It was odd, but each time the Italian-Canadian general manager of the Lightning would cross paths with the young Italian-Canadian defenseman, the older man, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, would seek him out and wave a finger in his face.
“Just wait,” the general manager would tell him, “You’ll be a member of our team soon.”
Then, on March 21, 1994, the trade was executed. Phil Esposito, founder and general manager of Tampa Bay’s hockey club at the time, finally pulled the trigger on the deal and Enrico Ciccone was a member of the Lightning.
The experience that followed was unlike anything that Ciccone, then 23-years-old, would ever encounter in his career, before or since.
First of all, there were the crowds he played in front of, which usually exceeded 22,000, packed into one corner of the Thunderdome, a vacant baseball stadium that had been partitioned off for use as a hockey arena.
“Playing in the Thunderdome, that was tough,” Ciccone said. “We practiced there too and sometimes the portable bleachers would be moved because of some event. That played tricks on your perception. It was like skating in an open field. Guys would get dizzy and fall down.”
The seats were not very close to the ice surface, but the players could hear the crowd very clearly. Ciccone had never heard anything like what the crowd would yell in any of his previous 88 games in the NHL. What were they screaming? The crowd was screaming for him!
“I couldn’t understand that people would react when I stepped on the ice,” Ciccone recalled. “People would yell for me and I thought, ‘what’s going on? Brian Bradley just scored 40 goals, what’s going on here?’”
What was going on was the creation of a fan favorite. Ciccone was tough and he would take on anybody if he thought his teammates were being taken advantage of.
“It was a constant battle,” Ciccone explained. “I could switch in a fraction of a second. I could just go berserk when I would see a guy hit Roman Hamrlik or go into Bradley with a dirty hit. I would go nuts in seconds.”
The more berserk Ciccone got, the more the fans loved him. The fans had never seen anything like him. Hockey was still a new arrival in the Tampa Bay Area and Ciccone was the living, breathing embodiment of the movie “Slapshot”.
For one, there was the fight with Brent Severyn of the rival Florida Panthers, which got underway only 25 seconds after the opening faceoff. That was nothing for Ciccone, though, who had once, while in junior hockey, initiated a brawl while waiting for the ceremonial puck drop leaving the town mayor, puck in hand, running up the red carpet for sanctuary.
Ciccone’s aggressive style of play was tough for many coaches to deal with and by the time he joined the Lightning, he had already butted heads with coaches in Minnesota and Washington. But here, playing under Terry Crisp, Ciccone found acceptance for the first time in his NHL career. Crisp gave him marching orders that including playing the game with enthusiasm and told him not to worry about taking bad penalties.
“What a thing for a coach to say,” Ciccone said. “All my career was a battle. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I’d skate to the bench and Crisp would look like he wanted to kill me; but he gave me confidence. You have to be the guy to take care of your teammates and play the physical role, but you have to be careful. There’s a thin line and sometimes I was overly emotional and crossed the line. But the only place in the NHL that I felt comfortable playing my role was in Tampa Bay. I knew I could go overboard sometimes but that Crisp would understand.”
With a green light from the coaching staff, Ciccone didn’t hesitate to make himself known to the opposition and the officials. He still holds the team record for penalty minutes in a season with 258 in ’95-’96. He only appeared in 55 of the season’s 82 games that season.
“That record is something that hurts me a little bit today,” Ciccone explained. “I’m always referred to as a fighter but you know, I could play the game. I was a defenseman. I could skate backwards and forwards and make a pass. People don’t remember that I had the best +/- rating on the team the same year I got all those penalties.”
Ciccone spent so much time off the ice for infractions that season that the sandwich restaurant, Blimpie, produced a commercial of him eating a sandwich while cooling his heels in the penalty box.
But it wasn’t just what Ciccone did on the ice that fueled his popularity. He made himself a vital part of the community and the fans knew it.
“At first, with the team, there were a lot of charity things going on because we had to go into the community to sell the game,” Ciccone said. “I was involved at least two times a week. I did everything they asked, because I felt like I couldn’t say no. There was no way I could refuse an appearance, just because of the way the city treated me. I felt obligated. I would say to myself, ‘I owe this back.’”
Esposito, the general manager who had promised to add Ciccone to the Lightning roster, watched out for his new addition, ensuring that his young defenseman had everything he needed in a strange city.
“Esposito always looked over me and made sure I was okay and made sure I would do my job right,” Ciccone said. “For me, Phil was the guy that gave me the opportunity to take off in the NHL.
“That man always impressed me. I mean, everybody knows what he accomplished on the ice, but to sell a hockey team in Florida to a group of Japanese people? Come on!”
When Ciccone was hurt and questionable to play in a game, Esposito had some important advice.
“Chico, don’t say anything,” Esposito would say, using Ciccone’s nickname. “Don’t tell the reporters you’re hurt. If they know you’re not going to be playing, the people won’t show up.”
“I’ll remember that next year when we’re negotiating,” Ciccone replied.
“Crisp and Phil,” Ciccone said with emotion. “Those are probably the two best guys I ever came face-to-face with during my life.”
With that much respect, it must have come as a surprise to Coach Crisp when Ciccone, making one of his regular appearances as part of the morning show on a local rock radio station, woke him up with a phone call to ask a question.
“Crispy,” Ciccone said. “We have to get something straight here. People want to know why you don’t put me on the power play.”
A drowsy Crisp spent five minutes trying to explain, while the radio audience listened in.
“He was so funny.” Ciccone said. “That’s how it was in Tampa then. The atmosphere was light and the players had a lot of fun.”
The fun ended for Ciccone on March 20, 1996 when he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Esposito called to give him the news and it was obviously difficult for the general manager.
“He had a hard time speaking,” Ciccone recollected. “He said, ‘Chico, I don’t know what to say.’ But the Lightning had gotten a 20-goal-scorer (Patrick Poulin) and a big defenseman (Igor Ulanov) and a second-round draft pick for me. When I heard that, I told him, ‘you know what, Phil, I probably would have done the same thing.’”
Ciccone returned to the Lightning in March of 1998, and it was during that stint with the club that he and his wife boarded the team’s much-heralded rookie, Vincent Lecavalier.
“He was 18-years-old when he came to live with us,” Ciccone said. “I had to teach him everything. The first morning, he got up from bed and sat down at the table. I said to him, ‘What are you doing there?’ He said he was waiting for breakfast.
“’You know what, buddy?’ I told him. There’s the cereal, there’s the toaster and right there is the fridge. Next I had to show him how to cook a steak.”
Lecavalier never forgot his lessons or his friend Ciccone, and when he’s in Tampa, Lecavalier returns the favor and hosts Ciccone.
But by the time Ciccone returned to the Lightning, he was slowed by injuries and only appeared in 28 games for the team before he was dealt again, this time to the Washington Capitals.
When Ciccone finally retired in 2001, he had played for seven different clubs, two of them twice.
Today, he lives in Montreal and works as a hockey analyst for CBC and as a sports agent, focusing mostly on the kids playing junior hockey. He still fights against injustice wherever he finds it, and has made significant contributions to instituting drug testing and improving educational opportunities for players in the Quebec and Ontario junior leagues. He also skates with a team known as The Legends, along with Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and other retired players.
A pretty good life, these days. But still, there are some regrets.
“My wife and I were thinking one day about what we should have done differently,” he recalled. “We came up with the same thing. We should have stayed in Tampa after my career. We felt so much at home there. Tampa was the place for me.”
And the fans felt the same way.