From the moment he was introduced as the first coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, April 23, 1992, Terry Crisp radiated a love for the game of hockey and absolute pleasure in his new position. He smiled, laughed, shook hands and patted everyone he could get a hold of on the back, all the while never missing a chance to play up the fledgling Lightning. No one doubted his sincerity, but it was also part of the job description, which had been explained to him in no uncertain terms.
“We’re hiring you because you have some pizzazz, some jump, some color,” General Manager at that time, Phil Esposito, told Crisp. “We know you can coach, but you also have to sell tickets.”
“You know how it is, when you’re looking for a job,” Crisp laughed. “I told Phil, ‘I’m you’re man! Whatever you need!’”
What Esposito got may have been the perfect coach for a very unique situation. First and foremost, Crisp, then 49-years-old, was accomplished behind the bench. He had apprenticed with two legends of coaching, Scotty Bowman in St. Louis and Fred Shero in Philadelphia. He had been handed the reigns of the Calgary Flames in 1987 and delivered a Stanley Cup two seasons later.
Crisp had played the game, too. He spent 12 seasons in the NHL as a forward, earning Stanley Cup rings in 1974 and 1975, as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Known to have an outstanding sense of humor, Crisp would no doubt need it as he tried to mold an expansion group of misfits and castoffs into a competitive hockey team.
Also, he was no stranger to the rigors of an expansion club.
“I’m Mr. Original,” Crisp explained. “I got to be a Boston Bruin when they were still a member of the Original Six of the NHL, and then I was an original St. Louis Blue in the first expansion. Then, in 1972, I got to be an original New York Islander. Then, I was the original coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.”
But he had never seen hockey played inside a barn at a fairgrounds before, and now Esposito was introducing him to exactly that, the first home of the Lightning, Expo Hall.
“When you’re working with Phil Esposito, almost everything is humorous and fun,” Crisp explained. “He showed me the Expo Hall and talked about how great it was going to be – how we’d only have 10,300 people in the building. He made it sound like a limited edition. Like attending a game would be exclusive.”
“You’re going to be part of something that has never been done before,” Esposito told him.
That was true. Lots of this had never been done before. Certainly not like Espo and Crisp were about to do it.
Take, for instance, the rubbing table for the players that was outside the dressing room. More accurately, it was outside the building, under a palm tree.
And when the Fair opened, just beyond the dressing room entrance was a collection of kiosks selling everything from sausage to deep-fried Twinkies on a stick.
“The guys got hungry at intermission,” Crisp laughed.
Then there was the pre-game team meeting that was about to begin when Crisp realized that Roman Hamrlik, the Lightning’s number one draft choice, was missing.
“Where’s Hamrlik,” Crisp asked.
“He’s out fishing,” he was told.
Crisp took a look. About 100 yards behind the dressing room door was a dock that led to a pond with fish in it, and there was Hamrlik, serenely fishing.
“You can’t make these stories up,” Crisp said.
Finally, on October 7, 1992, the Lightning, with Coach Terry Crisp patrolling behind the bench, debuted against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“The fans in the building were awesome,” Crisp recalled. “Some knew hockey, but most didn’t. Our first game ever we beat the Blackhawks, 7-3. The fans thought we were going to win the Stanley Cup!”
Forward Chris Kontos scored four goals in that game, which lead to one of the most amazing occurrences in Tampa hockey history.
“When he scored his hat trick, “Crisp explained. “One fan in the entire building, one fan, threw his hat on the ice, and security tried to throw him out of the building! Someone had to rescue him and get him back in.”
By November, the team came back to earth and began to play like the expansion team they were, eventually losing 54 games and finishing in last place in their division.
By their fourth season, 1995-96, the Lightning had relocated to the cavernous Thunderdome in St. Petersburg and began a late-season run that saw them slip into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history on the last day of the regular season. Crisp credited the hard work of the players along with his lucky tie.
“My lucky tie was a gift from my daughter,” Crisp explained. “It was a tie that looked like a fish when you wore it. Once we won a few, I kept on wearing the thing.”
Facing the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning were eliminated in six games, but not before they made their presence felt.
“We were supposedly not even in the running with those guys but we took them right to the wall,” Crisp remembered. “The guys gave a tremendous effort, but our goaltender, Daren Puppa, had his back go out on him. He hung in as long as he could, but his back was so bad. There was nothing we could do.”
