There are new owners, a new coach and plenty of new players in Tampa Bay for the 2008-09 season, but unlike the Phil Esposito-led Tampa Bay ownership in 1992, Hollywood movie producer Oren Koules and former NHL center Len Barrie, have purchased a franchise in a growing hockey market complete with a 16-season history that includes a Stanley Cup championship in 2004.
"The funny one, the first game there, Chris Kontos, he gets a hat trick, the one good fan throws his hat on the ice and they were going to usher him out of the building. They got him by shoulder, they are moving him out of there."
-- Terry Crisp on the early need of security to be educated about the nuances of hockey
The area’s first team, the Suncoast Suns, played in the Eastern Hockey League in 1971-72 and 1972-73. The EHL folded after the 1972-73 season and a new league, the Southern Hockey League, formed from the remnants of the EHL’s Southern Division and included the St. Petersburg-based Suns. But the sun set on Suncoast just two months into the 1973-74 season. Actor James Garner was a part owner of the SHL franchise. Three EHL Suns players, Dale Lewis, Ed Kea and Peter Sullivan, eventually made it to the NHL. Jack McCartan, who was the goaltender of the 1960 United States Winter Olympic gold-medal winning team and a former New York Ranger, finished his career with the Suns in 1973.
The Tampa Bay area was college football and NFL country. Esposito’s franchise began play 16 years after the NFL’s Buccaneers first kicked off at Tampa Stadium. Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Dunedin, Clearwater and Plant City were baseball spring training spots. It was in this environment that Crisp, the coach of the 1988-89 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames, restarted his NHL coaching career.
Crisp was an NHL vet and long-time coach who came from hockey country and now was trying to win games and get people hooked on a game in a non-hockey environment. He learned very quickly that he wasn’t in Calgary anymore.
"Can you get us seats on the 50-yard line?" -- Crisp on an unusual ticket request.
The fan stayed after someone explained the hockey tradition of throwing hats onto the ice after a player scored his third goal of the game. Security needed to be educated about the nuances of hockey.
“Our first game ever in the league (at Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds), the sound doesn’t work for the national anthem, the crowd stands up and sings the first national anthem ever," said Crisp. "It’s a brand new team, first game and the fans sing the national anthem for you. They were part of the act.”
But there was plenty more to come. Crisp went home one day and had an unusual ticket request from one of his daughter’s friends.
“Yeah on the 50-yard line. They said ‘Can you get us seats on the 50-yard line?,” Crisp said. “My daughter started laughing, then one little guy says to her, ‘How come your dad doesn’t run up and down the sidelines?’ She said, 'He used to.' ”
One time a caller into a radio talk show said he loved hockey because it had two halftimes.
“We get them all down there,” said Crisp. “We just got them tickets on the 50-yard line.”
Crisp was more than a coach. He and his staff had to attempt to get fans away from thinking football on ice.
“We told them, don’t make it complicated, it is not a complicated game,” said Crisp. “Come and enjoy for the first three or four times and watch the action. Then slowly, slowly, get educated. They were learning it, they were getting all the phrases and clichés. They were getting it down.
“They knew (goaltenders) Pat Jablonski and Wendell Young are quarterbacks, they know that, they know (defensemen) Rob Ramage and Bob Beers are running backs, so it’s OK. They don’t understand why Brian Bradley is not hiking the puck properly.
“It was part of the educational plan (for the fans).”
On Oct. 7, Kontos scored four goals in the team’s first game against the Chicago Blackhawks at a sold-out Expo Hall in a 7-3 win. On Nov. 13, 1992, Crisp had his team at 9-8-2 and on top of the Norris Division ahead of Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, St. Louis and the Minnesota North Stars. But the expansion team started playing like an expansion team and lost 11 of the next 12. Bradley scored 42 goals to lead the team. The team left Expo Hall after one season.
This season, the new owners and Melrose want to deliver a winning team, and thanks to Crisp and the original Lightning players, they won’t have to sell tickets on the 50-yard line.