The night of October 20, 1996 was filled with much anticipation and excitement.
The puck was about to drop for the first time at the Ice Palace, which Bolts fans now know as The Tampa Bay Times Forum. The Tampa Bay Lightning, after playing four seasons at Expo Hall and the Thunderdome, finally had an arena they could call home.
The New York Rangers were in town for the inaugural game at the Times Forum , bringing the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mike Richter in to face an upstart Lightning team just a few months removed from making the first postseason appearance in franchise history.
What a way to introduce a new building to hockey, right?
At least that night, the Times Forum was at capacity to witness the first of many memories that unfolded in what became a memorable debut.
“I remember the Palace being jammed,” team founder Phil Esposito said. “I didn’t even have a place to sit. People were coming up to me all night thanking me for bringing hockey to Florida and getting the team in this new building.”
Added then-Lightning forward Brian Bradley: “The fans were excited. The players were ready to go. The atmosphere was almost like a playoff game because of all the anticipation.”
Midway through the first period, Bradley beat Richter to score the very first goal in the Times Forum’s history.
“It was really exciting scoring the first goal,” Bradley recalled. “Walking around the arena now, I see all the memorabilia commemorating that moment. It is really special to me to have been able to do that.”
The Lightning went on to defeat the star-studded Rangers that night by a score of 5-2, which just put the icing on the cake for such a special moment in the organization’s history.
If anyone, it was Bradley who could relate to how much time, effort, and dedication was put in by Esposito to make the occasion happen. Being, at the time, the face of the franchise, Bradley displayed what a class act he was by signing the stick he used to score the Times Forum’s first goal and presented it to Esposito after the game.
The Tampa Bay Times Forum has come a long way since its opening in 1996 as the Ice Palace.
“Phil did so much for the Tampa community by bringing hockey here and building this arena,” Bradley added. “I thought it would only be right for him to have the stick that scored the first goal in the Forum. I was glad to do it.”
Not only did Bradley recognize the effort by Esposito to bring hockey to Florida, but so did another hockey great.
“After the game, Wayne Gretzky came up to me and gave me his stick as well, letting me know how excited he was to have hockey here,” Esposito said.
Today, October 20, marks the 16th anniversary of the first hockey game at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and perhaps the very first in what has become a collection of many.
For example, during the 2002-03 season, the building witnessed the Lightning capture their first division title.
The 2003-04 season, however, proved to be the most memorable, as the Lightning not only won another division title, but they also lifted the Stanley Cup in their home arena after Ruslan Fedotenko scored two goals in Game 7 to defeat the Calgary Flames and win the NHL’s ultimate prize.
In total, the Times Forum walls have witnessed five playoff appearances by the Lightning, most recently coming in 2010-11.
The Forum has over gone many different changes during its existence as well.
Whether it be a name change, or a multi-million dollar renovation that enhances the fan experience, the Times Forum never wavered as the epitome of a world-class venue.
“In my opinion we have the best facility in the league,” said Esposito, the man who made it all happen.
With a solid ownership in place, and a fan base that craves success, the Forum will surely host many more commemorative moments by virtue of the legacy the Lightning organization has laid down already in just its brief 20-year history.