As I was honored during our home game against the Boston Bruins, appropriately a former team of mine, the ceremony was more about honoring my contributions to this franchise, the Lightning.
Although 20 years has passed, I still remember the early beginnings of this team like it was yesterday.
When I look back, I’m proud that number one, we got the franchise here in a region that I knew the sport would thrive, despite what some early naysayers believed. Second, it makes me so happy to see the team thriving now, but really, the success we’re having has to be a result of several years ago, when the foundation was built and we went on to win the Stanley Cup. There were some dark years in between, but ever since that 2003-04 season, this team really took off, the fan base has been strong, and it really is no surprise to me that this team has sold out every single home game this season.
With that said, although the team is honoring me as part of the 20th Anniversary Celebration, I feel it is necessary to put my own accomplishments aside and really recognize those who played an integral role in helping me bring this team to Tampa Bay two decades ago. There are so many people who played a hand in the success of this team, but who often go unnoticed. So, it’s time to set the record straight.
The Lightning honored franchise founder Phil Esposito during Thursday night's game versus Boston.
First off, I will be honest and say that I am not responsible for coming up with the name “Lightning.”
Honestly, I wish I was, but I cannot say that I did. I was attending a party on the back porch of a friend’s home on Davis Islands, Tampa attorney Bennie Lazzara, and it wasn’t until a large black cloud and impending thunder storm rolled over the sky that Bennie’s mother all of a sudden said, ‘look at that lightning!’
Right when I heard it, I knew it was absolutely perfect.
That’s what really got this franchise started, and from there, the rest just sort of fell into place with the help and hard work of some important people.
It would take me hours to go through everybody, but if I could just name a few, Mel Lowell and Henry Paul.
Both of them were my business partners when I set out on my goal to bring this team to Tampa Bay. They accompanied me to Japan where we would meet with investors at odd hours of the night, often in hotel bars in a ritzy upscale shopping district.
The funny thing is, no one ever saw Takashi Okubo, the lead investor and first owner of the team. Instead, he would send his representative, a guy named Nakamura, who did all the talking and who would meet us to discuss the terms of the partnership.
It was an odd situation, but I know it was made easier by both Mel and Henry.
In fact, both Mel and Henry and myself would also spend hours scribbling ideas for what would eventually be the first Lightning logo and crest. We’d stay up late doodling, then would compare notes the next day, and believe me, between the three of us, there was a lot to look at.
That sort of segues into the next person who was integral in getting this franchise off the ground, and that was Tom McEwen.
Tom was a pioneer and an innovator and he is responsible for really getting the Tampa Bay sports scene on the map. He meant so much to this franchise, that we even have the press box up here in the arena named in his honor.
Tom did a number of things for this team and the community, but I think one of the most important was what he told me one day when the team logo was just starting to come into existence.
Originally, the crest featured a lightning bolt that just said “Tampa” across it. We then incorporated the circle that surrounds the bolt, and Tom suggested adding “Bay” to the crest as well.
When I came to Tampa, I knew college football was huge, and football in general, but after being here for several years now, I realize how important incorporating something so small as just a three-letter word could be.
Adding “Bay” to our logo really bridged the gap between the divide that was there between Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. It helped us connect with our fans more and include everyone, expanding our brand and the game which was important, especially in our first year in town.
In order to be successful we had to unite, and that one change alone signified a union between Tampa and its neighboring communities.
Having said that, George Steinbrenner was another big part of our early success. He helped paved the way for our move to the Thunderdome in St. Pete.
George had been around a long time, knew the area well, was a smart businessman, and had the influence, leverage and foresight to indicate that moving to St. Pete would be a good idea.
Not only did the arena hold a higher capacity for us to increase our attendance, but again, it was a major step in stamping our hockey team all throughout the Bay Area rather than just one location. When I look around today and hear fans speak, they’re not just from Tampa. They’re from St. Pete and Largo and Clearwater and Sarasota and Brandon, Lakeland, and all over the place. It’s easy to see now just the influence and the big following the team has accumulated over the years.
A lot of that comes to the credit of these men, who helped shape the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise into what it is today.