TAMPA – Tony Esposito, Hall of Fame Ambassador for the Blackhawks, was on the ground floor with the Tampa Bay Lightning. An early issue: finding a ceiling.
“We didn’t have a place to play,” recalled Tony O, who, with brother Phil, joined the group awarded a National Hockey League expansion franchise in 1992 along with the Ottawa Senators.
Phil was named general manager. Tony handled other facets of the front office, such as scouting, player personnel and finding a rink, not necessarily in that order. Introducing Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
“It was just outside Tampa, on the highway to Orlando,” said Tony. “A decent building. We measured it for an ice surface. Came up a little short, 182 feet, but otherwise it was nice. Could seat about 10,500 or 11,000. We put up this beautiful tent outside for fans. Only there for one year, but it worked out.”
The Lightning began its inaugural season there with a 7-3 rout of the Blackhawks, whose president Bill Wirtz, attended.
“Oh, was he hot,” said Tony. “We always got along well, and I went to see him after the game. But he left in a hurry. Didn’t like the outcome.”
After one season, the Lightning moved to the Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, where city honchos imagined the White Sox would play. They had threatened to leave Chicago and, yes, hockey preceded baseball to Florida. Despite a last-place finish, the Lightning averaged crowds of 19,656 for 1993-94 in a building renamed the Thunderdome.
The Rays have played there since 1998, but the Lightning are now in Amalie Arena. After multiple ownership changes and a few financial crises, the franchise is well funded and stable under Jeff Vinik, an entrepreneur via Boston. No longer does the Lightning executive branch make headlines by signing a female goalie.
“Manon Rheaume,” said Tony. “We were doing anything for publicity at the beginning. She played an exhibition game, but never the regular season. Manon wasn’t bad. She wasn’t big, but she wasn’t afraid, either.”
Tony and his tiny staff were high on Brad Richards, whom they selected in the third round and 64th overall at the 1998 draft.
“Our first choice, Vincent Lecavalier, played with Richards in juniors,” said Tony. “We felt Richards made Lecavalier better, but didn’t get much credit. It all worked out. Brad was the most valuable player when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004. By then, Phil and I were gone. Gonged.
“It was tough. We just didn’t have the money to compete before the salary cap. This is a nice place to play, of course, but we got outbid if we were trying for a free agent. Now this franchise is rock-solid. Great owner in Vinik and the general manager, Steve Yzerman, has done a terrific job.”
Before Phil and Tony departed, they brought in Denis Savard, who now is also a Hall of Fame Ambassador for the Blackhawks.
“I was with Montreal in 1993, and we won the Cup,” said Savard. “Guys then wanted to get paid, so a few of us left. Tampa offered a three-year deal, and I enjoyed it there. Then, around the trade deadline in 1995, Phil called me. Chicago was looking for help at center for the playoffs. I liked Tampa, but Chicago is Chicago. That’s where I started, wound up and still am.”
Phil Esposito is radio analyst for the Lightning. Tony and wife Marilyn have a residence here. He attends many of their games and is impressed by a roster that led the NHL in scoring, then beat two of the world’s best goalies – Carey Price of the Canadiens and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers – to advance to the Final. The Lightning won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final 2-0 in Madison Square Garden against a New York team that won the Presidents’ Trophy.
“They’re just like the Blackhawks,” said Tony. “Tampa has no weaknesses. Fast, deep and a really good goalie, Ben Bishop. Big. Biggest in the league, but moves well.”
Bishop shut out the Blackhawks 4-0 here in February before thousands of Chicago fans.
“No problem with loyalty for me,” said Tony. “I’m a Blackhawk. But it was fun starting up with the Lightning and seeing where they are now. Two or three nights a week back then, Phil and I went to bars for ‘Lightning Night’ around here.”
“We weren’t there to party,” snapped Tony. “We were there to sell hockey.”