Esposito's efforts paid off in expansion to Tampa Bay
When the National Hockey League wanted to expand for the 1992-93 season, Phil Esposito put everything he had into convincing a lot of people that hockey in Florida could work. It was a tiresome and expensive process.
"I had to convince a lot of people ... it was grueling," the Hockey Hall of Famer told NHL.com. "It cost me a marriage, it cost me every penny I ever had. But it was all worth it. That's the way I look at it.
"It was my idea right from the get-go. It was probably the greatest thing I ever did in the game of hockey. I was out of my element, and I started a brand-new franchise in a state that everybody thought I was nuts to try and start it in. And we got it accomplished."
It took the backing of some Japanese investors to help Esposito make hockey in the Sunshine State a reality. Golf resort operator Kokusai Green was the driving force, as he and Esposito's group -- which included former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner -- were willing to pay the NHL's $50 million expansion fee to create the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It was my idea right from the get-go. It was probably the greatest thing I ever did in the game of hockey. I was out of my element, and I started a brand-new franchise in a state that everybody thought I was nuts to try and start it in. And we got it accomplished." -- Phil Esposito
"I was pretty confident we were going to get it," Esposito said. "I did a lot of homework, I did a lot of lobbying. I talked to a lot of owners. I had faith, and I think I was like, 'Wow.' And I remember this little Japanese guy sitting behind me saying, 'What do we do now?' I said, 'Now, you pay.'"
Naturally, Esposito took some heat from the traditional markets about putting a team in the southeastern corner of the United States. He was told it wouldn't work. It couldn't work. It would end up being one gigantic waste of time.
"The northern markets -- Canadians, specifically -- and the Bostonians and the New Yorkers, they couldn't believe it," Esposito said. "They said, 'You can't put hockey down there.' But we made the playoffs in our [fourth] year.
"It was not easy and nobody made it easy. We made it easy. There's only one way to do things, and it's not half-[hearted]. Sure, there were times when I thought, 'We're finished, absolutely finished.' But I wouldn't let anybody quit. No way were we going to quit. No way. We exhausted the last possible thing, and we did. And we made it a success. I'm very proud of that."
Building the foundation
Once awarded the franchise, Esposito became the Lightning's president and general manager. His first order of business was to hire a coach. Terry Crisp, who led the Calgary Flames to a Stanley Cup championship in 1989, ended up getting the job on April 23, 1992.
Coaching the Lightning was a win-win situation for Crisp. Not only was he getting back to doing what he loved, but he knew his better half would be awfully happy soaking up the sun during the winter.
"One of the biggest things was just getting back in the NHL," Crisp told NHL.com. "It was a chance to get back doing what I love to do, which is coach. The second thing was it was all brand-new territory and for many, many years my wife kept saying, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could play in Florida?' Now there's a woman's thinking for you -- hockey, beach, sun, you get paid and live there. ... I said to my wife, 'You must have had déjà vu,' because all of a sudden, her wish comes true. We're now in Florida, I'm a head coach and we're living the good life. I still laugh about it."
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Esposito said, "I knew Crispy from junior [hockey] and I owned part of the [Sault Ste. Marie] Greyhounds, and he was coaching. I thought Crispy would be good for the first three years because we would have older guys, and Terry was very good with the older guys."
Working with an expansion team was nothing new for Crisp. A former NHL center, the Parry Sound, Ontario native skated with the St. Louis Blues when they entered the League in 1967. Five years later, he played with the New York Islanders, who mere making their NHL debut in that 1972-73 season.
"I was an original Blue with Scotty Bowman, and then I was an original Islander. I was sort of prepared for what new teams wanted and how they started up and what they were looking for," Crisp said. "Scotty Bowman had his idea where it was bring in some young players, but bring in veterans and start winning right off the bat with veterans. The Islanders went the total opposite. [Islanders general manager] Bill Torrey went with youth and drafted well. They built with the youth and were successful. I had been through both ends of it."
"Ironically enough, I was sitting with my kids in Orlando at the time," Young told NHL.com. "It didn't cross my mind that it was on that day, but when we got back to the hotel I told my wife, 'Oh geez, it's expansion day.' I had an idea that it was me and Peter Sidorkiewicz that were the available goalies, and I was either going to Ottawa or Tampa. I just happened to be sitting in Orlando when I got picked."
