Four games on the road precede the Tampa Bay Lightning's regular-season home opener, an Oct. 20 meeting with Wayne Gretzky and the New York Rangers that will christen the Ice Palace.
The NHL on Monday announced its 1996-97 schedule, 1,066 games that include 41 home appearances for the Lightning in its new downtown Tampa arena.
Tampa Bay opens at Pittsburgh on Oct. 5, with three more road games _ at Washington, Toronto and Buffalo (in the new Marine Midland Arena) _ before the Rangers bring captain Mark Messier and their latest addition, freshly signed superstar Gretzky, to town for the Lightning's Sunday night home opener.
The Lightning's early-season trip will allow Ice Palace officials to put finishing touches on their facility, which will seat 19,500 for hockey.
"It's very helpful that they're going to be on the road for the first two weeks," Ice Palace general manager Bob Rice said. "It gives us an opportunity to maybe host a few miscellaneous events, do a little work on the building and be ready for the opener."
Rice said a concert or other small-scale functions may be held before Oct. 20 but the Lightning-Rangers game will be the first major event at the Ice Palace.
"That will allow us to cook a few hot dogs, pour a few Cokes, work on things like traffic and parking," Rice said. "Come the third weekend of October there will probably be 90-to-120 punch-list items that we'll be going through, but the building will be 98 percent done when people come in for the first Lightning game."
Construction of the Ice Palace is generally on schedule, Rice said, with some seats and a permanent ice system installed.
Besides the opener, highlights of the home schedule include a Halloween night appearance by new rival Philadelphia (which beat Tampa Bay in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season) and a Nov. 8 visit from Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh.
The Rangers, who signed free-agent Gretzky to a two-year contract Sunday, return to the Ice Palace for a New Year's Eve game. Gretzky, who joined Messier to win four Stanley Cups as teammates with Edmonton, makes his debut for New York on Oct. 5 at Boston.
The Lightning has homestands throughout the holiday season, playing games the nights before and after Thanksgiving (against Buffalo and Dallas, respectively) and on the night after Christmas (vs. Florida).
Defending Stanley Cup-champion Colorado comes in Jan. 21, three nights after the NHL All-Star Game in San Jose. The Avalanche plays at St. Louis in an ESPN-televised game Oct. 4, one of three games scheduled for the league's opening night.
ESPN will carry 26 regular-season games, with about another 75 on ESPN2. Coverage on the Fox network begins with the All-Star Game, followed by regional Saturday games from Jan. 25 through March 1. All three networks will televise playoff games.
Tampa Bay's longest stays at home are a pair of six-game stands, one in February and one in March _ a stretch that includes 13 of 15 games at the Ice Palace (six weekend games with afternoon starts).
Four four-game road trips are on the Lightning schedule, plus a trio of three-game trips that includes visits to California (in early December) and western Canada (in March).
On Jan. 9 the Lightning plays its first game at the CoreStates Spectrum in Philadelphia, and on Feb. 4 it plays for the first time at AmericaWest Arena in Phoenix against the Coyotes, the former Winnipeg Jets.
Tampa Bay plays 82 regular-season games: either five or six against fellow members of the Atlantic Division, four against each Northeast Division team and two (one home, one away) against the 13 Western Conference teams.
Individual Lightning game tickets go on sale on or around Sept. 1 at area Ticketmaster outlets. Season and half-season packages are on sale now. Call (813) 229-8800.