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A franchise is born 25 years ago

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

National Hockey League President John Ziegler stands at a podium in a nondescript conference room inside the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach.

“The Board of Governors of the National Hockey League have granted conditional franchises to the applicants representing the city of Ottawa,” Ziegler announces.

Wild applause breaks out from the predominantly pro-Ottawa audience. Ottawa brought a marching band and booster group to the announcement.

Ziegler raises his hands, asking for quiet.

“There’s one more,” he says, smiles.

The crowd softens.

“And Tampa”

Polite applause, except from the background, where, distinctively, Phil Esposito can be heard yelling. “Yeah!”

Twenty five years ago, hockey was born in Tampa Bay. On December 6, 1990, the NHL voted to expand from 22 to 24 teams and selected Ottawa, the largest Canadian market at the time without an NHL team, and Tampa Bay, an unknown hockey outpost in a state that doesn’t even get cold enough for ice to form, by a unanimous vote from the Board of Governors.

Tampa Bay beat out in-state bids from Miami and St. Petersburg as well as one from Hamilton, Ontario. San Diego and Anaheim were also contenders, but those cities weren’t prepared to play by 1992 and their applications were not acted on by the board.

The Tampa Bay selection was significant considering no southern teams existed at the time in the NHL.

The Florida Panthers weren’t awarded a franchise until two years later.

The Nashville Predators? Nope, they wouldn’t play NHL hockey in Music City for another eight years.

No Carolina Hurricanes, who didn’t relocate from Hartford until 1997.

The Atlanta Thrashers were nearly 10 years from playing their first game.

When Tampa Bay entered the NHL, a 13-and-a-half hour car ride and over 900 miles separated the Lightning from their closest competitor, the Washington Capitals.

That mattered little to the Lightning.

Or the NHL.

Esposito, the founding father of the Lightning and Hockey Hall of Famer, along with Henry Lee Paul and Mel Lowell led a group that secured the winning bid. The trio began their lobbying efforts that September when it hosted an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins at St. Petersburg’s brand new Florida Suncoast Dome, now Tropicana Field.

A crowd of 25,581 watched Wayne Gretzky’s Kings fall 5-3 to the Mario Lemieux-less Penguins, the then-NHL record for attendance proving the Bay Area had enough hockey fans to support an NHL franchise.

Financial woes, however, nearly derailed Esposito’s bid. The price tag for an expansion franchise was $50 million. Esposito had $23 million raised through his own fundraising efforts but needed more.

“I needed the big guy, the one group that could put in $25 or $30 million dollars,” Esposito recently said in an interview with Fox Sports Sun’s Paul Kennedy.

The group turned its focus to Japan for financing and landed its big fish, Kokusai Green, a company involved primarily in golf course development, after two weeks in Tokyo.

Esposito, Paul and Lowell came back to the U.S. with a commitment for $32 million that would get them over the $50 million threshold and up to $55 million.

“We thought $50 (million) for the franchise and then $5 million for operating capital at the beginning,” Esposito said.

Currently, the Lightning are worth $260 million according to a November valuation in Forbes.

A little more than a year (Dec. 20, 1991) after the granting of the conditional franchise, the Board of Governors awarded Tampa Bay a permanent franchise.

Another year later, on October 7, 1992, the Lightning played their first-ever game, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 7-3 inside Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

The Lightning have one Stanley Cup (2004) in their history. They’ve won two Eastern Conference Championships, going to the Cup Final twice.

Tampa Bay has 715 franchise wins following Saturday’s victory in San Jose.

None of those achievements would have been possible – or, at best, the franchise would have gotten a later start -- had Ziegler announced another city after Ottawa 25 years ago on December 6, 1990.

Today, the Lightning celebrate their silver anniversary as the pioneers of successful hockey in the south.

The lukewarm reception at the Palm Beach Breakers notwithstanding

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