Not even 24 hours passed after the expansion draft before Esposito landed another player.
"They had the expansion draft, and I kind of had a feeling something was going to happen there, whether it was Ottawa or Tampa. That didn't happen, and then the next morning I got a call that I had been traded to Tampa," said forward Danton Cole, who was sent from Winnipeg to Tampa Bay for future considerations on June 19, 1992. "I was excited about it. I knew it was going to be a pretty neat place and a new franchise and it would be a great experience. It ended up being that."
The Lightning opened their first training camp in September in nearby Lakeland, Fla. It was comprised of a mishmash of players acquired through trades, free agency and the expansion draft. But, right from the get-go, chemistry was evident.
Brian Bradley was in the prime of his NHL career while participating in Tampa Bay's first training camp. (Photo: Getty Images)
In all, 72 players participated. Some were young ; some were in the prime of their careers, such as centers Brian Bradley (28) and John Tucker (27). Others were nearing the end and were hoping to be leaders (33-year-old defenseman Rob Ramage) or were basically looking for one more chance (35-year-old Ron Duguay, who failed to secure a roster spot).
"I think Phil went out and shook every tree there was and got every guy who ever wore a pair of blades or had a hockey stick," Crisp said. "I don't know the exact number, but I just know there was one pile of hockey players at training camp to weed through and see what we could do with them. It was interesting. We had some guys come in that were well-seasoned veterans.
"We didn't have a lot of young players that were going to knock our socks off. We went with character guys -- guys that wanted a job and guys that were hungry and still had something left in them."
A unique environment
During the preseason, the Lightning made history. On Sept. 23, 1992, Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game when the Lightning faced the Blues. With more than 75 media members in attendance, Rhéaume -- who was 20 at the time -- stopped seven of nine shots in the first period, the only one she ever participated in at the NHL level.
"I knew I had to be good, I knew I had to perform," Rhéaume told NHL.com. "There were so many people saying that maybe I shouldn't be there, as much as that was firing me up to be even better, it was also a lot of pressure and I was very focused on that. But I also had no idea I would have this kind of attention, not only in the U.S. but across the world. It took me a while to realize the impact my story had."
Tampa Bay played its inaugural season at Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds, an arena that held fewer than 11,000 fans. While it wasn't ideal for NHL hockey, the players loved it.
On Sept. 23, 1992, Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game. (Photo: Tampa Bay Lightning)
Why? Because of its unique atmosphere and surroundings. Not only did a raucous fan base make it a difficult place to play for opponents on a nightly basis, but it also provided different opportunities for Tampa Bay players to relax before and after games.
"Instead of having 20,000 seats with a half-full arena, it actually created some urgency to get tickets," goaltender Pat Jablonski said. "Going to a game became like an event. There were only 10,000 tickets and it was new and it made the tickets somewhat special, because there weren't a lot of them. I think that helped. It made it fun and loud in that rink. There wasn't a bad seat in the place."
Defenseman Marc Bergevin, who is now general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, said, "Guys were fishing before the game. There was a little pond behind it -- true story. Looking back now, we were thinking, 'This is the NHL?' But they wound up winning the Cup 10 years later, so it turned out to be a good market. The community was behind us, I remember that."
In the Lightning's first NHL game, Oct. 7, 1992, Chris Kontos -- who signed with the club as a free agent -- scored the first hat trick in franchise history in a 7-3 win against Ed Belfour and the Chicago Blackhawks in front of a capacity crowd of 10,425.
Kontos needed just 4 minutes, 43 seconds to score the franchise's first goal. It was a perfect way for the 27-year-old to prove he was a legitimate NHL goal-scorer, which some thought he could be when he had nine in 11 games for the Los Angeles Kings during the 1989 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Prior to the game, Esposito gave an order to arena employees at Expo Hall, but he never expected or accounted for something like Kontos' outburst.
"I had told all the ushers, 'If anybody throws anything on the ice, you throw them out,'" Esposito said. "Did I know that Kontos was going to get four goals? All of a sudden, after he got the third one, somebody threw a hat on the ice. Somebody ran and grabbed this guy and I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'You told me to throw them out.' I said, 'No, the guy got a hat trick.' He said, 'What the hell is a hat trick?'"
