It’s funny how the human brain works, especially mine. I couldn’t tell you what I had for lunch yesterday. But I can tell you exactly what was going on 20 years ago, and I still recall that hot summer day in August 1992 when I attended the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Icefest at Expo Hall. Exactly why do I remember most of the details of that day now? Icefest was the foot in the door for me to follow the Lightning. It was the gateway drug to the narcotic that is ice hockey. And since I’ve been blessed to work with this organization in some form or fashion for 11 years now it’s safe to say there’s probably no intervention on the horizon.
Let me put you in to my shoes then, and I apologize for doing so because I was the stereotypical 14-year-old nerd with thick glasses and 50,000 baseball cards at home. I had been living in the bay area for about 12 years then, and this is back in the day when Tampa Bay sports scene consisted of a God awful Buccaneers team and not much else. This is back in the day when cable TV consisted of about 50 channels, when sports talk radio was just being born, and there was no internet. So my exposure to hockey then was through box scores printed in the newspaper, the occasional game broadcast on ESPN, but most importantly my family being from New York. I had heard about the French Connection with the Buffalo Sabres, the talented but always coming-up-short New York Rangers, and their arch-rival Islanders who I had an inside knowledge on thanks to an LP record called The Chemistry Was Just Right which relived their first of four-straight Stanley Cup championships. Other than that, and the occasional VHS tape of hockey bloopers from Blockbuster… there wasn’t a whole lot for a hockey fan to hang his hat on here. Sure, I was already in on the Lightning well before Icefest. I was excited to hear the area was awarded a franchise in 1990, and the more I saw the team logo and colors, the more I wanted to buy t-shirts and hats and get behind the team. But still, going in to Icefest I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself in to.
One of the fuzzy memories I have from that day is exactly why we were anywhere near Expo Hall to begin with. Given it was the third weekend of August, it probably had something to do with school shopping at the old Eastlake Mall. Back then, that was the closest major shopping outlet for a kid growing up in Seffner. And it was the closest JC Penney you could find—the Macy’s of a 14-year-old nerd starting the 10th grade at Armwood High School. I recall reading about Icefest in the paper a day or two before so the seed was planted. I convinced my mom that my younger brother Dave and I wanted to stop by Icefest because there were autograph opportunities, and when you’re 14 and a sports fan autographs are the greatest bond you can have between yourself and an athlete. She bought in to it. And after doing our shopping at the mall we went off to the fairgrounds to see what all of the buzz was about.
And what a buzz it was… I remember the tiny little barn at 301 and MLK was packed to the gills with fans, and looking back at the Tampa Bay Times’ archives I see organizers estimated somewhere between 11,000 and 15,000 fans attended. That’s a rather vague number, but still impressive considering the place only held 10,435 for hockey. After going to countless state fairs in the 80s, the usual collection of Barca loungers and juice-o-matics on the expo floor had been replaced by a 200-foot by 85-foot sheet of glistening white ice complete with boards, glass, and I believe lines painted in it too. If you ask Phil Esposito today, the dimensions were actually 183 by 85, but I didn’t care. I could walk on the ice, in shorts and tennis shoes, and take a slapshot from center ice. You didn’t have to sell me on the merits of hockey in Florida then. But as if a sales weasel pitching Vitameatavegemin didn’t get the note that the fair was still six months away, I almost felt someone was saying, “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!”
Autographs. I had plenty of baseball autographs, but no hockey autographs. I ended up walking home with seven that day, including two hall-of-famers. One of the first I got was from the godfather of hockey in Tampa Bay—Phil Esposito. I said nothing but “thank you” to him after he signed my 8 X 10 photo, but I would make up for lost time years later sitting next to him in the radio booth. Then there was Tony Esposito, head coach Terry Crisp, and players John Tucker, Rob Ramage, Shawn Chambers, and Joe Reekie. I wanted to stay a little longer to see the phenom that was Manon Rheaume, and I’m not embarrassed now to say it was simply because I was a 14-year-old boy and Manon was very very attractive. I am embarrassed to say there were guys probably four times my age who wanted to see her for the same reasons, but I digress. Unfortunately for me her group wasn’t signing for a while, and while I would have loved to have stayed, being 14 meant my mom had the keys to the car so forget about that. Time was short, and my brother and I had to convince her that we should come here more often… for more than autographs and a chance to see 11,000 people shoot wide on a wide open net from center ice.
Ceremonial puck drop in 1992 at Expo Hall.
Today I see that center ice glass seats then sold for $50 a game. I’m wondering had I sold that Cal Ripken rookie card when it was worth something maybe we could have put down a nice down payment on those seats. But alas it was 1992 and my hard-working parents were raising three kids with the oldest just about to ship off to college after a brief stint with the National Guard. We didn’t have a lot of what we call “discretionary cash”, as we did just spend a few bucks buying clothes I would outgrow in six months at the mall. But we found two seats that had not been sold. Two seats in the upper echelons of section B—directly in line with one of the goal lines. Row 37, seats 7 and 8. If I went to Expo Hall today you could blindfold me and I’d still find them.
And that’s thanks in part to mom making the deposit on a half-season package… without consulting dad so I’m sure that was a fun conversation when American Express sent the bill. I’ve never asked her this but I’m sure the reason she did that had less to do with making the kids happy, but rather because a little more than 20 years before, she had entered the gateway to hockey. She got a little more raucous introduction though as she witnessed the blood and gore of the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Bisons rivalry. So if you were at the War Memorial rink in the late 60s and you saw some woman screaming at the players fighting in the lone penalty box, yeah that was mom. And you wonder where I get my enthusiasm for hockey from… I get it from my dad too. After all he was the one pulling mom back in to her seat so they wouldn’t get thrown out.
Two months to the day after icefest I went to my first NHL game, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which was extra special because I was a Toronto Blue Jays fan as a kid and the Jays were oh so close to winning the World Series that night. Even though the Lightning lost that game 5-2, seeing former Leafs Ramage and Brian Bradley score, and actually seeing real honest-to-God NHL hockey in front of me softened the blow of learning Lonnie Smith treated one of Jack Morris’ fat pitches like a piñata and I’d have to wait a couple more days to see Joe Carter hopping up and down at first base in Atlanta.
Yeah I still like baseball, but ever since Icefest hockey is still number-one in my sports life. Experiencing the fan-friendly fun of Icefest, the cozy confines of Expo Hall that season, followed by tens of thousands of people screaming at the top of their lungs at the Thunderdome pushed me deeper in to hockey fandom and as a side effect, broadcasting. Now I get to watch the games as a fan, a broadcaster, and an employee of the hockey family I and thousands of other locals was welcomed in to 20-plus years ago. And it wasn’t just me who got bitten by the bug. At Icefest, the whole Tampa Bay community could finally believe that hockey was coming.
With the Bucs then mired in a 10-season losing skid, and the relocation of the San Francisco Giants about to be yanked out from under our feet by Major League Baseball, we had the loveable new kid on the block to latch on to. The Tampa Bay Lightning… the team that was going to “Kick Ice”, now that they finally knew where the ice was going to be that first season. It was where I was that day, Expo Hall, shooting wide of the open net like everyone else on the same sheet of ice the Lightning would clobber the Chicago Blackhawks on six weeks later on opening night. I was hooked then, and 20 years later I still am, and I’m just as ready now as I was then for a little ice kicking.