In 1996, according to Hillsborough County records, more dogs were registered with the name “Puppa” than any other name.
More than Fido, Rex, Prince and even Espo.
“I heard that,” former Lightning goaltender Daren Puppa recently said. “Also, cats and birds, according to the fan mail I got.”
Of course, 1996 was the season that the Tampa Bay Lightning appeared in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and they were led and sometimes carried, by Puppa’s play in goal.
His arrival, two seasons earlier, marked a new level of stability in net for Tampa Bay. His circuitous route to Tampa began in Buffalo, where he occupied the crease for the Sabres for six seasons, taking the team to the playoffs three times. In 1989-90, Puppa posted a 2.89 goals against average, while chalking up 31 wins. An all-star season, good enough for him to be named runner-up for the prestigious Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the top NHL goaltender.
In February of 1993, Puppa, along with future Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he shared the net-minding duties with upcoming star Felix Potvin. His stay in Toronto was brief, however, as he was left unprotected in the 1993 expansion draft that created the Florida Panthers and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The upstart Panthers grabbed him, but in Phase 2 of the draft, the Lightning immediately raided the Panther roster and plucked the goaltender away. Puppa thus became the first player to be a former Panther, even before the team had ever played a game.
The quick switch was fine with Puppa, who had heard some good things about playing for the Lightning.
“I knew Tampa was an expansion team but I also knew there were a bunch of older guys on the roster that were quality people,” Puppa recalled. “So it wasn’t like we were going to win the Stanley Cup like where I came from, in Toronto, but the Leafs never won it either.”
The Panther’s loss was the Lightning’s gain, as the then 28-year-old goaltender gave the team credibility in the net as they entered their second season.
“We got him to be our No. 1 goaltender,” Lightning coach Terry Crisp said at the time. “It would be foolish for us to have him sit on the bench.”
Puppa rarely found the bench, much less sat on it, as he appeared in 63 games for Tampa Bay in his first season while compiling a 2.71 goals against average, an achievement made all the more remarkable because the Lightning, not known for their defense, finished with a 30-43-11 season record.
Along the way, he became a fan favorite and the cries of “Poo-Pah” could be heard echoing throughout the Thunderdome after each amazing save.
The following season was marked by labor troubles as a lockout shortened the 1994-95 campaign to only 48 games. Still, Puppa did yeoman’s work in the Lightning net, appearing in 36 of the contests.
Puppa’s heroic work the following season keyed the Lightning late season push which culminated in their first-ever postseason appearance. The goaltender, unfortunately, was in no position to enjoy the triumph. Although he had compiled a 2.46 goals against average and was unbeaten for nine consecutive games down the stretch (both Lightning records at the time) the litany of injuries that Puppa arrived in Tampa with had begun to take a toll on his body. As a harbinger of things to come, Puppa sat out the final game of the season to rest his continually aching back, a condition which dated back to 1990, during his time with the Sabres.
“When we first made the playoffs, that was probably the worse my back was for a long time,” Puppa said. “I couldn’t drive a car. I couldn’t tie my skates. I needed help putting my pads on. I tried my best – you do what you have to do. It wasn’t for lack of effort.”
Despite the pain of a herniated disc, Puppa dragged himself onto the ice for four of the six first round games against Philadelphia, becoming the first Lightning goaltender to win a playoff game when he made 26 saves in a 2-1 overtime effort in Game 2.
The playoff elimination marked the beginning of the downward spiral for Puppa, as he was rarely at full health again. He remained with the Lightning for an additional four seasons, appearing in only 50 games.
“I was playing great until my back gave out,” Puppa recalled. “That sort of started the downfall for my career. The back would be alright for two months and then go out again. There were times I struggled out of bed and crawled to the bathroom. Not the prettiest thing. I just wish it were different, but it was what it was.”
The Lightning wished it were different, too, because Puppa’s disability began a goaltending carousel that included names like Wilkinson, Bierk, Fitzpatrick, Parent, Hodson and Kochan. It was a ride that didn’t end until the acquisition of Nikolai Khabibulin in 2001.
Eventually, Puppa’s injuries became so severe that he couldn’t continue past the 1999-00 season, although the desire to compete has never left him.
“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” said Puppa, who keeps a home in Tampa and Maine. “I still miss the game. Not too many of us that played don’t miss it. But when it’s over, it’s over.”
The playing days may be over, but the memories of that time remain.
“We were a bunch of guys that got along well together, had a good time and worked hard with the talent we had,” Puppa recalled. “We were basically part of the reason the team eventually won the Stanley Cup. We were bad for so long, the team got some great draft picks.
“Seriously, I think there is a link from us to when the Stanley Cup arrived in 2004,” Puppa explained. “We’re still part of it. We tried to help get an organization going and bring some pride to the team. Obviously, we did our part; not too many expansion teams have a Stanley Cup.”
Also remaining is the back pain which Puppa lives with every day.
“It’s just part of life,” Puppa said. “There are good days and bad days. I’m able to do what I need to do. I’m happy with that.”
Puppa has spent the last years focusing on spending quality time with his three children, but now that they are getting older, the goaltender is thinking about getting back in the game.
“I’m looking to get busy again,” Puppa explained. “Goalie coach or working with some of the developmental leagues – I’ve got some feelers out. I’d enjoy providing knowledge to some younger kids.”
Puppa has no lack of knowledge to impart, also.
“A goaltender’s job is not to get too high or too low,” Puppa explained. “I always tried to stay on an even keel. Some people thought because I kept even tempered that I didn’t have much emotion and didn’t care. That was never the case. I had more emotion than most guys out there. I just kept it inside. I knew what my job was. My job was to stop the puck.”
And that he did, exceptionally well.