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An oral history of the Lightning's original storm jerseys

Last seen on the ice in the 90s, the third jerseys were incredibly polarizing

by Chris Krenn @Chris_Krenn / TampaBayLightning.com

It's been a long time coming.

The infamous Storm Jersey has made its return to the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room, but with a little bit of a modern twist.

The Bolts will show off their new Reverse Retro jersey for the first time Thursday night in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes and will wear it five more times throughout the regular season.

Very similar to the original jersey, the Reverse Retro sweater features white as the primary color with blue waves at the bottom, along with the rain detail on the front and back. The electric font and lightning-covered sleeves will make their return to the ice with a blue collar and vintage, orange NHL logo.

Reactions to the jersey reveal were scattered from "completely terrible" to "unbelievably awesome."

"At first, I thought they were kind of…..different," Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev explained. "But now, I think they're beautiful. I like them a lot, so I'm really excited."

Since the original jerseys were worn six times in 1997, a lot of fans have wanted to see the Bolts don the horrendously beautiful Storm Jersey for years. Finally, they've got their wish.

But before the jerseys hit the ice tonight, let's go back to the creation of the original jersey prior to the unveiling on January 30, 1997.

When Hall-of-Famer and Lightning founder Phil Esposito laid the foundation for the franchise and hockey in the Sunshine State, one of the first decisions made was the team's primary colors - black, white, blue, and silver.

So, when Esposito caught a glance of the team's first-ever third jersey, the yellow lightning bolts on the sleeves were the first thing that caught his eye.

"All I remember is trying to figure out why there was yellow on our jersey," Esposito reminisced. "I would have never, ever, and I mean NEVER, put yellow in our jerseys. Never.

"I didn't want anything to do with the color yellow. Red was even something that we considered, but then it turned out to be black, white, blue, and silver, with the crest."

Tampa Bay's then-CEO was at the forefront of the jersey design and had the pleasure of showing Esposito the jersey for the first time.

"It was as ugly as humanly possible," said Esposito with a chuckle. "I remember saying, 'What the hell is this?'

"He says, 'This is going to be the third jersey.' That's what they were calling it, the third jersey.

"I said, 'Who in the world authorized this?'

"They were brutal then and they're still brutal now."

The varying opinions of the classic jersey are a big part of what makes it so great. Some people find it awful. Others think it's perfect. Perhaps it's a classic example of, "It's so bad, it's good."

When the jersey was unveiled on that January day in 1997, Bolts star forward Brian Bradley was on the scene with Esposito to help model the newest Lightning sweater.

"I remember doing the unveiling because I'm a team player," said Esposito. "I didn't agree with it, but I did it. I just thought it was absolutely brutal.

"I remember walking out of there and I said to Brian, 'What the hell, Brian?'

"He said, 'They're ugly, aren't they?'

"I said, 'Hell yes they are.'"

With bright smiles and happy faces, Esposito and Bradley enthusiastically unveiled the jersey, even if their facial expressions may not have matched their thoughts at the time.

"When we did it that day, I really don't think anyone had any clue what the jersey was going to look like," Bradley remembered. "Then the unveiling happens.

"You can't sit there and be like, 'Oh my God. What in the world is this?'

"It's more like, 'Oh wow, this is really good!'

"It was just so different than your traditional jersey that all of us grew up playing in, from junior hockey to the NHL, to watching teams play in the World Cup of Hockey. It was kind of like setting a new precedent for teams with jerseys.

"I guess you get used to it, but at first it was definitely a bit of shock and awe. You're like, 'Wait, what? We're actually going to wear these or are these practice jerseys?'"

They certainly weren't just practice jerseys and they would be worn for the first time in a game against the Buffalo Sabres on February 8, 1997. Despite losing that game, the Bolts would post a 4-2 record in the jersey that season. Bradley vividly remembers the reactions of his teammates in the dressing room upon arrival for the game against the Sabres.  

"I remember the first time we saw them as a team," Bradley said. "Everyone was just like, 'Woah! This is…..something.'

"You think of teams like Detroit and Chicago that had more traditional jerseys, but ours was definitely out there. Ours was more like something you'd see if kids painted a jersey or if it was a Star Trek theme night.

"Honestly though, I like it now. As time goes on, you like the jersey more."

We'll have to wait and see if these new jerseys stand the test of time. As previously mentioned, fans have been itching to see these sweaters in action for years. In fact, it's been quite difficult for fans to get their hands on the classic jersey. Even Bradley doesn't own one.

"I don't have this one," Bradley said. "I have a jersey from Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and I obviously have many from Tampa, but I do not have that jersey.

"It's one of those things that kind of got lost in the archives. People ask me all the time, 'You actually wore that jersey?' It's funny because it seems like people have wanted to bring it back. At the end of the day, I actually like it."

While Bradley came to enjoy the look of the jersey, Esposito's opinion never changed. He would have been happy if the jersey never saw the ice and if you happened to go through the Esposito mailbox in 1997, you would've found out that he wasn't the only one who wasn't crazy about the look.

"I know one thing. I kept complaining about it," Esposito said. "I said, 'I don't want our team wearing this freaking thing.'

"Other people, even fans, would say how damn ugly they were. I got so many letters in the mail telling me how ugly they were."

But sometimes something so ugly somehow manages to be remarkably beautiful. Opinions on the jerseys have always been all over the map, but it's hard to deny the uniqueness and fun the jersey brings to the game.

Even Lightning captain Steven Stamkos can remember the original Storm Jersey, a sweater that he'd go out of his way to find when playing video games as a kid. He's excited for the debut on Thursday night.

"Yeah, these ones are definitely interesting," Stamkos said with a smile. "Obviously, a flair for the vintage look and I think something that is going to look cool when you see it all together. I mean, really, we haven't worn it from socks to pants to jersey, so it'll be fun to get out there and warm up. I think it's something that always creates a buzz for any fan base.

"It brings back some memories of me playing video games as a kid and always wanting to pick the Lightning jersey with the fire bolts on them. This brought back some good memories."

Some will love them. Others will hate them. But one thing is for sure, we know where Esposito stands on the first third jersey in team history, along with the re-creation. While he may not like the jerseys, Esposito will happily be at the game on Thursday alongside Dave Mishkin in the Tampa Bay radio booth.

"I'm going to be in the booth," Esposito said. "But I'll probably say something like, 'God, those jerseys are so ugly.'

"I might. I might not. You never know what you might get with me."

As for the players on the ice, everyone seems excited. There was a buzz around the Bolts locker room Thursday morning that the team hopes will carry over into tonight's contest. With some fun new gear and fans excited to get a first look, Nick Paul thinks the Lightning can use the energy to their advantage in a big game against Carolina.

"I just feel like it brings a little bit more energy into the building and a little excitement," Paul said. "You don't see something like these every day, right? It's kind of unique and fun, plus it brings a little excitement to the rink.

"We can definitely build off that with our fans and how loud they are. We know how vocal and loud they like to get, so it should just add more energy tonight. We're excited."

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