By the start of the 1997-98 season, Crisp was the longest tenured coach in the National Hockey League, but an early season slump got him thinking that something was on the horizon and whatever it was wasn’t going to bode well for him.
“You can get a feeling, as a coach, that the change is coming,” Crisp said. “You have that inner sense and you just know.”
The team was in New York, playing against the Rangers, and winning 3-1 in the third period, when New York scored three goals on shots from outside the blueline to defeat the Lightning, 4-3.
“At that point,” Crisp recalled, “I told my wife, get ready.’”
That was indeed the last game Crisp coached for the team, and the first ever coach of the Lightning was let go on October 26, 1997, after compiling a record of 142-204-45. His legacy, however, was in the hard work that helped set the foundation for the team’s future in Tampa Bay.
It’s possible that after time, the players no longer hear the coach’s message. Maybe they’ve heard it so often, they eventually tune it out. That’s what Esposito thought had happened, and Crisp, looking back, now agrees.
“I didn’t believe that players tune out a coach after a while when I began coaching,” Crisp said. “I thought ‘they’re pros, they’ll do what they need to do to win. If they’re pros, they’ll listen.’ But I think that after a while, yeah, they’ve heard what you say so many times.”
But one thing Crisp never lost was the respect of his players, and that was important to him and his family.
“He may have yelled at you and screamed behind the bench, but the next morning, he said, ‘Hi’ and treated you like a man,” Rob Zamuner, one of the Lightning players said after the change was announced. “He’s a good person and that’s better than being the best coach in hockey.”
At the time of his dismissal, Crisp called himself the luckiest man in the world those six years. Does he still feel that way?
“Think about this,” Crisp explained. “My wife, Sheila, and I got to move to Florida, play hockey in a beautiful wonderland of sunshine and beaches and get paid, and be part of a brand-new franchise which was exciting. It was a wonderful trip.”
Crisp recalls several of the early Lightning players that stood out as something special for him.
“Ricco Ciccone – he was a blast,” Crisp laughed. “When one of our guys got hit, you had to grab him by the shirt because he was going over the boards after someone. Or Rudy Poeschek, who would do anything for his teammates,” Crisp continued. “Rob Ramage, who came in to tutor Roman Hamrlik for us, you can just go down the line. John Cullen, who beat cancer and came back to play and help us win. Brian Bradley, who never seemed to hit his best stride before but with our team he was the ace. The one thing I can say – whatever talent level the players had that played for me, they gave it. As a coach, I couldn’t ask for more”
After the Lightning, Crisp continued with his hockey life when he entered broadcasting, doing the commentary for games on Canadian sports network, TSN. In 1998, the NHL expanded to add the Nashville Predators, and Crisp, “Mr. Original”, was at it again with another expansion team as he signed on to be the color man for their broadcasts.
“For me, it was a natural progression. Player, coach, TV,” Crisp remarked. “I mean, you’re still around the game, you go to all of them, you get to watch hockey and comment on it. So, the best thing is to be a player. After that is to be a coach. The third best, if you can’t be an owner, is the TV work. I sure as heck wasn’t going to be an owner.
“It’s worked out great for me in Nashville,” Crisp explained. “They gave me a three-year contract and 12 years later, we’re still here.”
Still, there is one more hockey dream for Terry Crisp, although he concedes that it’s likely to just remain a dream.
“I often think about being behind the bench again. I’d like one more crack at it,” Crisp said. “I want to go to a team and win one more Stanley Cup, just to prove to myself that I still have the chutzpah and the wherewithal to do it. If there’s a hockey god, and he wants to make it complete for me, I’d like to get another chance to coach a team to the Cup.”
That opportunity is not likely to come his way, Crisp realizes, because, as he pointed out, “Once your connections are gone, they’re gone. Remember the expression, ‘you have to have someone pushing you up the ladder?’ well; actually, someone’s got to be pulling you up the ladder.”
But if that ladder never materializes for Crisp, he won’t regret it. Not when he has so much to look back on. After 47 years in hockey, Crisp still remains upbeat when he thinks back on the places he has been and the people he has met.
“Where else can you have that much fun and see all these different places and get paid to do it?” Crisp asked. “My wife and I often sit back and reflect on it; we’ve been traded, shipped down to the minors and fired and we wouldn’t give back one day.”