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Twists, turns and colorful characters brought Lightning hockey to Tampa Bay

Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito decided in 1990 that he wanted to bring an expansion franchise to Tampa Bay.
Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito decided in 1990 that he wanted to bring an expansion franchise to Tampa Bay.
Published Jun. 13, 2015

TAMPA

Good quest stories start at the beginning, so let us untangle all the various narratives about the improbable birth of the Tampa Bay Lightning and begin with the bold desire of one man, a man whose life was defined by hockey, a man who got emotional when he talked about hockey, a man who would let go of his wife before he let go of hockey.

Phil Esposito wanted a hockey team.

That's the beginning, a man with a wish. On May 1, 1990, eight months after the NHL announced its intentions to expand from 21 teams to 28 by the year 2000, Esposito told the hockey world he was interested in bringing a team to a place most unlikely: Tampa Bay. And he had a name: the Lightning.

Fast forward 25 years. The uncertainty has evaporated like a rain puddle after a Tampa thunderstorm. The team is here for good. We pack the arena and buy gear and hang blue banners. Stanley Cup run or no, the Lightning has become a bonding agent, and a community has formed of disparate transplants who have set aside inherited allegiances to teams in other towns.

But it started with a quest, and none of this was certain.

• • •­­

Good quest stories need plot complications, too, and those were abundant for the Hall of Fame hockey player who wanted his own team. If the hockey-in-Florida paradox was not enough, Esposito alone could not afford to buy a team for the going rate of $50 million. He could not independently afford the $5 million nonrefundable deposit the NHL required to even entertain a pitch. He needed a hockey arena, too, and that cost even more money. On top of that, a man with no money and no arena would be competing against 10 different bidders, including groups from Miami, St. Petersburg and Hamilton, Ontario, who had buildings and solid financial backing. One Florida newspaper set Esposito's odds at 85-1.

None of this stopped the man who wanted a team. To prove hockey could work in Florida, he staged an exhibition at the dome in St. Petersburg that's now called Tropicana Field. The crowd of 25,581 was the largest to ever watch an NHL game.

He asked friends for the franchise money. He asked others for arena money. He lined up investors, but a month and a half before he made the pitch to the NHL, his investors backed out.

Esposito was stunned. His dream seemed dead.

The owner of a Japanese steakhouse overheard Esposito and his partners talking about their woes. He told them about a Wall Street lawyer named David LeFevre who knew Japanese big shots with money. Pairing Japanese investors with American sports teams was rare, but LeFevre had already connected the Japanese with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

Esposito called LeFevre.

They pitched the Japanese investors, who knew little about hockey. Esposito likes to joke that their prospects got better the more they drank. He was saying "hockey" and they thought he was saying "sake," he said. They struck a deal.

• • •

LeFevre said the initial agreement was for the Japanese to put up a $5 million letter of credit to get Esposito in the door. "At that point, the total risk, worst case, was $5 million," he said.

LeFevre got behind the hockey idea. He liked the Tampa Bay area and that there were plenty of transplants from hockey-loving cities. Another group of local investors had promised to build a coliseum on a parking lot near what's now Raymond James Stadium. And he was convinced people here could support pro hockey, eventually. "We all knew it was going to take a long time," he said. "It wasn't going to be an overnight thing."

Backstage, financing was still iffy. But when it came time to make his pitch to the NHL governors at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Esposito turned on the magic and told the governors what they wanted to hear: that he could make it happen.

Asked years later if he had the $50 million expansion fee, Esposito said: "No." Did he know where he could get it? "No." Did he have a plan? "Sort of, but not really," he said. "But the NHL believed in me. They knew I could get it done."

Hockey was finally coming to Tampa. Probably.

"It defies logic and explanation," said the mayor of St. Petersburg after the decision.

"They've done this with mirrors," said one of the losing investors.

"I did my homework," Esposito said. "If there were any problems, deal with it later."

There were problems. Every quest has them. More financial issues and lost investors, including the Duke of Manchester. In September 1991, a year before the Lightning was scheduled to play its first game, the Japanese wound up assuming the role of general partner, owning the majority of the team. By December, the Lightning had paid its $50 million expansion fee and the NHL granted it permanent membership.

• • •

But the team still didn't have a home. LeFevre recalls a frenetic search. They visited several sites in St. Petersburg and the University of South Florida's Sun Dome. One day they met with the manager of the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall. LeFevre and Lightning CFO Mel Lowell were in a conference room talking logistics when Lowell elbowed him. He looked through a window and watched a cow poop.

"We had to sign a lease on a livestock pavilion to play NHL hockey," LeFevre said. "It was one of those amazing things in life."

