By the time Chris Kontos arrived in Lakeland for the opening of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first-ever training camp, he already viewed the competition that lay ahead as his best opportunity to rejoin the NHL.
He’d been there before, mind you, and sometimes quite successfully. The New York Rangers had nabbed Kontos in the 1982 entry draft, making him a first-round selection and the 15th player taken overall, one selection in front of Buffalo’s choice, Dave Andreychuk. He went on to spend parts of three seasons with the Blue-Shirts, appearing in a total of 78 games before being dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins in January of 1987.
With the Pens, the coach assigned Kontos a completely defensive role, killing penalties and taking crucial face-offs in the defensive zone. Immediately after a face-off, he’d head for the bench, replaced by either Mario Lemieux or Dan Quinn. Kontos rarely ventured past center ice. After 31 games, the general manager sent Kontos down to Muskegon in the International Hockey League, ostensibly for not scoring.
“Things happen like that in sports,” Kontos reflected. “All you can do is make the best of what you can control, when you can control it.”
The following season he managed another 36 games in Pittsburgh before the Penguins traded him to the L.A. Kings in February of 1988. He found his way onto the ice for 10 games and managed 13 points, including a goal in the playoffs. Despite contributing over a point per game, the Kings chose not to offer Kontos a contract for the next season, and he headed overseas to Switzerland, his second of four European sojourns, having already played one season in Finland before joining Pittsburgh.
He did make it back to the Kings roster near the end of the 1989-90 season, netting two goals and an assist over seven games. Once the regular season wrapped, the Kings headed into the first round of the playoffs against the Edmonton Oilers. That was when Chris Kontos became famous.
Over the next 11 playoff games, he scored nine goals. He potted six power-play goals in one series, an NHL record that still stands. For Kontos, it was the first time, but not the last, that his name would find its way into the record books.
Despite his record-setting playoff performance, Kontos began the next season back in the American Hockey League. After 11 more games with the Kings and a full season back in the IHL with the Phoenix Roadrunners, Kontos joined the Canadian National Team, where Terry Crisp, just announced as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first head coach, was working as an assistant. It was Crisp who recruited Kontos for the fledgling Lightning.
“Crisp just told me, ‘I know what your skills are. This is an expansion team and if you do what I think you can do, you should be able to earn yourself a position,’” Kontos recalled.
That was all Kontos needed to hear, and as he arrived in Florida in September, 1992, he was a 29-year-old winger who had worn the sweater of 11 different teams, several more than once, during his 10 years as a professional.
“For me, I was almost like Morris the cat,” Kontos explained. “Do I have nine lives? Is this the last shot I’m going to get? Will this be it? You kind of cherish it and get determined to make the best of it. As you get more experienced and grow older, you start to realize that you’re not young and invincible and the world isn’t yours,” Kontos continued. “So you really have to cherish the opportunities and be serious, because they may not come again.”
Kontos signed an entry-level two-way contract with the Lightning, but he had no intention of going back to the IHL, if that was what the Lightning management had in mind.
“If that was where they were going to send me,” Kontos explained. “I would rather have gone back overseas, to Europe, to play there. But I was confident in my ability.”
Despite whatever plans the Lightning brass had penciled in for him, Kontos forced their hand when he arrived in great shape and had an outstanding training camp, and when Tampa Bay broke camp and announced their roster, Kontos’s name appeared as one of the forwards. In a few short days hockey would get underway in Florida, and the game, and Kontos, would go where they had never been before.
“Some people say it’s strange to play hockey in the south, but it was the opposite for me,” Kontos explained. “I liked it. It was good for my psyche. It was beautiful to leave the rink and have the sun beating down while you wear sunglasses.”
In spite of the climate, there was a lot to get accustomed to. Like the old ice facility in Pinellas County that the team practiced at that first year.
“I remember skating down the ice and you’d feel your body going up and down, up and down, because it wasn’t exactly flat,” he laughed. “Didn’t matter, because I was where I wanted to be, in the NHL, and I didn’t even think twice about it.”
October 7, 1992. The first-ever regular season game for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The barn-like home arena, Expo Hall, was drafty and cramped and like no other rink in the league. For Kontos, back in the NHL, it didn’t matter a bit.
“Anytime you attach the NHL shield to playing somewhere, as a Canadian, you’ll play on a pond. It doesn’t matter,” Kontos said. “If the NHL shield is attached and you’re playing, that’s enough.”
