It started as a carnival, a circus under the big top of the Thunderdome.
And a hockey game broke out.
That’s how the Panthers-Lightning rivalry started those 15 years ago. Before a crowd of 27,227 Sunshine State fans – in a converted baseball stadium turned hockey rink – the Panthers and Lightning played their first regular-season game.
As the Panthers skated toward a 2-0 victory behind John Vanbiesbrouck in net and goals from Tom Fitzgerald and Scott Levins (remember him?), the largest crowd to witness an NHL game to that point circled the ice like a thousand mosquito while partaking in what can best be described as a carney surrounding the ice.
“That was pretty eventful,” recalled Paul Laus, the Panthers’ defenseman and enforcer at the time. “I remember the crowd. I remember walking like 400 or 500 meters just to get to the ice. There were people everywhere.”
Recalled original Panther and radio analyst Bill Lindsay of the first game; “It was pretty cool. The place was so huge it almost seemed like you playing in an outdoor rink.”
From there to hear, from then to now. When the Panthers and Lightning faceoff Wednesday evening at BankAtlantic Center, they will do so for the 81st time with the Panthers holding a 43-24-10-3 edge in the series.
Eighty games in the book. It’s led to name calling, fights, bragging rights and a history of ugly and beautiful hockey.
“We played so many times, eight times a year, that we ended up hating each other no matter what,” Laus recalled. “I think sometimes it was worse in preseason. Back then I didn’t like to stay in the preseason games too long so I fought three times to get out of playing.”
The rivalry had some strong characters stoking the fires right from the start. Bob Clarke was the Panthers’ no-nonsense GM while Phil Esposito, the Lightning’s GM, would say anything to sell tickets and create interest.
Before the two teams ever met in that regular-season game on October 9, 1993 – it was the Panthers’ first victory having skated Oct. 6 to a 4-4 tie in the franchise opener in Chicago – Esposito and Lightning coach Terry Crisp were doing all they could to get under the Panthers’ skins.
Esposito called the Panthers “pussycats,” while Crisp referred to tham as “kitty cats.” Clarke fired back.
“This isn’t world team wrestling,” he said. “You start making foolish remarks like that, it’s wrong. It’s not like they’re not vunerble to the same stuff if we want to start chirping.”
Despite the fact the Lightning entered the league a year earlier and collected 53 points in the 1992-93 season, the Panthers dominated the early rivalry. In their first 35 games against each other, the Panthers were 22-6-7.
The Panthers piled on the goals, and an assortment of players came through the series, some known more for their fighting than playing. For the Panthers, there was Laus and Peter Worrell. For the Lightning, there was Enrico Ciccone and Rudy Poeschek.
The hits were always coming. For instance, on March 21, 1998, the two teams combined for 22 penalties in a 5-1 Tampa victory.
“There always seemed to be a lot of fights,” Lindsay said. “I think part of it was we were both just starting out, two new teams and, for the most part, building hockey in Florida. It was the closest thing we had to a Calgary-Edmonton type of rivalry. But we played so much there always seemed to be some bad blood that got carried over.”
While the Panthers dominated the series during their Stanley Cup run in 1996 and through 1999, the Lightning reversed the direction of the rivalry. From 2000 through 2004, the Lightning were 10-6-3-2 in 21 games. That run also ended with the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup in June of 2004.
While the rivalry would get a much-needed boost if both teams made the playoffs, you never know when news will be made in South Florida or Tampa.
For instance, in April of 2007 after the Panthers beat a Lightning team that had all ready clinched a playoff berth, then-Lightning center Tim Taylor remarked, “Good for them.”
“If they played like that every night, maybe they’d be a playoff team. But they get to go golfing next week.”
The Panthers should remember come Wednesday they don’t want to be golfing come April.