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No one sure when tide turned

Published Oct. 2, 2005

When Phil Esposito hired the Lightning's first coach on April 23, 1992, he knew what he wanted: a salesman, someone to help hawk hockey in Florida.

He got one, too.

"I hired him as much for his personality as anything," Esposito said the day he fired the Lightning's first coach. "I needed someone who could sell tickets, who could sell the game. We all had to do that, and Terry was great at it. He could sell snow to the Eskimos."

No one is quite certain when the tide turned, but it did.

"There were rumors constantly for the last two, three years," wing Rob Zamuner said.

Terry Crisp seemed to be sitting on a perpetual hot seat the past few seasons, the one in which he guided the Lightning into the playoffs.

Sunday, Esposito no longer could naysay the hearsay. He canned Crisp, calling it a move that had to be made.

"I saw no direction anymore," Esposito said. "I saw the team wasn't responding to him anymore."

Even Crisp agreed, Esposito said: "He said, "I know you have to make a change for the sake of the organization.' It was evident."

It wasn't always that way. In the beginning, a less-than-talented team worked hard.

Coincidence? Maybe not: "(A) team does take the personality of (its) coach," Esposito said. In his NHL playing career, Crisp "worked hard every game he played," to use Esposito's words. So did Crisp's early Lightning teams.

No one is quite certain when the tide turned, but it did.

"The last two years, 2{ years, nobody knows what our personality was," Esposito said.

Schizophrenic? Now and then. Paranoid? Perhaps. Selfish? Sometimes.

Whatever it was, it wasn't working.

A decision had to be made. This time, those who made it agreed, the time was right.

Esposito said he contemplated matters for more than a week, wondering, " "How can I get these players going? Can I do this? Can I do that? Will it change if I traded two players? Maybe, maybe not.' I just decided it was time."

When? You can debate until faces are blue:

+ The off-season, when Esposito hired _ with little to no input from Crisp _ interim coach Rick Paterson as Crisp's top assistant?

+ A week ago, when Esposito's apparent plans became public?

+ Or Saturday night, when, with the team 2-7-2 and on a seven-game winless streak, Esposito contends he made up his mind for sure?

Only Esposito knows. Or do others?

Esposito didn't decide to fire Crisp on his own. He admits that. He consulted confidants, including brother Tony, the Lightning's development/scouting director.

He may even have floated the idea in the media as the team hit the early-season skids, setting the stage for approval from the ownership of a for-sale franchise. True or not, Esposito acknowledges public opinion played a part: "The publicity and the press were so much a part of this."

No one is quite certain when the tide turned, but it did.

By the time reporters went to team president Steve Oto on Wednesday, the top ownership representative was wondering aloud if this fire-and-brimstone coach had lost control of his players.

Once Oto became convinced that indeed had happened, the door was open for Esposito to do what he first tried two years ago. Oto said the decision belonged to Esposito. But you can bet your bottom dollar Esposito was not permitted to pull the plug until Oto gave his somewhat reluctant approval.

"I'm the general manager," Esposito said. "I'm supposed to make those decisions, but he's behind it."

Now the onus is on Esposito to prove the move was right. If that is to happen, the team _ coached by Paterson, Terry Murray or whoever is awarded the job sans the interim tag _ must turn things around.

Because when Phil Esposito fired Terry Crisp on Oct. 26, 1997, he knew what he wanted.

He got it, too.

"The problem here is, Terry's been here since the beginning, and by design, I may add. I picked him. I chose him," Esposito said. "I gave him the job, and it's up to me to take the job away, I guess."

No one is quite certain when the tide turned, but it did.