In town to welcome the Lightning to the league on opening night were the Chicago Blackhawks and guarding their net was Eddie Belfour, reigning possessor of the Vezina Trophy, awarded each season to the top goaltender in the NHL.
A formidable task. Regardless, as the game got underway, Chris Kontos was about to become famous. Again.
Early in the first period, Kontos made Lightning history when tipped the puck past Belfour for the first-ever Lightning goal. But why stop there? A few minutes later, he was back again to collect the second goal in Lightning history.
“First two goals, that game, it was like you were playing poker and you got dealt two aces, right off the hop,” Kontos explained. “It’s like, ‘Hey, this is a good hand, what else is coming?’ I just knew it was going my way and this is what I’ve worked for and I kept telling myself, ‘Stay focused! Stay focused! Concentrate!’ You never know what else can happen.”
What happened was, early in the second period, Kontos struck again, collecting his third goal of the game and the first-ever Lightning hat trick.
Once the puck was past Belfour, amid the raucous cheers and the sound of the metal bleachers reverberating to the stomping feet of the sellout crowd, one lone hat floated out of the throng and floated down to the ice, the traditional tribute for the three-goal achievement.
The story has become a legend in Tampa Bay hockey, how one knowledgeable fan tossed his hat and was promptly escorted to the door by an overzealous usher. But the identity of the enthusiast was never known. Until now.
“That was my godfather, Gus Pantelides,” Kontos laughed. “He was from Michigan and had lived in Florida for 30 years, just craving some hockey. To this day he still talks about how green everyone was about hockey. He threw his hat and the usher grabbed him and said, ‘Yo! You can’t be doing that.’ and wanted to toss him out. Someone stepped up and saved him.”
Good thing someone did, too, because had Pantelides been removed from the arena, he’d have missed the fourth goal that Kontos registered later in the second period. Four goals. It had only been achieved 15 times over 880 games the season before. Tampa Bay won the inaugural battle, 7-3, and Kontos was the Lightning’s first hero. His record for most goals in a single game for Tampa Bay is still standing, 19 seasons later.
Just to prove that his scoring barrage wasn’t a fluke, four days later, in what was the Lightning’s first road game ever, Kontos lit up Belfour for another two goals.
Kontos parlayed that quick start into 19 goals over the team’s first 21 games and for the first third of the season, his name occupied an exalted spot among the leaders in NHL goals, right up there with Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.
But by mid-season, with opponents beginning to key on Kontos and check him closely, his goal scoring pace slacked off. In mid-March, a collision with a Toronto Maple Leaf player severely strained his knee and finished his season. Still, despite missing the final 14 games of the campaign, Kontos ended the year with 27 goals, good enough for second place on the club behind Brian Bradley’s 42 goals.
Kontos didn’t return to the club for the 1993-94 season, moving on to play seven more years with five different clubs before retiring in 1999.
Once his on-ice career was done, Kontos returned to his home in Barrie, Ontario, appearing as a TV sportscaster for a local channel. He also began a business, Pros Marketing, a digital service company which he continues to operate. His latest venture is Edge Again, a hand-held skate sharpener that is already in use with many professional teams and is currently sold all across Canada.
For Kontos, however, his most important current project is his 16-year-old son, Kristoff, a member of the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League, the same team that Kontos played his junior hockey with 30 years earlier.
After 16 years of playing professional hockey, Kontos had grown tired of the lifestyle and the moving from city to city. But, while mentoring his son, the itch to be involved in the sport has begun to return.
“I’ve done some coaching and I’ve been thinking that I have all this experience and I figure that being in the game is what I really love and I should be doing it again,” Kontos explained. “So, if something comes up, I may entertain getting back in the game. I just know that I could do a good job.”
Meanwhile, Kontos has something that very few journeymen players can claim: his name in the record books.
“There’s the record with the Kings for most playoff goals in a series and I have the NHL record for most power play goals in a playoff series,” Kontos recited. “My record with the Lightning for most goals in a game is still standing, too. I’m so proud of those records and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.
“Some people ask me, ‘Where did you go?’” he continued. “I didn’t really go anywhere. I can name guys who were in the NHL for years that were just role players and most people wouldn’t know who they were – but they were there. I’m glad I made my mark when I had a chance to do it. When I got going, I got going good.”
Especially that fall night in the Expo Hall out at the Fairgrounds, when the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning began and Chris Kontos made history of his own.