As the first TV play-by-play announcer in Lightning history, John Kelly witnessed the birth and the first few steps of a new franchise. Living in St. Louis, he’s proud of what the Lightning has accomplished to this day.
If you get your hands on a copy of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first game in the NHL, played on October 7, 1992, it doesn’t take long to find the first of many highlights from that 7-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks at Expo Hall. In fact you just have to fast forward 4:43 in to the game.
The Lightning clear it in… behind the goal, Creighton takes a man out… centers… Zamuner to Kontos HE SCORES!!! There it is, the first ever goal, scored by Chris Kontos!
John Kelly was the voice heard on that TV broadcast, and he would have quite the night in the broadcast booth dangling over the Expo Hall ice, as he called out Kontos’ name three more times in what can only be described as a stunning win for the newest club in the National Hockey League. Twenty years later, Kelly still remembers it like it happened yesterday. “I remember everything about it. Alan Thicke was there for the master of ceremonies duties and did a great job introducing everybody. And as a matter of fact the (pregame) ceremony was quite long and about midway through the fans basically started to chant, ‘We want hockey!’ They were done with that, they wanted to see the Lightning play the game.”
The fans finally got what they were waiting for, a mere 22 months and a day after NHL president John Ziegler shocked the hockey world by announcing hockey would be coming to Florida. Lightning founder and general manager Phil Esposito waited 7 months longer, and thanks to the success of that one game he could finally tell the doubters which five-hole they could crawl in to. Throughout the numerous ups and downs in Lightning history, that first opening night is still fondly remembered as the catalyst to many great memories in those years of hockey infancy in Tampa Bay. But the funny thing is Kelly almost missed the opportunity to be part of it, as he didn’t decide to take the job until just a couple of weeks before the inaugural training camp.
20 Years of Thunder: Lighting announcer John Kelly looks back on calling 1992 opening game.
“Thom Hastings from Sunshine Network called me… in the summer of ’92… and he asked me if I would be interested in coming down there and being one of the broadcasters. I was quite happy in St. Louis, and I was just finishing my third year as a Blues broadcaster, but there were a couple of issues that had cropped up in St. Louis but at the same time it’s not like I was out seeking employment. After Thom called I said, ‘Well, I wasn’t really interested’, and then he convinced me to come down and just look at the situation and meet with Phil Esposito and some of the other people so I did.” Even after meeting with everyone in the organization and getting a tour of Expo Hall, Kelly thought about the opportunity but declined again. Hastings wouldn’t give up though.
“He was persistent… he was really persistent”, Kelly recalled in our phone interview. “I believe it was just before Labor Day when he called me again and he just did a great sales job. I don’t know what clicked, but something did and I said, ‘You know what, maybe this is the right thing for me’ because my father left a very good job at Hockey Night in Canada back in 1967 and he came to work for an expansion team, the St. Louis Blues. And I said, ‘You know what, maybe it’s destiny and maybe that was the path that worked well for my father and this is the path I should take.’ And I made the decision and I came down there”.
The path taken by John’s father, Dan Kelly, not only worked out well, but 23 years after his death he is seen as one of the best, if not the best, hockey announcer of all time. The elder Kelly not only spent 21 seasons as the voice of the Blues, he broadcast 16 Stanley Cup Finals, setting him up as the voice of record for some of the greatest Finals moments in history. Having a broadcasting legend, and accompanying athletes, coaches, and team management constantly involved in your life, would be plenty to kick-start a career in broadcasting. But for young John, his early career path followed the same path many broadcasters reluctantly admit to.
“I played sports as a kid, and as I got older it was very apparent I wasn’t going to be a pro athlete… I mean it was very apparent.” So Kelly made the switch to broadcasting, something that went beyond his connection with his father. “The next best thing I think for anyone who loves sports is to be in broadcasting, and it was a natural fit. Not only was my father a broadcaster, his older brother (Hal) was as well so in a way it was sort of a family business.” And as tempting as it may be to ride on the coattails of a successful “family business”, John went out and did the hard work of paying dues himself, spending several seasons in the AHL with the St. Catherines Saints and Adirondack Red Wings before pinch-hitting for Marv Alberts on New York Rangers broadcasts in the 1988-89 season. Following his father’s death in February 1989, John took the helm of the Blues’ broadcasts for three seasons.
