With the Tampa Bay Lightning's official 20th anniversary in the rearview mirror, it's a little appropriate to mention someone else's anniversary as well... They are someone else of note, someone else of relevance.
At some point during the 1992-93 season the NHL announced that two big money players had stepped up and bought expansion franchises for two different locations: The Walt Disney Company (or CEO at the time, Michael Eisner) and H. Wayne Huizenga, CEO of all sorts of companies at the time (Blockbuster Video, Waste Management). The NHL would expand immediately to Anaheim, California and Miami, Florida.
This article isn't about a team named after a movie franchise... No, no, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim may be 20 years old this year, but that's irrelevant for the sake of this story. It's the Florida Panthers who are the focus here... Or, at least they're supposed to be.
See, one thing you get all the time in this sport are people pounding out the word "rivalry" and "rivals". Rivalries bear special weight in this league because they're supposed to increase ticket sales as well as build up both franchises (fans being united in loathing a rival). You see that with the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, you see it with the Rangers and the Islanders, Edmonton and Calgary are another pair of noteworthy rivals with a heated history.
But the rivalry of the Lightning and the Florida Panthers seems dead, and it's hard to believe it ever had much of a pulse.
109 games played between the two clubs, Tampa Bay has a 42-46-10-11 series record against them as of this writing. The Lightning's "intrastate rival" is a rivalry in name alone... At least it is now. Because it's a memory; a long-ago memory of days when both franchises were young and NHL hockey in the sunshine state was still an experiment in progress.
Speaking of experiments, the Bolts moved from the Florida State Expo Hall (where they played their first season) into the baseball-stadium-in-waiting known previously as the Florida Suncoast Dome and then rechristened as Thunderdome for 1993. The first time these two teams danced, on October 9th, 1993, ended up a 2-0 shutout win for the Cats, the Panthers first franchise victory), they set a league attendance record by playing before a crowd of 27,227.
And while I can recall other big crowds for Panthers/Lightning games played at Thunderdome over the years, I can't recall incidents that truly built up bitterness and angst between the two fan bases. Maybe that's my failing (to put weight on incidents versus the Panthers)? More likely, when stuff went down between the two teams over the course of the last 20 years, they happened in largely unimportant circumstances and were able to fade from consciousness.
About three years ago, former blogger Jon Jordan penned a fantastic piece that underlined the Lightning/Panthers "rivalry" and how it was in need of a spark. From the larger piece, I take this quote from former Bolt Brian Bradley:
"We were the first NHL team in Florida," explains Brian Bradley, who played for the Lightning from 1992-1998, "And, when they came in a year later, we wanted to show that we were the better team in the state."
"The games were intense. When we played the Panthers, we always wanted to have a good game and when you beat them, it was always special."
Those early games, ones that Bradley played in, were lop-sided in favor of the Panthers. Florida went 22-6-7 against the Bolts from 1993 until the end of the 2000-2001 season.
From that Jordan piece:
"You get rivalries when you play in the playoffs against each other and we obviously haven't done that,"
-- former Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier
The playoffs are one thing, being competitive in general is another. It seems like Tampa Bay and Florida are never aligned to be competitive at the same time. The 1995-96 Lightning made the playoffs but was one-and-done. The Panthers? They made it to the Stanley Cup Finals that year. The Cats would keep up playoff appearances until the end of the decade while the Lightning went into a cocoon of franchise disarray.
And when the Bolts emerged from that cocoon, they were contenders (and then champions), while the Panthers were mired as also-rans.
Twenty years on, Tampa Bay's in-state counterpart is no more a rival to the Bolts than a cross conference team like the Minnesota Wild, or the Phoenix Coyotes. The only difference is that the Lightning play the Panthers often. The regularity of play is the only thing that makes the word "rivalry" fit.
Things could change, but I don't know how soon that will be. In reflection, I don't think when this competitive relationship between the two clubs commenced 20 years ago before that huge crowd at the Dome, that the whole idea of a rivalry between the two clubs would feel as subdued as it does now.