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Bolt From the Blue: Wendell Young

by Lonnie Herman / Tampa Bay Lightning

Someone had to be first. A player had to be the first name ever on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster and once you get to know Wendell Young you realize that distinction could have only have belonged to him. That’s because Young, a goaltender with only an admittedly moderate amount of skill, had history riding on his shoulder for his entire career.

By the time of the expansion draft that created the Tampa Bay Lightning roster on June 18, 1992, Young was already in possession of a highly unique trifecta of championships. He had been part of teams that won the Memorial Cup, awarded to the Canadian Hockey League junior champions, the Calder Cup for winning the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears in ’88 and two Stanley Cups, earned with the Pittsburgh Penguins in ’91 and ’92.

“I was always in the right place at the right time,” Young explained. “I tell people I should be buying lottery tickets. I’ve been fortunate enough that without a lot of talent I was able to be on that many championship teams.”

Before joining the Lightning Young had only appeared in 18 games in each of the previous two years, and no playoff contests, as he backed up Pittsburgh’s workhorse netminder Tom Barrasso. At the conclusion of the ’91-’92 season, Young took his second consecutive Stanley Cup ring and prepared to move on to one of the two new expansion teams that would be joining the NHL the following season; the Ottawa Senators or the Lightning.

“I felt pretty confident that I’d end up in Tampa,” Young recalled. “I knew Tony Esposito, assistant and brother of general manager Phil Esposito. Tony had brought me to Pittsburgh when he was the general manager there, so I had some history with the new organization.”

His hunch was a good one as Esposito tapped him as the first player to be selected by the new Tampa Bay club.

“Young is the kind of guy you love to have in your locker room because of his character,” hockey analyst Don Cherry said when the selection was announced. “They drafted him as much for his personality and character as they did for his talents.”

When official word of the selection reached the goaltender he was in Orlando touring Disneyworld with his wife, Paula, and their children. As he left the park that day, he reasoned that he was going from one Adventureland to another. After all, he had just left a team that had won back-to-back Stanley Cups, but Young understood that the Tampa Bay expansion lineup would be different than the one he was used to in Pittsburgh.

“That’s part of the trade-off, I guess,” Young told the St. Petersburg Times. “I’m not going to have superstars like I’m used to playing with. Lots of things will be different.”

Just how different, he found out when he first glimpsed the building that would be the home to Tampa Bay’s NHL entry, a former livestock barn on the grounds of the Tampa Fairgrounds.

“The first time I saw the building, I remember thinking how small it was, just a shell with stands,” Young laughed. “All I could picture was a bull rider twirling around in the middle of the arena.”

On the evening of October 7, 1992, however, there was not a bull rider to be found anywhere in the building. Instead, the ice was down, a capacity crowd of 10,425, including a share of celebrities, packed the hall and the opening night hoopla went on for 45 minutes as Young and his new teammates waited in the cramped locker room to take the ice for the first-ever Lightning regular season game.

Also waiting on the other side of the rink were the Chicago Blackhawks, a powerhouse team that had gone all the way to the Stanley Cup finals the previous season.

“From the goalie’s standpoint in a game like that – the thought is, you don’t want to be embarrassed,” Young recalled. “You don’t want to have a bad game, especially with all the pre-game activities. A lot of eyes were on us.”

What those eyes saw were five Tampa Bay goals in the first 20 minutes of play as the Lightning cruised to a 7-3 win. An unforgettable event for the fans and the team, but what Wendell Young will never forget about that game was the first goal ever scored against the Lightning. Chicago defenseman Cam Russell dumped the puck into the Tampa Bay zone from center ice for a line change, but the puck took a few bad bounces, one of which went right past Young and into the net. It was the first NHL goal for Russell, who was off the ice and on the bench by the time the puck crossed the goal line.

Still, the Lightning prevailed and Young is in the history books as the goaltender that captured the first-ever victory in franchise history.

Later during that initial season, the fates that watched over Wendell Young almost made another significant contribution when he was scheduled to be traded to the Montreal Canadians on March 20, 1993.

“I heard that after the game that day, I’d be traded. ‘You’ll be on a plane to Montreal after the game’,” Young recalled.

Instead, Young dislocated his shoulder during the game, so the trade was called off.

“I never look back on what might have been,” Young explained. “But it does make you wonder because if the trade went through, Montreal ended winning the Stanley Cup that year.  I could have won the Cup three years in a row. Of course, with Patrick Roy in goal in Montreal, I wouldn’t have seen a minute of time in the net, so I could have sat back and enjoyed it.”

After appearing in 40 games during two seasons, Young was eventually sent to the Chicago Wolves, who were just beginning play in the International Hockey League. As a charter member of the Wolves, Young added to his place in history by capturing the first ever win in the team’s history, just as he had done with the Lightning. Additionally, in 1978, he led the club to the Turner Cup, thus becoming the only goalie in history ever to have won a Memorial, Calder, Turner and Stanley Cup.

Young remained active with the Wolves for four seasons, eventually becoming a member of the coaching staff after the team transitioned to the American Hockey League. In August of 2009, Young, now 46, was named general manager of the team. In that capacity, he finds himself applying some lessons he learned during his time in Tampa.

“When Esposito selected me, he told me that he was putting together a team that would work hard,” Young said. “I distinctly remember this about that team: we may not have been the most talented team, but it was the hardest working team I had ever been on. I tell players today about that team in Tampa. We’d actually lose some games and get a standing ovation from the fans because they appreciated the hard work.”

Young and his family enjoyed the Tampa Bay area during his time with the Lightning, and they kept a home in the area for many years afterwards, expecting to eventually return.

 “Outside the rink, we had a great time,” Young explained. “I say all the time, ‘you know, everyone wakes up grumpy every once in a while and some days you’re just not in a good mood.  I’d be driving along in Tampa and the sun would be out and I knew I was going to the rink, but maybe the beach afterwards. Well, things are not so bad after all’.”

On the contrary, things have been great for one of the most fortunate guys in the sport. Of course, Young made his own luck with hard work.

“Honestly, I wasn’t the most talented goaltender and I always knew there were goaltenders out there that were better than me, “Young admitted. “But I always worked as hard as I could and tried to be the best team guy. I can’t comprehend going on the ice and not giving 110 percent.”

It’s that attitude that has led Young through every facet of his career in hockey. He’s been a player, commentator, in public relations and marketing, owned part of a junior franchise, coached and now serves as a general manager. A career that has seen him do almost everything there is to do except perhaps drive the Zamboni.

I tell people I feel like I never worked a true day in my life,” Young explained. “Oh, I’ve done hard work alright, but being involved in hockey for so long and being able to make a living at it is a truly great thing.”

And having your name in the hockey history books more than a few times isn’t so bad either.

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