Signing on with the Lightning just weeks before the 1992-93 season started threw Kelly in to the fire pretty quickly, as even he admits the timing was “odd”. But it turns out “odd” and “unique” fit the criteria for those first few seasons of Lightning hockey, and one of the most odd and unique feats of the team early on was a fantastic start to the season. A four-game win streak in November brought the team to a 9-8-2 record just 19 games in. “They had a great start. It’s an expansion team so you’re not really expecting a lot and not knowing what you’re going to get, and we’re just thinking, ‘Wow what do we got here?’”
It’s easy to forget how good of a start the team did have, and how competitive they were right up through mid-December, before the usual expansion club hurdles of trading veterans for younger players and injuries caught up with the team. But despite winning only 8 of their final 42 games that season, hockey was hot in Tampa Bay, and one reason was the unique oddity that was hockey in tiny Expo Hall. And as Kelly recalls it wasn’t necessarily what was happening inside Expo Hall that made things so unique. “It was bizarre… on top of that it was in the middle of the Florida State Fairgrounds. I remember distinctly we had a couple of games during the state fair. Some of the players between periods would go outside the locker room because the back of the locker room went outside, and they would be sitting outside between periods and the fairgoers would be walking around eating corndogs [and] talking to NHL players in the middle of a hockey game. It was just bizarre it really was.”
The following season, Kelly made the move with the team to the Thunderdome, now Tropicana Field, a stadium situation he classifies as going from “bizarre one” to “bizarre two” since the team was now playing in front of 25,000 fans at a baseball stadium. After three seasons with the Lightning he received another incredible opportunity. After years of being the doormat for the NHL, the Quebec Nordiques had finally gained some amount of respect stockpiling top picks and making shrewd trades that landed them Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, and others powering the team to its first division title since 1986. But a sagging Canadian dollar, and the aging Le Colisee, caused massive financial hemorrhaging forcing the team to relocate to Denver as the Colorado Avalanche. For the first time in a long time the team needed an English-speaking announcer, and Kelly took the job.
“It was really magical. We knew that Quebec had a good team the year before… and then to win a Stanley Cup your first year? It was like, ‘wow!’ As the years went by you came to realize just how good the team was. They really could have won more Cups than just two, they had such tremendous teams. A lot of those guys are either in the Hall of Fame or are going to be in the Hall of Fame, but at the same time they ran in to some great Detroit teams and Dallas upset them a couple of years in a row in the Western Finals in game seven. They won two Cups, and we had a chance to watch some great great players… those nine years in Colorado were just fantastic.” But nothing could be more fantastic than going “home”, which Kelly did when the Blues came calling again in 2005. And while his focus now is covering an up-and-coming Blues team, he still has a soft spot for that Tampa Bay team that started in such an odd and unique way.
“I’m really happy for the people that have been there for a long time. I know that Phil is still involved with the team, and Paul Kennedy was the original [Sun Sports] host and is still there and Nigel [Kirwin] is still the video coach. Bobby Taylor was there in the second year, he joined me after Danny Gare went to be an assistant coach. I’m still proud that I was the first announcer of the Lightning.” And Kelly was still involved, albeit long-distance, in the Lightning’s finest moment on the evening of June 7, 2004. “I remember Paul Kennedy called me the night they won the Cup, and the celebration outside the arena and just the jubilation of them winning that Cup. I’m really happy that it’s a strong franchise.”
And Kelly doesn’t see celebration and jubilation outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum too far off. “They’re in great shape with their current ownership and [general manager] Steve Yzerman, so even though they had some rough times like every other team does over the years, they’ve been a very good franchise with a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters and again I think they have a real good future there with some really good young players.” Take it from a guy who was around some of the best teams in the NHL, he can have a good hunch about the Lightning’s future… because he was a big part of its past.