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How Phil Esposito named the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning's founder recalls how the Tampa Bay franchise came up with its unique name

by Bryan Burns /

The lights dim inside AMALIE Arena and it's almost time for puck drop.

The camera catches the players as they line up in the locker room tunnel and go through their final pre-game rituals for all to see on the gigantic video board.

The team's intro music fills the arena. The players make their way single file down the corridor. As Andrei Vasilevskiy's skate hits the ice, PA announcer Paul Porter sends the crowd into a frenzy with his trademark introduction.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here are your…

"Tampa Bay Oceanics!"

Wait, what?

According to founder Phil Esposito, when a contest was set up for fans to come up with the name for the newly-formed expansion franchise, Oceanics was one of the finalists.

"I said, 'What the heck is that?," Esposito recalled, laughing. "What are we, Jacques Cousteau?"

What would the mascot for a team named the Oceanics be? A cartographer?

The team takes the ice wearing sea foam green sweaters with a sextant on the front? (It's a marine navigational tool; Google it).

Another popular fan suggestion, Esposito remembered, was the Pelicans.

"I said, 'Oh yeah? We'll wear pink uniforms."

The Tampa Bay Gators was another

"We can't be the Gators," Esposito reasoned. That's football."

Truth be told, Esposito already had the team name picked out long before the fan contest ever came to fruition.

Video: How the Lightning got their name

In July, five months before Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion franchise, Esposito was at the home of business associate and local Tampa lawyer Bennie Lazzara for a barbecue. At some point during the evening, a dark, angry-looking thunderstorm started to form nearby (it was, after all, summer in Florida).

Lightning bolts lit up the sky.

"I mean, it was big and it was black and it was scary," Esposito recalled.

Lazzara informed Esposito Tampa Bay is considered the lightning capital of North America.

"At that time, Lazzara's mom, who was 84 or 85 at the time, she comes out the back door and she hears us talking about the name and says, 'You ought to name the team the Lightning,'" Esposito said. "And I turned around and I went, 'That's it. That's the name of this team.'"

So, to those fans who submitted 'Lightning' during the naming contest and thought they were the ones to establish the team's identity, Esposito says sorry, but Bennie Lazzara's mother beat you to the punch.

"There were two or three people that said the Lightning, so we took them aside and we did something with them," Esposito said. "But the name had already been given. As soon as (she) said that, I'm telling you, I turned around and I said, 'That's the name. What's wrong with us? We've been searching. Perfect.'"

Esposito said the biggest selling point to the Lightning name, besides being an accurate reflection of the area as well as having a menacing connotation, was that it didn't have an 'S' on the end.

"I wanted to be different," he said. "…Everybody else was the Bruins, the Rangers, the Hawks, the Red Wings. This was Lightning, no S."

Esposito was insistent the logo have a lightning bolt somewhere. He wanted the design of the pants to have bolts on the side.

"If I look and I see a bolt, I know that's my teammate," Esposito said. "There might be a split second that makes the difference between the pass getting on the guy's stick and being intercepted. That was my rationale. Anything to make it quicker for us that you could recognize who we were and what we were."

So, the next time you're at AMALIE Arena and you get a kick out of the Tesla coils firing and you chant "let's go Bolts" - Esposito hates that name by the way. "If I wanted to name it the Bolts, I would have named it the Bolts. You have bolts with Frankenstein." - and the sound of thunder rumbling after a big save makes the hair on your arms stand up, you have the Lazzara family to thank.

And Esposito for recognizing a great, unique name.

"Sometimes in life, you just know," Esposito said. 

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