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Hockey's never been this hot

Some snowfall last night, eh?

The wind sheared through your clothes, and the ice caked the sidewalk, and that darned car wouldn't start, would it?

Ah, such are the trials and tribulations of hockey season, don't you know?

In case you missed it, we all woke up in a hockey area this morning. And sacre bleu to you, too.

It all started Wednesday night at Expo Hall, when the Tampa Bay Espositos hammered some upstart team from Chicago 7-3. Nice team, those Blackhawks. I'm sure some day they'll grow into a team that can play with the Lightning.

For an expansion team, this was the night of a thousand nights. The Lightning players were on Chicago like cold wind off the lake. There might have been a lot of people in the stands who weren't quite sure what was going on, but it was obvious the Tampa Bay guys were doing it a lot better.

Oh, you should have seen it.

Oops. Sorry. I know that's a sore point. Paragon Cable, for the somewhat complex reasons of "really messing up," chose not to televise the game. What? Were they afraid someone would watch or something? Does it really help your negotiating position to prove that people are screaming to watch an event? Even a day later, Phil Esposito referred to the decision as "asinine."

The damage that decision did to this area, and this franchise, is untold. Wednesday was a showcase night, an invitation for an area to come down and fall in love with this sport. "What better advertisement could we have?" Esposito wondered.

Just how special Wednesday was won't be obvious for a few weeks, until this team has shown that it is indeed an expansion team. The more it loses, the more we will remember how magical this night was.

That it was lost to viewers, and potential ticket-buyers, is more than sad.

What people didn't see was an ordinary guy named Chris Kontos assure the league that Wayne Gretzky won't be missed. They missed Joe Reekie getting so many assists you'd swear he was a point guard. They missed pucks bounding off Wendell Young's chest the way bullets bound off Superman.

You want to know how special it was? It was beyond Esposito's dreams.

"If I had scripted it, I would have said that it would be a close win, maybe a tie, and that the fans would have had a good time," Esposito said. "I wouldn't have written 7-3."

Who would have? Yes, the team had a great preseason, but the Bucs have taught us how much that means. There was a school of thought that opening night would be the time the rest of the league would pat the Lightning on the head and tell it to run along to the basement, that the only thing that stood between the Lightning and a loss was the fact that Alan Thicke wouldn't give up the ice.

(He was out there longer than it took this team to find a place to play.)

Instead, reality was beaten back for one more night. And Tampa Bay learned this about hockey: It certainly is loud. Remember how the heroine always screams in the Dracula movie? Well, multiply that by 10,425, and you get some idea of what this sounded like.

If this happened in a book, you would swear Esposito made a deal with the devil. After all, he has made deals with the Japanese, Czechoslovakians, and most of the free-agent players in Canada. Why not the devil? "I'd rather deal with the Lord," Esposito said. "And maybe it's my turn."

For the record, Esposito felt great Thursday when he wasn't feeling lousy. He spent most of Wednesday night alternating between celebrating and being ill because of the flu. It is an interesting coupling, but then, so is hockey talk on the beach.

Mind you, there is plenty else to talk about.

Take the Bucs. Vinny Testaverde is trying to turn into Alexander Haig. The team cut Alonzo Highsmith, and some fans apparently have him confused with Jim Brown.

Take baseball. Somewhere, Bill White is sitting in a hotel room wondering if it's next week yet. (Yes, Bill. It's been next week for about a month now). Barry Bonds is trying to get a baseball jersey with a bigger collar. So are the Toronto Blue Jays. Tell me, how bad would Bonds gag if he played in the playoffs for the Blue Jays?

All of that, however, is old news. What you are hearing about are the fresh faces of these merry pucksters. You hear about blue lines and red lines and scoring lines. You hear about goals and saves and fights. You hear about Kontos, who is taking full advantage of the fact that Tampa Bay doesn't know he isn't a superstar.

You know what it all sounds like?

It sounds like hockey.

This keeps up, we're all going to have to learn the third word of Oh, Canada.

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