The connection between Gordie Dwyer and Tampa Bay Lightning fans developed quickly, in 1999 during one of the first games Dwyer ever played as a member of the team.
The Lightning had been on a road trip midway through the season, and in the throes of what would prove to be an eight-game losing streak, when Dwyer joined the Bolts. Dwyer’s home debut came February 21 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tampa Bay was trailing early and Dwyer hadn’t had a shift yet.
“So I get on the ice,” Dwyer remembered. “And Jiri Slegr had the puck behind his net and I laid a big bodycheck on him and the fans stood up and cheered. I started backchecking as hard as I could, because Jaromir Jagr was skating down the ice with the puck. I had my head down and as Jagr got to the blue line, he did a little turn back and I ran into him and knocked him down. As soon as I turned around, Martin Straka approached me and I knocked him down, too. Three in one shift!”
Dwyer left the ice to a standing ovation, his reputation established, and Tampa Bay rallied to win the game, 2-1.
‘That’s one of my best recollections of my time in Tampa,” Dwyer said. “I enjoyed it.”
The fans in Tampa enjoyed Gordie Dwyer, too. During a stretch when there may have been little to cheer for Dwyer supplied a spark that was undeniably entertaining. In the 1999-00 season, Dwyer only appeared in 24 games, but he managed to amass 135 penalty minutes, tops on the team, while receiving 11 fighting majors.
“I was an enforcer and had a certain role,” the 6-foot-3, 203-pound Dwyer explained. “I played with lots of emotion, passion and energy every night. I knew what my role was. I went out and caused excitement and tried to swing the momentum in our favor. If something happened to a teammate, I was there to answer the bell. When things happened, I was always in the middle of it.”
In the middle of it no doubt. Sometimes the cause of it for sure.
When Dwyer returned to the Lightning for the 2000-01 campaign, he didn’t even wait until the season began to make an impact and, along the way, claim a dubious record.
During a pre-season game at home against the Washington Capitals, Dwyer took offense when a Capital defenseman caught Martin St. Louis with a careless elbow.
“So I went after him,” Dwyer recalled. “I waited until he got the puck along the boards and then I took a run at him. It was payback, really. An eye for an eye.”
As the linemen and referees tried to untangle the multi-player tussle that ensued, Dwyer was escorted to the penalty box. It was a brief visit.
“The penalty box door never shut,” Dwyer explained. “I just touched two feet into the box and then came back out onto the ice. I didn’t think it was such a big deal.”
The action was a big deal to the NHL, however, and they slapped Dwyer with a 10-game suspension for leaving the penalty box, another 10-game suspension for touching the referee without intent to injure and then a three-game suspension for touching the linesman. The total of 23-games was, at the time, the longest suspension ever handed out in the NHL.
“They threw the book at me and hit me with every page they could,” Dwyer said. “It was an awkward way to be in the record books, I guess, but if people really knew me they would know it was all situational. I obviously learned a lesson that time, because after that, once I got placed in the penalty box, I stayed put.”
During Dwyer’s two seasons with Tampa Bay, a constant parade of skaters and goaltenders came through the locker room as then General Manager Rick Dudley searched for some combination of players that worked.
“Dudley was a guy who was not afraid to give guys an opportunity,” Dwyer said. “He is a very passionate guy and will claw away at any little advantage that he thinks is possible.”
One good example of seeking any advantage during that period occurred when Dudley brought in a feng shui expert to give the team locker room the once-over.
“Yup,” Dwyer recalled. “They painted our locker room red and black. We had bowls of rice and bamboo sticks and other stuff around the room. We chuckled a little bit about that, but we knew what Dudley was all about and how he would try to find anything possible to give his guys the edge.”
Dwyer’s turn with the Lightning came to an end in October of 2002, when then General Manager Jay Feaster sent him to the New York Rangers in a trade.
When Dwyer arrived in New York, he entered a locker room frequented by Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Pavel Bure, among others. A formindable group, to be sure, but Dwyer’s mind was on where he just had left.
“You could tell that a lot of great things were going to happen in Tampa,” Dwyer explained.
Already in place for the Lightning was St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Dave Andrychuk and Nikolai Khabibulin; the core of players that would deliver the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay in 2004.
“Someone walking into the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room for the first time will feel the same things I did when I entered the Ranger room,” Dwyer said. “I was sad leaving Tampa, because I felt that could have been a good fit for me for awhile, but that’s how it goes.”
Dwyer went on to play with the Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens and several seasons in the minors and in Europe, before a nagging shoulder injury that he incurred while playing for the Lightning made it impossible for him to continue.
Although he retired from the NHL after appearing in only 108 games with 394 penalty minutes, five assists and no goals, his post-playing career has already had some notable achievements.
In 2009-10, Dwyer took the reigns as head coach and director of hockey operations for the re-building Summerside Western Capitals of the Maritime Junior A Hockey League and in his second season he took the Capitals to the Kent Cup, symbol of the Maritime League Championship. After that accomplishment, in May 2011, Dwyer was named head coach of the P.E.I Rocket, of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
At 33-years-old, the coaching future is decidedly bright for Dwyer, and that’s how he wants it.
“I’m the youngest coach in the league now and I, 110 percent, want the opportunity to coach in the NHL. That’s what I’m aiming for.”
Dwyer is making an impact in other ways, too, having been named by The Hockey News as one of the Most Influential People Under the Age of 40 in the sport. That formidable tribute was due to Dwyer’s involvement with a company called Tuff ‘N Lite, which manufactures cut-resistant products for hockey, such as socks and wrist guards.
“With the speed of the game getting faster and skates getting sharper and players moving faster, we’ve seen a rise in lacerations and we felt strongly that we wanted to offer a product to address that,” Dwyer explained. “You see some players, and I was guilty of it myself, you see someone wearing 15 year old shin guards, even though there is state-of-the-art equipment at their fingertips. Lot’s of people don’t deal well with change, but when people get hurt, that starts to change the mindset a bit.”
So Gordie Dwyer is focused and moving forward, but he still thinks fondly of his time as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I thought Tampa was the perfect sports town,” Dwyer said. “You have great fans there and the weather is great. Plus, as a player, you can get away a little bit. There isn’t as much scrutiny as there is in a city like Montreal, for instance. I think that contributes to success at the rink. I’m sure guys like Marty (St. Louis) and Vinny (Lecavalier) appreciate that side of what Tampa has to offer. It’s nice flying under the radar a bit.”
An interesting observation from a player that, once he was on the ice, was never very invisible to the opposition.