatee counties); WQYK-1010 AM.

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