"I had told all the ushers, 'If anybody throws anything on the ice, you throw them out. Did I know that Kontos was going to get four goals? All of a sudden, after he got the third one, somebody threw a hat on the ice. Somebody ran and grabbed this guy and I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'You told me to throw them out.' I said, 'No, the guy got a hat trick.' He said, 'What the hell is a hat trick?'" -- Phil Esposito
Cole said, "It was a great night. We were out at the Fairgrounds and it wasn't the biggest arena, but with the way the stands were configured and the metal-bleacher type setup, it was unbelievably loud in there. It was actually a pretty fun place to play. I think the city was excited and I think the players were excited. It was a neat opening night and it's definitely something I'll remember."
It was a solid start to the season for the Lightning, who four nights later earned a 4-4 tie against the Blackhawks -- a Stanley Cup finalist the prior season -- behind two more goals from Kontos.
"We played Chicago a couple of nights later and I had two on [Belfour], so I had six on him [the year he would win the Vezina]," said Kontos, who now runs a marketing company and is the co-inventor of Edge Again, a rechargeable skate sharpener. "I told my son because he was watching some old tapes and he said, 'He was a pretty good goalie.' And then he watched the L.A. stuff and I scored on Grant Fuhr and he says, 'He was a pretty good goalie too.' At least I've got him snowballed into thinking maybe I'm a little bit better than I am."
Kontos had another surge at the end of October and early November when he scored in five straight games (he had six goals during that stretch) and 10 times in eight contests. The Lightning won four of those games and tied another as they continued to show few signs of being an expansion team.
Shorts and sandals
As the winter months arrived, players began to reap the benefits of playing in a southern market. Instead of having to bundle up to head out to the rink, they were wearing shorts and sandals. The opportunity to golf or fish was there almost every day.
"It was a drastic difference from Winnipeg," Cole said. "It was fun, though. I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy it or not. You kind of wondered if you would be thinking about hockey. But it ended up being all right and we ended up being in the South, my wife and I. You get used to it. I didn't end up doing things much differently than I did in Winnipeg. You go about your business. That's your job, to play hockey. It was pretty much the same routine; it was just nice getting up in the morning and having breakfast out on the deck as opposed to cranking up the heat and trying to stay warm. I thought it was very enjoyable."
Terry Crisp became the Lightning's first head coach on April 23, 1992. (Photo: Getty Images)
Kontos said, "You go into the Fairgrounds and there's these little ponds and there's bass in the ponds. You would think, 'This isn't hockey.' But it was. I remember bringing a rod just after practice and just throwing some casts in and catching a fish and thinking, 'This is great.' The climate for hockey to open up in the South like that was marvelous. I played in L.A. in the past and I loved playing in warm-weather climates."
The site of the state fairgrounds provided some interesting experiences for the players. Often, it was a circus -- literally.
"That's where Ringling Brothers based their operations," said defenseman Peter Taglianetti, who appeared in 61 games for the Lightning that season. "We'd go to the rink for practice and there's elephants walking by. It really was a circus. The state fair was also there, so because it was 80 degrees, we'd go outside to tape our sticks and right behind us was the biggest cow in the world and corn dog stands right there. It was different, but it was an experience none of us will forget. It was definitely a fulfilling year."
As time wore on, even opposing players began to realize the benefit of playing at Tampa Bay. In other cities, some players were rewarded with automobiles. But Brendan Shanahan, now the League's Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations, remembers some Lightning players being rewarded with another method of transportation.
"We had lost Pat Jablonski, one of our good friends in St. Louis and our backup goalie to Curtis Joseph," said Shanahan, who was playing for the Blues at the time. "I remember calling [Pat] once training camp had started because we missed him ... and Kelly Chase said something like, 'We're calling you from my dealership car' -- you know, a car that a dealership in St. Louis had given him for free. And, well, Jabber said, 'I'm calling you from my dealership boat.'
"They had fun there. It was different. Even Basil McRae, who had played there for a while, used to tell us about Christmas dinner outside on his balcony. We weren't used to doing stuff like that. It was different when we went there. It was a different atmosphere. The players were all tan and well-rested. It looked like they were enjoying life in Tampa."
