Extending over 400 square miles of Florida’s largest open-water estuary are sandy beaches, abundant fisheries and lengthy stretches of watershed coastline that lines portions of five of the state’s counties. Believe it or not, there is even a 200 x 85-foot man-made ice rink nestled right in the heart of downtown Tampa, but even with that, the area still makes much of its living from mother earth.
So, as the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate their 20th Anniversary season, perhaps there was no better place after all for Phil Esposito and an upstart hockey franchise to take root.
Success is often a product of foresight and opportunity, and there is no doubt Esposito took full advantage of both.
A Hockey Hall-of-Famer in his own right, Esposito was all of 48 years old when he arrived in Tampa Bay to usher in the second coming of a so-called Ice Age – approximately 2.6 million years following that of the Pleistocene epoch, although this one was met with a bit more excitement and anticipation than the original.
Anyways, after the National Hockey League gave the area rave reviews, an official franchise was granted to the region on Dec. 6, 1990, and with an appropriate choice of words fitting for a Bay Area resident, the rest was “smooth sailing,” Esposito said.
That, for the most part, was accurate, perhaps because Esposito had already chosen and set aside the Lightning name, just waiting to be utilized had the league granted the Bay Area its very own hockey franchise.
It did, of course, which prompted Esposito himself to clear up a common misconception.
“The truth is, I didn’t come up with the name Lightning,” Esposito said. “I wish I could say I did, but I didn’t.”
The founder of the team didn’t even name his own baby?
In reality, Esposito was attending a party on the back porch of a friend’s home on Davis Islands, that of well-known Tampa attorney Bennie Lazzara, and it wasn’t until a large black cloud and impending thunder storm rolled over the bay that Lazzara’s mother had her famous eureka moment.
“All of a sudden the sky lit up and she got scared,” Esposito recalled. “She said, ‘look at that lightning!’ and immediately I turned around, pointed at her, and I said, ‘yes, that’s it.’ It was absolutely perfect.”
With the name now established, Esposito’s next step was to begin drawing out designs for the team logo.
With the help of Executive Vice President Mel Lowell and General Counsel Henry Paul, the original Lightning crest was born, first displayed on the front of the team’s jerseys throughout the inaugural 1992-93 season.
That version, however, didn’t come without a few modifications.
Esposito said his first draft of the design featured the silver lightning bolt, which stuck, but only displayed the word “Tampa” across the top without “Bay” or “Lightning” accompanying it. He also wanted to incorporate the colors black and blue, and utilized both in his original designs for the patches on the shoulders of the jersey, which depicted a lightning bolt etched over the state of Florida.
Then, as advised by long-time Tampa Bay area sports pioneer Tom McEwen, Esposito decided to add “Bay” to the official name of the team, as well as its uniforms, to unite the entire region, thus causing a much greater population to embrace the club during its infancy stages.
“Tom told me it had to say “Tampa Bay” no matter what, and that, honestly, was the best decision I could have made at the time,” Esposito said. “I wanted to do things differently, and I knew I was going to have to since hockey in Tampa Bay was new. You have to remember, none of this had ever been done before.”
That was true.
A lot of this had never been done before.
At least not in the way Esposito was about to do it.
Always the idea man, Esposito needed to create as much publicity as possible.
In order to get the team off to a successful start on the ice, he selected defenseman Roman Hamrlik with the team’s first ever draft selection. The only trouble was, Hamrlik was an 18-year-old kid from the Czech Republic who spoke little English and whose shyness in front of a camera was likened to a junior high student at his first school dance.
So, what did Esposito do?
He first drafted Brent Gretzky, the biological brother of hockey great Wayne, in the third round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, mostly just to generate some good press. Then, Esposito went ahead and offered female goaltender Manon Rheaume a tryout at the team’s training camp, naturally for some more headlines.
“I knew what I had to do to get the fans on board,” Esposito said. “Some of the decisions weren’t popular, but I knew that once we got them in the building, we had them. I would go out and tell people, ‘look, you folks love boxing, you love wrestling, you love football, and you love car crashes. Come out to a hockey game, and you get all of that in one place.’”
If only getting them in the building was that easy.
“When I first got here, I couldn’t believe the divide that existed between Tampa, St. Pete and Clearwater. So I spoke to Henry [Paul], and I said, ‘one thing we have to do is unite.’ From a marketing standpoint, the more fans we could get on board was ultimately going to make this team successful in the early stages, so that’s why we had to bridge the gap.”
And they did. Literally.
The team played its second season, and each of the next three for that matter, across the Howard Frankland Bridge at the Thunder Dome in downtown St. Pete, now known as Tropicana Field which houses Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
In just a short year, Esposito’s work had paid off, seeing attendance grow from approximately 10,000 at the Florida State Fair Grounds to nearly 26,000 during the club’s three-year tenure across the bay.
Keep in mind, however, at the time, the Lightning’s staff was still relatively small, consisting of 40-50 staff members.
To continue spreading the word, Esposito urged each employee to take their marketing skills to the streets, even if that meant Esposito going out and making appearances himself. The team even offered fans free tickets, plenty of which were to be had.
“I would go all over, to the malls, restaurants, and parking lots, and I literally just started putting Tampa Bay Lightning stickers on people’s cars,” Esposito said. “I once put a sticker on the back of George Steinbrenner’s Mercedes. I didn’t know it was his car at the time, but yeah, you better believe he got one.”
As it turned out, Steinbrenner wasn’t the only beneficiary of some goodwill.
With a decent-sized fan base established, the Lightning grew as a franchise and in 1996, moved into its current home in downtown Tampa, which is now known as the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
It didn’t come, however, without a bit of a new look.
For the first time in team history, the Bolts introduced an alternate “third” jersey, which arrived in an off-shade of navy blue with gray trim, adorned with neon yellow lightning bolts and what appeared to be diagonal lines depicting rain.
Delightfully tacky, the threads didn’t last too long, and the Bolts went back to wearing the original crest and colors for all home games including the night of June 7, 2004, when the team hoisted the Stanley Cup above its head less than 12 years after playing its first game.
That stayed until 2008, when new ownership instituted yet another alteration of the team’s look, in which a sharper crest with “Tampa Bay” written in a clearer, more square font resided until the most recent design, unveiled in February 2011, made its debut.
Today, the Lightning takes on a more “classic” look that is expected to be timeless, as it is perceived to be more traditional. The home kits, for the first time in the annals of the franchise, do not include any words, while the road jersey systems, simply feature a modification of the design used from 2008 through 2011, with the words “Tampa Bay” displayed across the top.
The Lightning still incorporate a third jersey to be worn at home, in which a blue background displays the word “Bolts” in a diagonal pattern of white block letters. The jerseys also feature black trim, with the words “Tampa Bay” at the bottom of the back side of the uniform.
“You know it’s great to see just how far this organization has come in 20 years,” Esposito said. “Of course there have been changes, new ownership, new jerseys, players, and what not, but the one constant that has sustained itself is the message we’ve been selling since day one. We. Want. To. Win.”
Even after two decades, perhaps that alone is timeless in its own right.