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NHL Centennial

Lightning made NHL history at Thunderdome

Drew biggest playoff crowd 21 years ago, had baseball stadium 'rocking'

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

Memories: NHL attendance record

Memories: Lightning set an NHL attendance record

On April 23, 1996 an arena originally built for baseball, The Thunderdome, set an NHL attendance record with 28,183 fans

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Before the NHL turned football and baseball stadiums into sites for its annual outdoor games, there was the Thunderdome.

When Expo Hall in Tampa proved too small for an NHL team, the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning decided to go big; in 1993, they moved to a domed stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida, that had been built in 1990 for the expected arrival of a Major League Baseball team. The Florida Suncoast Dome, renamed the Thunderdome for hockey, was their home for three seasons while the Lightning's new building (now Amalie Arena) was under construction.

Playing hockey in a domed baseball stadium that was partitioned into a 28,000-seat hockey facility was like nothing Lightning forward Brian Bradley had seen.

"The Thunderdome was really unique," said Bradley, now a community representative with the Lightning. 'It was such a big, big venue, so wide. Some of the fans were a long way up. The seats weren't like a hockey arena, they sloped at about a 45-degree angle. And it had kind of a carnival atmosphere. There was a lot of stuff going on in the background.

"The hardest part was walking from the dressing rooms to the ice. That took at least two or three minutes, so your time between periods was cut short."

The Lightning set an NHL attendance record in their home opener when 27,227 fans saw Tampa Bay's 2-0 loss to the Florida Panthers on Oct. 9, 1993. It took three years and Tampa Bay's first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs to surpass that mark.

The Lightning finished eighth in the Eastern Conference in 1995-96 and faced the first-place Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. They split two games at the Spectrum and won 5-4 in overtime in their first home playoff game in front of 25,945 fans, the largest crowd ever to see a postseason game.

That record lasted two days. Game 4, on April 23, 1996, drew 28,183 fans, still the most to attend a playoff game. (The regular-season record is 105,491, set at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

Bradley had never seen a crowd like it.

"It was just jammed," Bradley said. "A lot of rinks could hold 18,000 or 20,000, but we had 28,000 people going crazy. The place was rocking. It was really exciting, and it got us revved up."

Most of those people undoubtedly hoped to see the Lightning win their third straight game against the Flyers. Instead, Philadelphia's "Legion of Doom" line dominated in a 4-1 series-tying victory.

"We played well," Bradley said. "But Daren Puppa, our top goalie, was injured, and without your goaltender it's tough. But the 'Legion of Doom,' with [John] LeClair and [Mikael] Renberg and [Eric] Lindros -- they had a great team. They were a very tough team, very physical."

LeClair scored two power-play goals for the Flyers, who limited the Lightning to 22 shots on goal against Ron Hextall. Petr Klima's power-play goal midway through the second period brought the Lightning within 2-1, but Dale Hawerchuk deflected Renberg's pass behind goaltender Jeff Reese late in the period and LeClair scored his second goal midway through the third.

After a 4-1 loss in Philadelphia and a 6-1 home defeat in Game 6, the Lightning were done for the season.

"We lost [the series] 4-2, but it was very respectable," Bradley said. "At the end, they knew it was a tough series. It wasn't like they walked over us. It was a hard-fought series to the very end."

It also was the end for the Thunderdome, at least when it came to the NHL. It was renamed Tropicana Field in October 1996 and became the home of MLB's Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now the Rays) in 1998.

The Lightning moved into their new arena, then called the Ice Palace, in the fall of 1996, taking their playoff attendance record with them.

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