Working for wins
As expected from an expansion team, the Lightning experienced ups and downs throughout the season. Though they got off to a highly respectable 9-8-2 start, they won only one of their next 12 games. In the end, they finished with a record of 23-54-7, which was far better than the 10-70-4 mark of their 1992-93 expansion brothers, the Senators. After the Lightning's final home game of the season (a 4-2 loss to Chicago on April 10, 1993), the entire team was named first star of the game.
Not surprisingly, their work ethic -- something Esposito and Crisp were looking for -- won over a very enthusiastic fan base that had several reasons to be excited.
One of the biggest was Bradley, who scored 10 goals in 59 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs the previous season, erupted for 42 in Tampa Bay, an NHL expansion record. He became a mainstay and played five more seasons for the Lightning before retiring in 1998. Though he never came close to duplicating that inaugural season, he did enjoy two more 20-goal campaigns.
Naturally, it took some time for the Lightning to rise up the ranks. But the players believed in what Esposito and Crisp were trying to build. Even when they were mathematically eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff contention, it was still easy to get out of bed every morning and head to the Fairgrounds.
"Working for Phil Esposito was great," Jablonski said. "Obviously, you have so much respect for Phil because of what he did as a player and then after he retired, what he did as a general manager. To be able to organize and bring a franchise into the NHL and putting it in Tampa, and then starting what is now a very solid NHL franchise, who would have ever thought? I think the Lightning were the first expansion to the south. This is when it all started. Who would have ever thought of hockey in Tampa, but if you think about it, it's a brilliant concept because once you understand Florida, you know that people from up north spend the whole winter here. You see a lot of people at a hockey game and you wonder why they have different jerseys on; it's because they are from New York, Buffalo or Philly. We get a lot of those northeastern people that come down and live in Florida for the winter. That helped with the fan base."
Taglianetti said, "Even though we were technically castoffs from other teams, we were all down there trying to remake our names, so to speak. Everybody knew that at some point expansion teams start trading away players and that team was going to be disbanded for younger guys, but we were all down there to try to win hockey games. We didn't have any pressure on us, that's why I think we played so well that year, we won a lot of games. But we also had fun. I had more fun down there than probably any other team that I played on because there was no pressure on us and we could rib and kid each other for doing stupid things or falling down on the ice for no apparent reason."
Esposito recognized there might be other ways to get potential fans in the area excited about hockey aside from wins and losses. He knew there were going to be tough times and he had to be creative in order to convince the fans to continue to walk through the turnstiles.
"People think you just start, but behind the scenes -- and every franchise goes through it -- when you start and all this other stuff, you have to do what you have to do to get people in the building," Esposito said. "I knew we weren't going to win, so I got guys like Rudy Poeschek and Enrico Ciccone, because my theory was these people here love fighting, they love boxing, they like football and they like car crashes. They got it all in hockey."
Young said, "We weren't that skilled, but we had a great bunch of guys that had a sense for teamwork, but we also had a sense for the community and we had a sense for educating people about hockey. That was the biggest thing with the group the Espositos brought in -- that the guys had character. That's what we were about."
Crisp's most memorable moment came in the spring of 1996, when the Lightning qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. Moments after being eliminated in Game 6 by the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round, the Lightning received a standing ovation from the 27,189 fans in attendance at The Thunderdome (now known as Tropicana Field, home of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays) in a show of immense appreciation.
It was pretty remarkable, considering the Lightning had just suffered a 6-1 defeat.
"I walked onto the ice that night after we got beat and I think there was 28,000 people, I remember standing in the middle of the ice and I said to myself, 'I've got to soak this in, because I'm not sure I'll ever see it again,'" Crisp said. "I just sort of pivoted and looked at all the people there still cheering after we just got beat. To me, that lingers as one of those moments of starting a new franchise being all worthwhile."
Eight years later, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Calgary Flames in a seven-game series. It was a proud time for Esposito, who was the backbone for making hockey in Florida a lot more than just some crazy dream.
"It's gone very, very quickly," Esposito said of the past 20 years. "But I can tell you, when they won the Stanley Cup in 2004, it was like my son or my daughter had just graduated from college. It was like, 'Go ahead. You're on your own now, sweetheart.' It was so, so wonderful to see it."