"It's been a fun ride. It's been a roller coaster. but it's been really satisfying to be there at the birth and the genesis of the organization, and to see what it's culminated into 25 years later is probably even beyond my wildest dreams."
Nigel Kirwan was at his desk inside the offices of the Tampa Bay Lightning when then-head coach Terry Crisp walked in.
Kirwan joined the Lightning as a sales guy for the inaugural season in 1992 and soon added the role of director of amateur hockey to his duties. Kirwan and Crisp had gotten to know each other pretty well. Kirwan was also well aware Crisp was a bit of a practical joker. That's why when Crisp approached to ask if he wanted to become his video coach, Kirwan balked.
"I was often part of his pranks and his jokes," Kirwan said, smiling. "So I just dismissed it as a joke and told him to pound sand in another way and get out of my office. It took me a little while to figure out he wasn't joking. And even after I found out he wasn't joking, I still expected to find out the wool had been pulled over my eyes."
Twenty one years later, Kirwan remains one of the longest-tenured video coaches in the NHL, having outlasted nine Lightning head coaches and four different Tampa Bay ownership groups.
On Opening Night of a new season, the Lightning players, coaches, trainers and equipment managers are announced to the AMALIE Arena crowd one by one and shown on Lightning Vision. Kirwan always receives one of the loudest applauses, his longevity in the organization and commitment to the team and the community well-versed among the knowledgeable Lightning faithful.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't like people staring at me, so I'm actually very uncomfortable out there," Kirwan said. "I don't like the spotlight on me. I'm grateful for the applause, and it's really nice of people to share whatever appreciation they have, but while I'm standing there on the bench, all I'm thinking is, 'Get me out of here.'"
Kirwan's work is more behind the scenes, largely undertaken on a laptop and video screen in a room deep inside the catacombs of the Lightning locker room, but his performance is crucial to the success of the team on the ice.
When Kirwan reflects on his 25 seasons with the organization, on how he never contemplated a career in sports when he was approached about joining the Lightning's sales staff while finishing his degree at the University of Tampa, on the colossal leaps he as well as the organization has made since that first season in 1992-93, he gets nostalgic.
"You know, having been there in the beginning and knowing what a struggle it was to get an arena built, we went through a lot of difficult times and some ownerships that struggled a little bit, so you never envision this, as good as it is right now," Kirwan said. "I'm not sure I ever saw this. Everything starts with the ownership. Mr. Vinik coming in here and providing the support to the company and also ingraining himself so thoroughly in the community, people have really rallied behind this team and Mr. Vinik and it's a testament to what he's done here for the community and for the Lightning organization."
Dr. Chuck Slonim
Team Ophthalmologist and Cut Man
"I'm 65. I could go until I'm 90 but I may not be able to sew them up as fast."
Dr. Chuck Slonim has a longstanding disagreement with former Lightning player Jassen Cullimore.
Cullimore says it was 91 stitches Slonim sewed into him in the middle of a game during those early years at the downtown arena known then as the Ice Palace.
Slonim is positive it was 89.
"The players always want to know the stitches," Slonim chuckled. "It's always, 'How many stitches, doc?' It's kind of a pride thing."
Slonim is an ophthalmologist and an ocular plastic surgeon, his specialty trauma in and around the eye.
He was the ophthalmologist at USF and worked a lot of the MLB Grapefruit League spring training games before joining the Lighting for the inaugural season.
"I make sure their eyes are okay before the season, take care of them during the season, but my main use here is the cuts," Slonim said. "Docs have come and gone, but for some reason, they keep me around."
Slonim said some of the former Eastern Bloc players didn't want any novacaine when they were stitched up because it had a bad reputation where they were from. Some players still don't want it because they're tough.
"They want to feel the stitches," he said.
All the players want to be fixed up as quickly as possible so they can miss as few shifts as possible.
"Frequently, I don't even have the last stitch in, especially in the playoffs, and they're trying to get off the table to get dressed and get back in the game," Slonim said. "They're amazing athletes. They really want to get back out…Luckily, because I've been in practice since 1982, so 35 years, I can do it pretty quickly."
Slonim said being part of a team like the Lightning is the pinnacle of his career in sports medicine.
"I do a lot of things," he said. "But I love coming to these games, and I come to almost every one of them. There's only a few that I have to miss. But I love the sport. And I get to see it from both sides."
