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Esposé – A Look Back At The Early Days

by Phil Esposito / Tampa Bay Lightning

This week, as the team honors defenseman Roman Hamrlik as part of the 20th Anniversary celebration, I can’t help but think back to the early days of this franchise.

The two go hand-in-hand.

For me, you can’t look back and remember and the 1992-93 inaugural season without conjuring up memories of Roman Hamrlik and the first year of games at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Being that the team was new in town, as well as the game itself, and being the competitive spirit that I am, I knew for that first year I often had to find the proper balance between good marketing, while still fielding a competitive team.

With Roman, you got one but not the other.

So, I often had to make decisions that for some were unpopular, such as inviting female goaltender Manon Rheaume to camp, which compensated for what we were missing from a marketing standpoint.

Roman was a good kid, a good hockey player, but he didn’t speak any English, and that’s why I had to explore some other avenues in terms of creating a buzz around the city prior to that first season.

He was the best player in the 1992 Draft, in my opinion, and he was a defenseman, which I liked. Had there been a goaltender, I would have chosen him first because that’s the way I like to do it. You start with a strong goaltender, then the defense and then go to the forwards, building from the back up. That was the game plan, only we did it somewhat in reverse because we were never able to get a goaltender. I mean, NEVER.

We were happy with Roman, though, and to be honest, I really thought he was a truly fabulous player. Now that I think of it, my biggest regret is trading him away. He had some good seasons here in Tampa, and he really built a foundation here, but to be honest I really wanted him to play his entire career here, much like Vinny Lecavalier is doing now.

I didn’t want to trade him, but the coach at the time didn’t like him, and he wasn’t playing him as much as I’d like. So, I relented, and in December of 1997, I got rid of him. I didn’t have to because I was completely in charge of hockey, but I did relent and it was a mistake. Honestly, a bad mistake.

Without getting too far ahead, I’ll always cherish his time here and will remember how important he was in his role as a cornerstone of that inaugural team.

He was just one piece though, and sure we brought in a lot of other guys, but the truth was being that it was an expansion team, I knew we weren’t going to win. Not that first year at least. Plain and simple, we just weren’t.

My only hope was that during our inaugural year, we would be competitive. But to think we were actually going to win that first year, you had to be crazy. So, I thought if we were competitive and entertaining to watch, for a first-year team in a non-traditional market, that was going to be good enough.

That’s probably why people thought it was strange that for me being so closely associated with hockey, I was actually a better marketing guy and salesman that first year than I was a general manager.

The organization was relatively small at that time, comprising only 40-50 employees, so I had to do all the marketing, the ticket sales, the publicity, and on top of that, then try to build a competitive team.

Looking back, I felt very good about it. Like I said, there was a lot of things that people didn’t like, but it was all for the reason of selling this team in the area.

These people had never seen hockey before, but I knew I could do it because I was a salesman. I had been selling myself my entire life, so now I had to sell some other guys.

Now, when people ask about these things and why I did this and why I did that, I can give them an answer.

But you look back to that first year at the Fairgrounds, and people ask me all the time how the heck we played hockey in a barn... There was nowhere else we could play though, and I mean nowhere. - Phil Esposito

We signed the female goalie, we expanded our market by holding training camp in Lakeland that first season, then after just one year, we moved over to St. Petersburg to bridge the divide between those in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties.

All of that alleviated some of those early concerns, and that was the game plan.

But you look back to that first year at the Fairgrounds, and people ask me all the time how the heck we played hockey in a barn.

I really didn’t think of it too much at the time, but I literally had to shrink the ice down so they could fit in another 900 seats. There was nowhere else we could play though, and I mean nowhere.

But for that first year, and what we were that first season, it was good.

We’ve been around for 20 years, but that was really the single-most important year for this franchise.

It set the foundation for hockey in the area, it set the tone for our business and our brand, and I swear to God, to this day this team wouldn’t be here if we didn’t see what worked and what didn’t early on until we really became rooted in this market.

Signing off,


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