The roots of the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champs don’t run in a straight line, deep into the downtown Tampa soil. They slither eastward, to the solar plexus of the state fairgrounds.
Before the Lightning could sniff a championship, other aromas — notably of cattle and corn dogs — pervaded the franchise. Denied occupancy in the dome across the water, the team originally had to settle for the pro sports equivalent of a manger. The savior (Jeff Vinik) wouldn’t arrive for another couple of decades.
Not that the original Lightning necessarily needed someone to transform water into wine. Water into ice was an ordeal in itself.
But 30 years later, as the team flirts with dynasty status, those inaugural headaches and hiccups are now hilarious anecdotes.
“The stories are endless, but I tell you, we had a lot of laughs,” said longtime Tampa attorney Henry Paul, a charter member of the franchise’s founding group. “I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.”
Nor would Brian Bradley, the inaugural team’s top goal scorer (42).
“You know what, it was interesting,” said Bradley, who still resides in Wesley Chapel. “But when I look back now, it was such a great experience for all the guys their first year. It was just magical.”
Though its trophy case oozes tradition and heritage, the organization is still pubescent compared to some of its NHL peers. The memories of Tampa Bay’s inaugural regular-season game — Oct. 7, 1992, against the Blackhawks at Expo Hall — remain fresh in the memories of many eyewitnesses.
Among them: John Agresti, a Countryside High alumnus then majoring in speech communications at USF. He and older brother Matt had been reared on minor-league hockey while growing up in Erie, Pa., and encountered a similar setting while seated in Expo Hall’s nether region — Section E1, Row 45. The face value of their tickets: $34.50.
“It truly was an old hockey barn, and that was kind of the cool thing,” said Agresti, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C.
“Nowadays you’re spoiled by the club-level seats and the suites and all the concessions. The concession lines were long, you didn’t care. Restroom lines were long, everything. But it was such a cool atmosphere because everybody was so excited to be there.”
Paul’s excitement was preceded by relief.
From the Far East to the fairgrounds
Paul and his fellow Tampa Bay Hockey Group members — Hall-of-Famer Phil Esposito and former Madison Square Garden executive Mel Lowell — had survived a wacky, well-chronicled odyssey to reach opening night.
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“It was an unbelievable course of events,” recalled Paul, 64.
Embedded in local lore is Esposito’s struggle to generate financing for the NHL’s $50 million franchise free, which led him from Tampa to Tokyo, with a Duke of Manchester detour (yep, he was a would-be investor, too). Once Esposito had a team, he still didn’t have an arena. St. Petersburg had a dome, of course, but it also had its own group pursuing a franchise.
Consequently, the Lightning found temporary lodging at a renovated livestock pavilion on the fairgrounds.
Then things really got crazy.
Paul, in charge of installing the ice-making equipment for the rink, realized he’d have to cut down some towering palm trees at the edge of the arena to move some of the more cumbersome pieces inside. When a fairgrounds official flatly denied that request, he had to find a crane to lift it over the trees.
“And if that thing had fallen, or there had been a problem, I don’t know if we would’ve had ice,” he recalled.
Moreover, the team fudged on the NHL specifications calling for the rink to be 200 feet in length. To accommodate more bleacher seating behind the nets, the original Lightning rink came up about 15 feet short.
“We went and just said, ‘Well, better to ask forgiveness than permission,’” Paul said. “We made it 185 feet, and that gave us room to get maybe an extra 800 or 1,000 seats at the end, where we had those bleachers. And that money was important for us.”
A crowd of 10,425 shoehorned itself into Expo Hall for that opening night, where 1980s sitcom patriarch Alan Thicke presided over pregame festivities that included an elaborate light, sound and laser show. George Steinbrenner attended. So did first-year Bucs coach Sam Wyche, teenage tennis sensation Jennifer Capriati, and home-grown baseball stars Dwight Gooden and Wade Boggs.
By night’s end, they all had been upstaged by a 28-year-old NHL journeyman named Chris Kontos. The Lightning left-winger peppered Blackhawks all-star goalie Ed Belfour for four goals — three via power play — en route to a stunning 7-3 Lightning romp.
“When he scored his third goal, people were throwing hats on the ice, and you know what, Phil Esposito had told everybody (in security) before the game, ‘Hey, if anybody throws anything on the ice, kick them out,’” Bradley recalled.
“So ushers were kicking people out. They were like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get out. You’ve got to get out.’ ... I mean, little stuff like that, and that’s a true story.”
The slapstick kept accompanying the slap shots throughout that first year.
‘Hey coach, where’s the bathroom?’
Bradley recalls the Lightning being pummeled during one home game in early 1993, while the state fair was in full swing outside the building. Coach Terry Crisp had just launched a profanity-filled tirade against his players during an intermission when a father and son walked in the locker room — fair food in hand — seeking a restroom.
“Could you imagine doing that today in the NHL?” Bradley said. “And then you say to yourself, ‘What if someone comes in and just steals all our money when we’re (not) in there?’ Car keys, wallets. I mean, where’s the security back then?”
Yet amid the kinks, craziness and commercial flights (yep, that first team flew commercial), the inaugural team showed enough flair, pluck and feistiness to endear itself to the area — and perhaps forever alter the geography of the NHL.
Before 1992, the league barely existed below the Mason-Dixon line, making the Lightning a litmus test of sorts for high-level hockey in the South. Had Tampa Bay’s inaugural team — visionaries and innovators, kids and castoffs — flopped, the league might look much different today.
But they aced it, and a succession of southern franchises (Miami, Raleigh, Nashville, even Atlanta for a spell) followed.
So did three Stanley Cups — and possibly a fourth — for the original Lightning’s predecessors.
“We were like, the pioneers of the whole thing,” Bradley said.
“If we were here the first four or five years, and it just was a dud, flop, nothing happening, they wouldn’t be here today. And that’s what people have to realize, the beginning days set everything up for where we’re at now.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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