Dr. Sam Caranante
"It's really been one hell of a ride, the experience of seeing the franchise come to fruition with someone who's a visionary like Phil. I mean, hockey in Florida? Are you kidding me?"
Sam Caranante had just settled into his seat at AMALIE Arena when his phone rang with a familiar number.
On the ice, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were warming up, the two teams about to play Game 4 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. The Penguins held a 2-1 lead in the series.
Game 4 would be crucial for the Bolts. A loss would put them in a 3-1 hole heading back to the Steel City.
And their second leading playoff scorer at the time, Tyler Johnson, was not on the ice after a shot caromed off the crossbar and the puck slammed into Johnson's mouth.
One of his bottom teeth had fractured. Others on top were jammed back.
"We had to kind of get those back in place," Caranante said.
Like he's done for 25 seasons on a rotating basis with a crew of team dentists, Caranante went back into the dressing room to attend to a player, home or away, with a mouth injury.
"I guess if you have to describe our position and what we do there, we obviously don't have a dental chair and can't do those kinds of procedures that are restorative procedures, our thing is to keep them comfortable, pain management, that sort of thing, assessing and evaluating, stitching," Caranante said.
And do all those things as quick as possible.
In Johnson's case, puck drop for one of the biggest games of the season was only 20 minutes away. The Lightning couldn't afford to be without one of their key players.
"The coach wants this guy to be playing at the time the buzzer goes off," Caranante said.
Johnson was still in the training room getting patched up when Ryan Callahan scored 27 seconds into the game but was back on the bench soon after, sporting a full cage he would later trade in for a less obstructive visor.
Later in the second period, he would score the game-winning goal, tying the series 2-2 and sending it back to Pittsburgh.
Credit Sam Caranante with the unofficial assist.
"For me, it's really exciting to just kind of watch this stuff and just having been a little part of it."
Visiting Team Locker Room Manager
"No matter what facilities you give me, good or bad -- and now we have some of the best -- my job is to make (visiting teams) feel like they're at home, treat them the best and do it with pride because I represent the Tampa Bay Lightning."
Rod Harris is a National Hockey League lifer, having gotten his start working locker rooms in the league in the late 1970s with the expansion Washington Capitals. The Caps needed help in the locker room on practice days and wanted to hire somebody that knew something about hockey. Harris fit the bill having played in college.
"In those days, hockey was new in Washington. Didn't have much of a fan base. Didn't have a lot of youth hockey. So they didn't have a lot of people with a knowledge of hockey."
In 1982, he left Washington to work for the Devils after the Colorado Rockies moved their franchise to New Jersey. He was in the Meadowlands for four years before relocating to Tampa to start a business with a friend.
When the Lightning were hiring for their inaugural staff, Harris was offered a job, having developed a connection with Phil and Tony Esposito during his years in the league.
"Phil was on TV at MSG, so he was always at our arena at the Meadowlands it seemed like," he said.
Harris was brought in to run the Lightning locker room.
He says he lasted two games.
"I came into work one day and (head athletic trainer) Skip (Thayer) goes, 'I need you to go over to the visiting room and work there.' And at first I was like, 'What did I do wrong?' And he was like, 'No, it's the opposite. You know what you're doing. We have a problem (in the visiting room).'
"I haven't left since."
Harris said it's the people and the memories that've made 25 seasons with the Lightning fly by. Today, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are in town. Three nights earlier, Washington head coach Barry Trotz, his team having just lost in overtime to the Lightning after holding 2-0 and 3-1 leads, was understandably frustrated but made a point to seek out Harris and say goodbye before leaving.
He has a tattoo courtesy of former Tampa Bay head coach John Tortorella.
"We were on the sideline of a Bucs game, and (Tortorella's) son Nick goes, "Hey, Rod, look what dad got yesterday.' And Torts looks at me and goes, 'And you're next.' Two days later, I was sitting in some place up by USF getting a tattoo."
Harris owns a ring from the 2004 Stanley Cup champions. He got to spend a day with the Cup the summer after the Lightning won too.
"It's the best job, other than being a player, head coach or assistant coach, it's the best job in hockey," he said. "I know all 700-plus players on the teams, most of them on a first-name basis. I know all the trainers, all the equipment managers, the coaches. I love what I do."