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Engine No. 9 serves as sanctuary for Chicago Blackhawks fans in Tampa Bay Lightning country

Published Jun. 8, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Around 10:40 p.m. Wednesday, after the hometown Lightning surrendered a second goal to the Chicago Blackhawks to cough up Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, a strange noise emanated from the corner of First Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

Raucous, joyous cheers.

The source of this out-of-place excitement? Engine No. 9, a bar and highly regarded burger joint in St. Petersburg where the Blackhawks fan-per-capita is often higher than anywhere else in Tampa Bay. It's designated an official Blackhawks bar by the team — the only one outside of Illinois and Wisconsin — and will be hosting Chicago fans again when Game 3 starts tonight.

"I felt like we discovered a little piece of Chicago," said Matt Pinkowski, seated at the bar in his Patrick Kane sweater for Game 1 with his wife, Julie. Pinkowski, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette but moved to the Tampa Bay area in 2008, has watched games at Engine No. 9 all season, he said.

How does a bar in the middle of Tampa Bay Lightning territory end up as a destination for Chicago's faithful?

The bar's owner is Jason Esposito, son of legendary Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito. That also makes him the nephew of Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame center for the Hawks and Boston Bruins who co-founded the Lightning.

Engine No. 9 is an homage to the family's hockey heritage. Signed jerseys of Tony and Phil hang on the red and black walls on either side of a Blackhawks flag. Burgers and sandwiches named "Blackhawk" and "Windy City" dot the menu. During the NHL season, no matter who is playing, but especially if it's the Blackhawks (or Lightning), TVs are tuned to hockey.

When he opened the bar in 2012, Jason Esposito, who has a culinary background, hoped he was tapping into an under-served niche by catering to hockey fans in St. Petersburg. The bar has served as a local destination for followers of many NHL teams, but playing up Esposito's Chicago roots helped create its distinct following.

"Our idea was just to have a little corner kind of bar and it turned out to be a lot more than that," Esposito said. "It's kind of nostalgic. It reminds me of home, of Chicago."

Growing up, Esposito didn't see much of his father during the eight-month hockey season. He remembers listening to Blackhawks games on the radio (the team kept the games off television for most of the 20th century) to hear how his father performed.

Tony Esposito, who worked for the Lightning under his brother in the franchise's early days, lives in St. Pete Beach and frequently visits Engine No. 9.

"To be able to watch games with my father in our own setting, it's something I never got to do growing up," Jason Esposito said. "I get to hear him talk about the game, get his thoughts on it, and that's something I never had before."

Tony O, as he is affectionately called, stopped in Thursday and said he soon found himself surrounded by about 20 Chicago fans eager to say hello.

"It's fun going there, and I meet a lot of people and take pictures and talk with fans," he said. "I'm just happy to see he's successful. He stuck his neck out, and it worked out well for him."

With its unique draw, Engine No. 9 serves as a small reflector of Tampa Bay's reputation as a vacation destination with a transient sports culture.

It attracts both homesick Blackhawks fans — reminded during the team's seemingly perennial playoff run just how far they are from friends and family in Chicago — and acts as a homing beacon for Illinoisans visiting Florida.

The Gilbert family from Schaumburg, Ill., didn't expect their vacation in Madeira Beach to run into the Stanley Cup final in Tampa, and they briefly toyed with buying tickets for the series opener but balked at the price. They were thrilled, then, when their daughter, Liz, found Engine No. 9 a short drive away.

"It felt a little safer to be here with Blackhawks fans," Dorene Gilbert said while wearing a red Hawks T-shirt.

"We're not afraid of any damn Tampa Bay Lightning fans," her husband Jeff Gilbert jokingly retorted from inside the Hawks sanctuary.

Bigger than a hole in the wall but a fraction of the size of nearby Ferg's, Engine No. 9 was stuffed for Game 1 with several dozen Blackhawks fans. They meshed cordially with a few handfuls of vocal Lightning backers, instilling the atmosphere of a friendly rivalry that grew more tense as the tight game went on.

Though outnumbered, Tampa Bay fans held court for most of the game, loudly and proudly cheering on their one-goal lead. But it was the Blackhawks fans who screamed, hugged and high-fived when the final horn went off.

Jason Esposito considers himself a big fan of both teams, as evidenced by the Lightning flag also hanging in the bar. Whereas his father is squarely for the Hawks and his uncle roots for the Lightning, Esposito insists he's Switzerland and the matchup is a best-case scenario for him and his bar.

Esposito is pulling for one particular outcome: "Game 7, triple overtime."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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