They had to buy scoreboards and 10,000 seats and pay for renovations. "The Japanese funded all of that," LeFevre said. "They lost their shirts."

After a year in the Expo Hall, the team played several lackluster seasons at Tropicana Field, then called the ThunderDome. Meanwhile, the proposed arena deal near Raymond James Stadium (then known as Tampa Stadium) fell through. The Lightning searched for a new home and settled on a plot of land on the Garrison Channel in downtown Tampa. As the Lightning's governor, LeFevre's job was to meet with Tampa's business executives and political leaders and let them know about the potential of a downtown arena for hockey and other events.

He gave a presentation at the University Club to 50 corporate bigwigs. When he fielded questions, one asked: Can you keep the ice frozen for three hours?

Before the arena was built as part of a public-private partnership, LeFevre and the Lightning staff worked out of a building on Kennedy Avenue. For lunch, they'd walk down Morgan Street toward the arena site, where a giant FOR SALE sign stood. They'd hurl rocks at the sign from 30 yards. The person who hit the O got a free lunch. They'd walk to Seddon Island (now Harbour Island), which was mostly swamp. They'd get sandwiches from a deli and sit on the grass and stare across the channel at the empty lot.

"I want you to remember this before the beautiful arena is there and all that comes with it," LeFevre would say, "so you can tell your children what it looked like."

• • •

The Ice Palace rose on the land and the Lightning had years both decent and pitiful. In 1998, an insurance executive named Art Williams bought the team. LeFevre was gone but kept his season tickets. Esposito was fired. Losses mounted. Williams sold to Bill Davidson, who owned the NBA's Detroit Pistons. The tide turned under Davidson and new coach John Tortorella, and in the 2003-04 season the Lightning shocked the region and won the Stanley Cup. Veteran Dave Andreychuk remembers sensing a change in how the area was regarded, and how it regarded itself.

"When I first got here, let's face it, this franchise had had some really down times," Andreychuk, the team captain, said. "We wanted to be known not as this Florida team, we wanted to be known as a hockey team. I think it was up to me to get the players to buy into that."

He is now the Lightning's vice president of corporate and community affairs. "I enjoy pushing the brand of hockey, and we're still in a market where it's new to a lot of people, and that's fun. When I walk out in the community, a lot of people talk about '04, a lot of people talk about the great things that our ownership is doing, and that's fun."

Rodney Kite-Powell watched that Stanley Cup victory in person. His ticket is framed on the wall of the Tampa Bay History Museum, where he's curator and has amassed a collection of memorabilia that tells the history of professional sports in the area. It's a relatively short history, which is what has impressed Kite-Powell about the community's embrace of hockey this year in a place where a 90-degree day feels like you're walking through cellophane. Thousands have turned out for watch parties, hundreds have raised banners.

"It really does seem that the Lightning, during this Stanley Cup run, have done something for the city and for the whole community to kind of bring people together," he said. "And it's interesting that a sport that certainly wasn't played in Florida … has really taken off."

Why?

"It's probably because of the influence of people moving here from places where hockey was big," said Greg Baker, co-owner of Fodder & Shine, which gets crowds for Lightning watch parties. "But everybody has kind of come together to support a team that actually wins, and there's a great fan base for it at this point."

"This is unlike anything I've ever seen," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. "It's drawing this great disparate people, people who love the grit of the team. We need that. We don't have the big Fortune 500 companies. Tampa is still a very mom-and-pop-business kind of town. So when we see this scrappy team that fights to the end, we can relate."

• • •

LeFevre points to Jeff Vinik, the latest in a parade of Lightning owners, who bought the team in 2010 for an estimated $110 million. He has moved to Tampa from Boston, upgraded Amalie Arena, surrounded himself with some of the smartest people in the business, invested in the community and has plans for a $1 billion development project downtown. Vinik once managed one of the largest mutual funds anywhere before he decided to Google search "How to buy a hockey team."

"He's the best sports owner in the United States," LeFevre, who now works on sports development projects across the country, said. "When you buy a business, one of the assets you buy is the right to trash the last owner. Every new owner comes in and says we're going to do it better."

Not Vinik, LeFevre said. He paid homage to the guys who started the quest. "I was flabbergasted when Jeff said, 'You guys did an amazing job of putting this together, and we're going to follow down that path.' "

Said Vinik, on the eve of his first Stanley Cup final, and barely two decades since that team was born from luck and guts in a livestock pavilion: "I feel real proud of the organization in that respect. This community has been great to us."

Times sports columnist Tom Jones and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Ben Montgomery at (727) 893-8650 or bmontgomery@tampabay.com.