In the summer of 1992, Wayne Cashman was in a very good place. He had just finished his fifth season as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers, a team that had just won the Presidents’ Trophy after years of mediocrity. And even though the Rangers lost to the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins in the Patrick Division finals, most everyone knew the Rangers were on a path to Stanley Cup contenders. So why in the world would Cashman walk away from a certain championship, to take a similar job with an expansion team? “I’m leaving a team that’s favored to win the Stanley Cup. But going back to being with Phil [Esposito], we had great success together and we were good friends and I knew Tony [Esposito] pretty well. It was a new challenge—to go to an area that didn’t have hockey, go to a team that had never been established, I looked forward to that challenge. That’s what sports is about—challenges and stepping up to them.”
Cashman’s response should be no surprise, given the style of play he exhibited in 1,027 games all played with the Boston Bruins. In today’s hockey vernacular, Cashman was “the grinder”—the first man in to the offensive zone doing all the dirty work in the corners to set up a scoring chance for his linemates. Cashman, to put it nicely, was absolutely ferocious in this role. One could say when Boston Garden was torn down in 1997, the last area to face the wrecking ball was the corner boards because even then Cashman wouldn’t yield. Phil Esposito scored a then-record 76 goals in the 1970-71 season, and it’s not a coincidence that linemates Cashman and Ken Hodge combined for 120 assists. If it wasn’t Bobby Orr flying from end-to-end setting up a scoring chance, it was the blood, sweat, and grit of Cashman and Hodge gaining puck control and giving Espo time to park his 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame in the crease.
The Cashman and Esposito timeline continued even after Esposito was traded to the Rangers in 1975. When Esposito was named GM of the Rangers in 1986, Cashman became an assistant coach in Michel Bergeron’s staff in 1987. From here you know the rest of the story—Esposito left the Rangers in 1989, and against all odds secured an expansion franchise for Tampa Bay set to play in 1992. That brings us back to that summer, when Cashman stepped in to a world of unknown with the new Lightning. The one thing he did know, was the team would have to work extremely hard to win games and win over fans. “We had to be the hardest working team. That was what we really pressured our team with-- to establish what the identity of the hockey team would be, and that was just hard work. That team worked very hard.”
In short, the team had to play like Wayne Cashman.
There was plenty of hard work in that 1992-93 lineup: Rob Ramage, Basil McRae, Pete Taglianetti, John Tucker, and Doug Crossman just to name a few. The experience these veterans had under their belts not only taught younger players like Roman Hamrlik and Rob Zamuner what it took to survive in the NHL, it also allowed previously under-the-radar players like Brian Bradley, Chris Kontos, and Shawn Chambers a chance to flourish. “These players established our identity, they made the young players realize how hard you had to work if you want to be successful as a team and individuals.”
The chemistry worked, as the team finished the 1992-93 season with 23 wins, the most for a non-WHA expansion team. The formula that worked so well in season number one, continued to grow the franchise in the second, third, and fourth seasons. That fourth season, was the first season the Lightning made it to the playoffs. And while the Lightning needed some help in the woeful Ottawa Senators beating the New Jersey Devils in the last game of the season to get in, Cashman knows the Lightning would not have been in that position had the team not worked hard in games number 80 and 81. “We had two very big games: we had a game in Florida, and a game in New York which we felt we HAD to win. We felt if we won those games, then we had an opportunity. It was quite an accomplishment for the players, and the team, and the whole organization for what they had done coming down the stretch. We needed some big games and we got that out of our team. They just literally outworked some teams and the guys, the roles we put them in, they did them and that’s basically where we had our success.”
Even though the Lightning couldn’t take down the Flyers in that first round, the battle they gave them left the Flyers on fumes when they faced the Florida Panthers in the next round. The Panthers, another young hard-working team, would defeat the Flyers four games to two on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Cashman and the Flyers knew the Lightning’s performance ended Philadelphia’s lofty championship goals. “Every player stepped up, and I remember talking to people a year later [who] said that, one of the reasons the team we played [Philadelphia] was so tired after our series they just never really got their energy going again in the playoffs because they said, ‘your team played so hard’”.
When the Lightning moved on to the Ice Palace in 1996, Cashman moved on to San Jose as an assistant coach under former Bruins teammate Al Sims. Then in 1997, just weeks after Terry Murray’s Flyers were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals, Cashman was named head coach of the Flyers. A dream job for one of the hardest working men in hockey turned in to a nightmare. The Flyers didn’t look like repeat contenders, and a 4-8 stretch in February and March of 1998 sealed Cashman’s fate behind the bench. On March 10, 1998, he was demoted to assistant coach as Roger Nielsen (the head coach of the Rangers in 1992 when Cashman left for Tampa Bay) took over the reins. Always the consummate professional and team player, Cashman accepted the demotion and supported Nielsen. The Flyers were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Buffalo Sabres in five games.
After two more seasons in Philadelphia, Cashman returned as a head coach in Pensacola with the ECHL’s Ice Pilots in 2000. His career would end where it started, in Boston, as an assistant coach until 2006. Now retired, he’s living in Ocala, and after going through several serious health issues he’s feeling better than ever. And yes, he’s still watching the Lightning. “I follow them on television. I’m very impressed with their team. They’re a team with some very talented players, and I think they’re a very competitive team and they’ve got great fans and a great owner. I’ve been with Phil a week or so ago here and he just talked about how stable the ownership is and how good it makes everyone feel within the organization.”
Like many people who were involved in that first season of Lightning hockey, Cashman can hardly believe it’s been 20 years. The biggest impact he’s seen from the Lightning’s success is how widespread the game of hockey has grown since those days in tiny Expo Hall “There’s no rink in Ocala-- the closest rink is either in Orlando or Jacksonville or Tampa, and I talk to guys all the time that say, ‘I play hockey twice a week’ and I go, ‘Where?!?’. ‘Well we drive to Tampa or we drive to Orlando’, and it’s really created interest in hockey in the surrounding area. Who would ever thought 25 years ago the people in Florida would talk, ‘I got to get off work early because I got to go to my hockey game’ as a player not as a fan but they’re going down to play! To me that’s something.”
While Cashman gives credit to the players and management for the strong foundation laid 20 years ago, there’s no doubt he and the rest of the coaching staff then were integral in the birth, development, and massive growth of hockey in west central Florida. But like his playing days, he won’t look for the credit he deserves. He’ll just keep grinding away, witnessing the success that is Lightning hockey 20 years later. “It seemed that we were always battling an uphill battle. No matter what we did, the odds were stacked against us and anything that could go wrong it wrong but no one quit. No one in the front office, no one in the organization, no one on the team… we just kept battling through it.”