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Kissing up to hockey

It was a small moment in a night of cheers and screams and tears and tantrums.

Fourteen minutes before the Tampa Bay Lightning started its first game of the season _ a game so many people said would never come _ team owner Phil Esposito leaned over and kissed his partner.

Smack. Right on the cheek _ an unusual gesture between a former Canadian hockey player with big dreams and a Japanese partner with lots of money, but one that said volumes.

"Thanks," Esposito said quietly in the ear of Yoshio Nakamura. "I couldn't have done it without you."

Nakamura, the man who bailed out the team with major financial support, looked up and smiled.

Then the men walked out in an icy blue spotlight, center rink, to the roar of more than 10,000 fans.

On ice Wednesday night, it was the game of hockey, a tumultuous game between the Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks. In the quiet back rooms of the state fairgrounds, it was a game of gratitude.

Over cocktails and canapes, hockey officials thanked society's elite who supported them in a two-year quest to bring the sport to Tampa. In the arena, the fans wore tennis shoes, but in a special suite, supporters wore tuxedos. Esposito and a legion of limited partners played host to local and national celebrities as vendors hawked beers outside.

Mayor Sandy Freedman brought along a proclamation. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Sam Wyche chatted about the city's other sport, football. Wade Boggs made jokes. TV star Alan Thicke practiced his introduction.

Over by the bar, supermodel Kim Alexis had a club soda while her boyfriend Ron Duguay tried to teach Southerners about hockey.

"No, no, no," the hockey veteran and one-time all-star said to a group of confused fans who had asked about illegal hockey moves. "It's not called "blue-lining.' It's called "offsides.' It's when the player travels across the blue line before the puck does."

Blank stares and confused looks.

"You know, offsides, that's different from icing," Duguay said, trying to explain another illegal move.

He was making it worse. More stares.

Alexis laughed quietly.

"It's cute," she said of Southern fans. "It's like listening to a small child. They are just learning the game. They really don't know what's going on."

Even those who invested in the team or in season tickets seemed a little confused about the sport, a complicated game that requires concentration as quick as a slap shot.

"I'm told there are only two rules in hockey," said lawyer Wm. Reese Smith, whose wife, Gay Culverhouse, is president of the Buccaneers. "The blue lines and icing. Once you figure out the difference, you understand everything."

And what's that difference?

"I have no idea," he laughed.

In another private party _ this one for season-ticket holders _ Hugh Miller and Mark Tempest of Tampa said the toughest part about hockey was figuring out how to react.

"I don't know what to do," Tempest said. "Should I be polite? Should I be rude? We have to look at somebody to figure out what to do. When they are brave enough to react, we react."

"We've been told we're very polite fans," Miller said. "Maybe we'll get more rude as we learn more."

"They'll catch on," Esposito said, as he hustled to greet some backers. "It'll take a while, but people are much more knowledgeable than I thought they'd be."

He pulled at his tux. Esposito still had more party duties, then a pre-game show.

"I'll tell ya, " Esposito said. "This is great, but we should be getting on with the game."