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A Striking Start

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

It was a sight many had never seen before – approximately 10, 400 fans packed into a barn to witness, of all things, professional hockey in Tampa Bay.

Sure, the natives had observed lightning a time or two, but not like this.

Twenty years ago today, on October 7, 1992, the National Hockey League's expansion franchise, the Tampa Bay Lightning, hosted the Chicago Blackhawks in the franchise's inaugural game inside Expo Hall, a small indoor arena suited more for housing livestock each year at the annual state fair.

Humble beginnings, one might say, that was until the puck actually dropped, in which shortly after it appeared that the league's newest kid on the block brought some bite to the Bay Area.

Led by Chris Kontos' four-goal game, a franchise single-game record that still stands today, the Lightning defeated the Blackhawks 7-3 to officially usher in a new era of hockey in Tampa Bay.

"I'll never forget that night," Lightning founder Phil Esposito said. "The building was packed, and right then and there, I knew we had these people's attention. And, on top of that, we won, too."

While the lore of the inaugural game likely will never be forgotten by both players, team personnel, and the fans in the seats that night, the team's journey actually begun approximately a month earlier, in September 1992, when 72 hopefuls gathered on a choppy sheet of ice at the Lakeland Civic Center, hoping to catch the eye of Esposito and then-head coach Terry Crisp.

Among them were NHL regulars Rob Ramage, Adam Creighton, Doug Crossman and Marc Bergevin. They were joined by retreads hoping for another shot, such as Ron Duguay and Larry Melnyk. Then, of course, there were the unknowns looking to get their skate in the door, most notably Kevin MacKay, Rich Braccia and Daniel Shank.

Before long, previously unheralded players such as Kontos, Brian Bradley, John Tucker, Danton Cole, Wendell Young and Rob Zamuner would become household names for some of the NHL's most loyal fans.

After all, the newly-assembled group did make for a stunning debut, but as Esposito would say later, it hardly went off without a hitch.

Take for example the home team's facilities, which came equipped with standard locker stalls and changing areas, but wasn't quite spacious enough to house the training table on which players would often lie to receive treatments for sore muscles and other various ailments common to athletes.

"The place was so small, we had to put the training table outside of the dressing room," Esposito recalled.

Actually, outside of the building was more like it, specifically under a set of palm trees that could be seen about 100 feet out the locker room's back door. In fact, rumor has it those were the same trees in which the team's first-round draft pick, Roman Hamrlik, was seen serenely fishing under one time before a team pre-game meeting.

Keep in mind, this is the same Hamrlik who did not sign his first NHL contract until just hours before the puck drop on that opening night against the Blackhawks.

"They were a bunch of characters," Esposito said. "All of them."

Luckily, the jovial atmosphere inside the locker room that night did not seem to hinder any performance issues on the ice.

The same couldn't be said, though, for the rare diehards up in the cheap seats, who apparently knew more about hockey than the Fairgrounds' employees.

Kontos' third goal in the game to complete the hat trick proved to be marked with a bit of controversy. Not because it wasn't a good goal, but because what happened after likely went down as one of the most bizarre displays of occupational showmanship in the team annals.

Of the 10,425 in attendance that night, there was one fan – just one  – who celebrated Kontos' personal accomplishment in traditional fashion by tossing his own hat into the rink in an honorary salute to the Lightning forward.

Minutes later, that same fan was then escorted out of the building by an unsuspecting usher and several security guards, who simply perceived the act to be unruly.

"They tried to throw him out of the building," Esposito recalled. "We had to go down there and convince the folks who worked there to let him back in!"

Generally speaking, all is well that ends well, and that night in particular certainly did.

The unexpected beginning would prove to be a signal of more surprises to come for the Baby Bolts, who apparently didn't know they were supposed to roll over and play dead following the first month of the season.

In mid-November, goaltender Pat Jablonski pitched the first shutout in team history, and the 9-8-2 Lightning found themselves on top of the Norris Division with league heavyweights Detroit, Toronto, Chicago and Minnesota all taking a back seat.

However, the next 12 games would bring the team back to its humble beginnings, as a 1-11-0 stretch put the Lightning at the bottom of the division.

In the end, the team would post a better-than-expected 23-54-7 record, and the club would part ways with Ramage, Crossman, Basil McRae, Anatoli Semenov, Peter Taglianetti and Mike Hartman, as Esposito stockpiled young talent and draft picks with an eye toward the future. 

But those fortunate enough to enjoy the inaugural game of the 1992-93 Tampa Bay Lightning remember a team that never stopped working for a full 60 minutes. They also remember a special season that laid the groundwork for now what has become two decades of Lightning hockey.

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