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Brian Bradley: Bound To Become A Bolt

by Matt Sammon / Tampa Bay Lightning

Click here to listen to the audio version of this feature.

Call it fate, call it luck, call it a hunch-- Brian Bradley knew he would play in Tampa Bay.

“Obviously in the expansion draft with 50-50 you could go to Ottawa or you could go to Tampa. I was praying that I was going to Tampa.”

With that mindset, you can see why 20 years later Bradley is relieved the Lightning selected him instead of the Senators.

After seven years of trekking across Canada in the juniors, minors, and NHL with Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto, it was time for a change for the then-27-year-old Kitchener, Ontario, native.

“I was playing [in Toronto], but not as much as I would like after coming from Vancouver in a trade. Toronto, it was a great city but it wasn’t a good experience in terms of hockey. So I just wanted to do something different.”

Then-Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher made Bradley a deal: with one year left on his contract Bradley would be exposed in the expansion draft that summer. If he got picked up by Tampa Bay or Ottawa, he would get increased ice time with his new team. If he was not picked up, he would be given a two-year contract to stay in Toronto and work his way in to the top two lines. Bradley appreciated the honesty and the proposal, and waited until the expansion draft was held on June 18, 1992.

That afternoon, Bradley almost went unclaimed, selected 36th overall out of 42 picks split between the Lightning and Senators. But in the days before wall-to-wall sports TV, the internet, and convenient cell phones, his friends took advantage of the lack of mobile communication and delivered some surprising news to him on the golf course.

“Someone said to me, ‘Brads you got picked up in the expansion draft. You got picked up by Ottawa.’ At first I was [upset]. I was like, ‘How can I always go to Canada? Maybe my next one is Quebec City or Montreal. I’m just working my way east!’ I was hoping to go to Tampa. And the guy says, ‘No, you actually went to Tampa.’ I was so pumped up, I was so excited.”

While Chris Kontos would be the star of the Lightning’s season opening 7-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, Bradley would turn out to be the team’s star for the season. With a power play goal on March 6th, his 39th of the season, he surpassed the great Gilbert Perrault for most goals scored by a player in the first season of a non-WHA expansion team. He’d finish the season with 42 goals and 86 points, team records that did not fall until 2007 and 2004, respectively. So how does a player who averaged 40 or so points a season find the magic touch? For Bradley, it was all about ice time.

“All of a sudden I kinda got hot, and one thing led to another, and you know I got a little more ice time and that was it. I had the opportunity and Phil Esposito told me one time, ‘You know what Brian, you just need to shoot the puck. I think you can score 30 goals if you shoot the puck.’ So I just started concentrating on little things about shooting the puck. Everything carried over, I got lucky, I got some streaks where I scored goals in 7 or 8-straight games”.

His consistent play earned him the honors of being the Lightning’s first all-star representative, giving him the chance to skate on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull for the Campbell Conference at the Montreal Forum. As the Lightning began a three-year stint at the Thunderdome in 1993, Bradley was a key part in the rising success of the organization which culminated in a thrilling six-game playoff series against the Flyers. In 1996, the team landed at the new Ice Palace in downtown Tampa, and who else but Brian Bradley would score the first goal in the building leading the Lightning to a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. But the good times would fall to pieces just weeks later.

Numerous knee and wrist injuries limited Bradley to just 35 games that season, and without their leading scorer in the lineup the Lightning missed the playoffs by just three points. On November 6, 1997, with the team in the midst of a 16-game winless streak, Bradley suffered a concussion in a 5-2 loss in Los Angeles. Today the medical world has tremendous resources and knowledge of concussions, how to treat them, and how best to prevent them. In 1997 the resources weren’t there, and the topic was nowhere near the top of the discussion list in the NHL like it is today. There were accusations, and public grousing about how hurt Bradley was, something that still bothers him today.

“I had never had a concussion or ever had symptoms like that. It was frustrating for me because you know what I looked good. I could walk, I could talk, but I had severe headaches. I had headaches constantly for the first two, two-and-half years where I had migraine headaches every day. To try to explain it when you’re talking to somebody… it wasn’t like my knee was sore, we could rehabilitate in six months.”

It turns out he was hurt—very hurt. In December 1997 doctors advised him his concussion was so severe he shouldn’t even consider playing hockey any time soon. He couldn’t even go under anesthesia if he wanted his chronically injured wrist repaired. Just weeks before his 33rd birthday, his playing career was done.

“The doctors said, ‘Another hit like this, you might be in a coma.’ For me to come back and risk it… you’ve got the rest of your life to deal with, you’ve got a family, you’ve got three kids. To come back and maybe end up in a coma in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, is it worth it?”

Time heals all wounds, and with time away from the rink with his family, and a new stable ownership under Bill Davidson, Bradley looked to reconnect with the organization that vaulted him in to stardom. Like many former players it started in the broadcast booth—a radio show here, some TV commentary there.

He helped cover the Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory in 2004 on Sun Sports, providing a tangible link for fans enjoying the victory in the present tense while reminiscing about the. In 2008, Bradley became the Lightning’s director of youth hockey. Now he sees the generations of hockey fans born from that foundation he and the rest of the team laid 20 years ago.

“The youth hockey is such a huge thing. Being here since ’92 and watching everybody grow up, kids that used to come watch me when they were 10 or 12 years-old that are 25 or 30 now with kids coming to games. Growing the game here so much over the last 20 years, it’s incredible”

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