Remembering the early days of the Lightning

by Gary Shelton on April 11, 2018 · 0 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

Esposito is the father of the Lightning./JEFFREY S. KING

Esposito threw the first pitch for Lightning, too./JEFFREY S. KING

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

In the early days, Phil Esposito stood in a barn and leaned over the rail. "Give me one game," he was saying. "Just give me one game, and I'll have you hooked."

As he talked, he stared at you. He did not blink. He was a salesman who believed in his product long before anyone else.

This was in those raw, early days of the Tampa Bay Lightning, when no one knew if this team would work, when no one knew if it would ever survive bad ownership, when no one knew if you could teach fans that ice wasn't just to put into their tea glasses. This was a legendary player in a humble arena better known as a place where goats were milked. Sports Illustrated once referred to Expo Hall as “a can of Spam covered in aluminum siding.”

There were players on the ice. Even that seemed like an achievement. Hockey had not come to Miami at the time. It had not come to Dallas. It had tried Atlanta once, but soon, it would try again, and fail again.

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Esposito stood at the old Expo Hall, and it seemed as he was determined to shake every hand in the joint. There was still some of the tough old hockey player to Esposito, and he was given to point a tirade at this reporter or that one.

That first season, Esposito says, friends of his daughter asked for tickets. On the 50-yard line.

He had to be tough. He's had to survive George Steinbrenner and Kokusai Green and Art Williams and Oren Koules and the Duke of Manchester and bad seasons and good ones and personal tragedy and Expo Hall. He once said something crude to a woman reporter.  And through it all, he's still standing.

You've probably heard the stories. Esposito had instructed his ushers to eject any fan who threw anything on the ice. How was he to know that  a journeyman named Chris Kontos would score four goals.  On his third one, a hockey fan in the audience stood up and tossed his hat onto the ice, the time-honored salute to a goal-scorer. And, bingo, an usher was suddenly escorting the guy out of the arena.

"I never thought about it," Esposito says these days.

Early that first season, the Lightning had a rare lead in a game. The other team pulled its goalie, and suddenly, a guy was banging on the ice behind coach Terry Crisp. "He pulled his goalie," the guy yelled. "Now you can pull yours."

Another time, a guy asked Crisp why he didn't find the two fattest guys in Tampa Bay and stuff them both inside the goal. He said it like he had invented the internet.

The team signed a woman, Manon Rheaume, to play goal. Oh, he wouldn'd admit it at the time, but sure, it was a stunt. Other cities were talking about the Lightning. And you know what? Rheaume wasn't half bad.

One day, Crisp was looking for Roman Hamrlik, the team's original No. 1 draft pick. He found him outside, fishing in a small pond.

Another time in that first season the team was talking between periods when a father and son burst into the room. "Are these the bathrooms?" the  father asked.

Those were difficult days for Esposito. To make this franchise work, he needed investors. Somehow, he hooked up with the Duke of Manchester. Last anyone heard of him, he was doing prison time. He went to Japan -- "I said hockey," his famous line goes. "They thought I said saki." -- and ended up with the possibly fictional Takashi Okobu. No one ever met Okobu. Esposito was at a dinner with a guy he thought was Okobu, but it was his interpreter.

They were wild days, and wooly days. The Bolts went to the playoffs in their fourth year -- spoiling Espo's plans to fire Crisp and hire Wayne Cashman. In that series, the Bolts played 55 seconds before they gave up a goal.

I wrote "Well, everything went swimmingly for 54 seconds." I thought I was being funny.

The nexts day, Espo pulled me into the men's room and let me have it. "Did you really think we were done after one minute," he roared. "I thought you were in trouble," I said. Followed by more swearing and fuming.

But the Lightning came back and made it a series, taking a 3-2 game lead before losing in six. And as Crisp walked off the floor, the darnedest thing happened. The crowd started applauding, and it got louder, and even louder. Crisp stopped on the ice, and looked up in wonder. And it was at that precise moment I knew this could be a hockey town.

Oh, there were rough times to come. There was the fax machine that the team blamed when Chris Gratton signed an offer sheet with the Flyers.  The words were blurred he said, as if he couldn't make out the signatures. "I was a lawyer trying to get the condemned man off," Espo later said. There was Steve Oto, who didn't know how many periods were in a game. There were the trades that Esposito had blocked.

The was Art Williams, who probably hasn't watched a hockey game since he finally unloaded the team. Williams called his team "pansies" once. He had t-shirds that talked about "studs and duds." He gave long, winding speeches before games that wore out his team.

There was Alex Selivanov, who married Espo's late daughter Carrie, bringing up all of his old anti-Russian feelings. Espo had played for Canada during the heated Russian series, a lifetime's worth of grudge. Making it worse: The other players used to refer to Alex as "Son-in-law-of."

There was a player who was dating a girl who was impossibly young. One night the team gave him a handful of Disney dvds. A sign in the clubhouse read "no girlfriends on the bench on a school night."

Once, beat writer Cammy Clark and I went to Miami to cover a game. After the game, in the middle of Miami, we were waiting on a taxi when a street gang started coming toward us. "Cammy," I said, "one of us might get murdered and one of us might get raped. I'm afraid you get first choice."

Thankfully, the cab pulled up just in time. The gang started chasing us, yelling  obscenities. I love cabs.

As bad as Okabu was, and as bad as Williams was, the worst owners the team ever had were Oren Koules and Len Barrie. Tortorella called them "the Cowboys." Except that they were shooting blanks.

Koules called me at home once, upset, bullying, swearing. Finally, when I didn't back down, he yelled out "I'll be GLAD when newspapers go out of business," he said. (To be fair, he called me back and apologized).

It was Koules who had the horrible idea of a) hiring Barry Melrose from the TV booth or b) firing him 16 days later. Both of them couldn't have been smart.

There was Jacques Demers, who came in talking tough, but was perhaps the sweetest guy in North America. Later, Demers would say he did the job without the ability to read. Now that he can, I apologize for some of the things I wrote.

I thought Jay Feaster was a quiet hero of the Bolts' Stanley Cup-winning season. Rick Dudley, the previous general manager, was a wheeler dealer. He'd trade anyone, often for less value. His era was full of trading b-level assets for c-level assets.

But Feaster calmed it down. He told John Tortorella that he wouldn't be known as the man who traded Vincent Lecavalier. He told Lecavalier he wouldn't fire Tortorella. Co-exist, he said.

And they did. And it worked out.

I remember traveling to Calgary for the Stanley Cup final series. We were staying at the Marriott, like all good writers, but the press shuttle left from the Hyatt. So we would drive and park at the Spaghetti Warehouse. Well, on Saturday night, every prostitute in Calgary showed up in go-go boots. Another writer looked around and asked "Why aren't we staying here." And another one (a woman), said "Because we're Marriott whores."

That's the best thing about this team. For all the lumps, for all the potholes in the road, it's still a model franchise.

Excellence eventually came to this team. Marty and Vinny. Brad and Dan. Khabibulin and Andreychuk. Bishop and Bradley. Stamkos and Kucherov. Hedman and Vasilevskiy. Vinik and Yzerman.

Remember it all, won't you? Another chapter starts soon.

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