FEN­NELLY

Tampa Bay Times - - Nhl - Times re­searcher Caryn Baird con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Brian Bradley, a cen­ter on that first Light­ning team. “He didn’t even say any­thing. I think (de­fense­man) Rob Ra­m­age said, ‘No, this isn’t the right place. We’re in a game right now.’ Terry went in his of­fice. … The whole team started laugh­ing.”

It’s hard not to laugh and smile when think­ing about the 1992-93 Light­ning, the in­au­gu­ral sea­son, the men who went first, 25 years ago, own­ers of one of the great open­ing nights in sports his­tory, then losers a lot more times than win­ners, but al­ways scrappy and cre­at­ing hockey fans as they went. The team will be hon­ored at Satur­day’s Light­ning game.

That first sea­son wasn’t al­ways pretty, but it was straight from the heart, whether it was the play­ers on the ice or the fans who learned the game in­side that band­box arena. The whole sea­son was so cozy. Ev­ery­one was part of it, in­clud­ing that father and son. There was no pre­tense and clearly no dress­ing-room se­cu­rity. Ev­ery­thing was on the fly.

Light­ning co-founder Phil Es­pos­ito spear­headed the drive to bring hockey to the Sunshine State and be­came the fran­chise’s first pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager. Es­pos­ito is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He scored 717 goals and was part of two Stan­ley Cup win­ners. Never mind that. He points to the Light­ning.

“It’s the great­est achieve­ment I’ve ever done in hockey,” Es­pos­ito said.

There was noth­ing like that first Light­ning sea­son. The first Light­ning coach knew it. The first Light­ning play­ers knew it.

It was all so new. It was all so fresh.

“We were the ground floor, hockey in Florida,” Crisp said.

“We were pi­o­neers in a way,” said Basil McRae, an orig­i­nal Light­ning player.

Es­pos­ito was the point man, the car­ni­val barker, the danc­ing bear. He drafted Gret­zky — Brent Gret­zky, Wayne’s kid brother. He signed a woman, Manon Rheaume, to play goal dur­ing the pre­sea­son.

“I def­i­nitely look back at it as if we were part of some­thing,” said John Tucker, the sec­ond-lead­ing scorer on that first Light­ning team, be­hind Bradley, who was the team’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the All-Star Game that sea­son.

There was train­ing camp, held in Lake­land. The night be­fore the Light­ning hit the ice for the first time, Es­pos­ito spoke to the play­ers, as did his brother, Tony, a fel­low Light­ning ex­ec­u­tive and Hall of Famer. Crisp spoke. Lastly, there was as­sis­tant coach Wayne Cash­man, Phil’s for­mer Bos­ton Bru­ins team­mate, who spoke di­rectly to the sub­ject of hockey in Florida.

“‘Cash’ walked up to the mi­cro­phone,” McRae said. “He says, ‘I’m se­ri­ous, guys. Lis­ten up. If you’re golf­ing and an al­li­ga­tor comes run­ning out, run in cir­cles. They can’t turn. Don’t try to out­run them.’ That was the open­ing mes­sage: Make sure you run in cir­cles when an al­li­ga­tor chases you. Away we went with train­ing camp.”

Most of the 70 or so play­ers who gathered for camp felt some­thing nip­ping at them. The Light­ning led the league in chips on shoul­ders, play­ers hav­ing been dis­carded by their pre­vi­ous teams.

“Oh, for sure,” said Bradley, who was se­lected in the ex­pan­sion draft from Toronto and who scored 42 goals and had 86 points that first sea­son. “We were an ex­pan­sion team. Ev­ery­body wanted to prove them­selves, a sec­ond chance, a new lease on life.”

They’ll never for­get the reg­u­lar-sea­son opener, Oct. 7, 1992. Phil Es­pos­ito’s friend Alan Thicke hosted the open­ing cer­e­monies, which fea­tured ice dancers, a laser show and fire­works. Then the new hockey club over­whelmed the Chicago Black­hawks 7-3. Chicago had been to the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal the pre­vi­ous sea­son. Chris Kon­tos, an NHL jour­ney­man, scored four goals.

Kon­tos also pro­vided a sig­na­ture first-year mo­ment with his third goal. Ush­ers tried to re­move fans who threw hats on the ice. Es­pos­ito had to jump in.

Hey, hey, it’s a hat trick!

“What’s a hat trick?” an usher asked.

The orig­i­nal Light­ning was 9-8-2 in Novem­ber, atop the Nor­ris Di­vi­sion, but faded and fin­ished in the di­vi­sion base­ment with just 23 wins and 54 losses. But it won con­verts. It cre­ated hockey fans.

“Every night, we came to play,” Bradley said. “We got our noses dirty. We com­peted.”

And there was their build­ing.

“It was our barn,” Phil Es­pos­ito said.

Expo Hall at the Florida State Fair­grounds. It was home for the in­au­gu­ral sea­son, be­fore the Light­ning moved across Tampa Bay to the re­named Thun­der­dome. Expo Hall was me­tal stands and low ceil­ings and gon­do­las and ob­structed views. It was shoe­box-sized locker rooms. It creaked. And it was glo­ri­ous. There were 24 sell­outs that first sea­son — 10,425 was the magic num­ber.

“When those fans got the hang of stomp­ing their feet on the me­tal, god, that place was loud,” Crisp said.

Best of all was when the Florida State Fair and the Light­ning were go­ing on at the same time. You could hear screams from the thrill rides as coaches did news con­fer­ences out­side the build­ing after games be­cause there was no room in­side.

“The (dress­ing) room would smell,” Tucker said. “Hot dogs, cot­ton candy, Ital­ian sausage. The food was right out­side the room.”

Expo Hall was where home and vis­it­ing play­ers would tape their sticks in the sun. Expo Hall was where play­ers like Light­ning rookie and No. 1 over­all draft pick Ro­man Ham­r­lik would fish in the pond next to the arena, even be­fore games. And Expo Hall was the build­ing next to the tent where Light­ning brass and play­ers con­gre­gated after games, as did fans.

“We would go in the tent with the fans and have a beer,” said Pat Jablon­ski, an orig­i­nal Light­ning goal­tender who had the first shutout in fran­chise his­tory.

“We felt like we knew them,” said Shawn Wolf of Tampa, an orig­i­nal Light­ning fan who was 24 that sea­son.

A lot of orig­i­nal Bolts fell in love with the area. Bradley, Tucker and Jablon­ski still live here.

Es­pos­ito re­mem­bers chil­dren wait­ing for the Zam­boni to leave a present out­side Expo Hall.

“They’d drop the Zam­boni snow out there and the kids would be mak­ing lit­tle snow­balls,” he said. “They never saw snow be­fore.”

It was all so new. It was all so fresh.

Times (1992)

Ac­tor Alan Thicke, a friend of Light­ning co-founder Phil Es­pos­ito (right front), em­cees the cer­e­mony be­fore the first reg­u­lar-sea­son game.

Times (1992)

De­fense­man Rob Ra­m­age plays his 1,000th NHL game dur­ing the Light­ning’s first sea­son and is pre­sented with the tra­di­tional sil­ver hockey stick.

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