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Score one for the youngsters

There couldn't have been more theatrics if it'd been Madonna marrying Michael Jackson. Long before the Lightning babes went out to "Kick Ice," a hockey barn called Expo Hall was exploding to life with thumping music, famous spectators, indoor fireworks, laser lights, stomping feet, great puffs of smoke, standing ovations and a chorus line of figure skaters.

Then came the real show.

Chris Kontos instant legend.

Tampa Bay, a sunshiny metropolis that itches to be "major league," would take thundrous giant steps _ on ice skates _ Wednesday night with a one-for-the-scrapbooks National Hockey League inaugural that turned the Chicago Blackhawks pale with amazement.

About by a babe named Kontos.

Remember 1976, when Tampa Bay's pro football Bucs were born? You expected them to be really bad, but they were far worse. Johnny Carson joked often about the Bucs. They became America's laughingstocks. It would be two seasons and 27 games before the Bucs won No. 1.

Lightning even the name is quicker.

Tampa Bay patrons came hopefully bounding into Expo Hall, but surely nobody was expecting anything mightier than a tough, hustling Lightning team that would leave a few welts on the mighty Blackhawks, and maybe even keep the score close for a period or two.

But a miracle in diapers?

Spectators had chanted "hoc-key! hoc-key!" when the pregame extravaganza lasted too long. They hungered for action of another sort. Lighting players immediately began to deliver beyond the most elaborate, most unrealistic Tampa Bay opening-night fantasies.

Especially the one named Kontos.

Face-off finally came at 8:23 in the Florida evening, and by 8:31 the Lightning crowd was roaring over its first NHL fight, a harmless one-rounder between Chicago's Mike Hudson and Tampa Bay's Anatoli Semenov. It got semi-deafening in the arena, but the decibels wouldn't compare to what was coming at 8:34, when Kontos scored the first Tampa Bay goal ever.

Babes 1, Old Pros 0.

Recognizable Tampa Bay sporting figures were screaming approval in the vibrating Expo Hall pews. Among them, Sam Wyche, Doc Gooden, Wade Boggs, Vince Naimoli, George Steinbrenner, Gary Sheffield, Jennifer Capriati, Bobby Thigpen, Dave Magadan and Fred McGriff.

It wouldn't be Wednesday night's last hurrah. Not by a Lightning longshot. Tampa Bay didn't "keep it close." No, the Lightning astonishingly opened it up, hammering the Campbell Conference champions for leads of 2-1 (wow!) and 4-1 (nah?) and 7-2 (will this make the network news?).

Can this be real?

Throughout the supercharged Expo Hall audience there were notable specks of red. People who came wearing Blackhawks colors. Scott Krajak was especially loud, even when his favorites fell farther and farther behind the stunning Tampa Bay babes.

"I'm a certified hockey crazy," said the 34-year-old auto mechanic. "I grew up at Chicago Stadium, screaming my guts out for the Blackhawks. We moved to Tampa in 1983, and I missed the NHL. It was like a member of my family had died. But now it's in Florida, and my heart really beats for the Lightning, except when they play Chicago."

We're going to find a lot of that at Expo Hall. It's the "Transplant Factor." When the Bruins are in town, expect at least 999 old Bostonians. When it's Montreal, you won't need Superman's ears to hear French Canadian spoken in every section. Old Detroiters await their Red Wings, old Philadelphians are checking the Lightning schedule for their Flyers.

You get the idea.

"Millions of us from up north _ from hockey country _ have moved to Florida but we have a few allegiances that are for life," said Sara Cardoza, an Orlando nurse who showed up for the Tampa Bay opener wearing a New York Yankees blouse. "Can't wait for my guys to be here."

Well, you lifetime fans of the Rangers, Red Wings, Canadiens, Bruins and all those other grand oldies, if Wednesday night wasn't a marvelous aberration, coming to Expo Hall just might not be the Florida vacation that your pet from-up-north team has been counting on.

Right, Chris Kontos?

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