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Transcript: Happy 26th Birthday, Lightning!

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Transcribed for accessibility. Matt Sammon looks back at the complex, winding road that led to hockey in Tampa.

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Fans walk past a statue of Phil Esposito as they enter the Tampa Bay Times Forum before the start of game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 7, 2013 in Tampa, Florida.
Scott Iskowitz / Getty Images

The Lightning Power Play Podcast is a weekly show hosted by Matt Sammon (@SammonSez), Director of Radio Programming for the team. New episodes of the podcast are released every Tuesday and air multiple times throughout the day on the Lightning Radio Network (@TBLPowerPlay & SoundCloud). In this episode, Sammon explores the early days of the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise. It’s a lengthy transcript, but definitely a worthwhile read (and listen!) for anyone curious about how Esposito convinced the National Hockey League to grant him a team in the Sunshine State.

Quick Note: For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases, “and,” “but,” “you know,” and “um.”

Intro: This week on Lightning Radio’s Power Play

Matt Sammon: The Lightning’s success on and off the ice today is quite the story, as hockey in a southern market has thrived not only recently, but also through many ups and downs over the years. This success now couldn’t have happened without a dream many years ago. As it was on December 6, 1990, when the dream became a reality.

Cut to press conference by then-National Hockey League president John Ziegler on December 6, 1990.

John Ziegler: The Board of Governors of the National Hockey League have granted conditional franchises to the applicants representing the city of Ottawa... [loud cheers] There’s one more - and Tampa [cheers]

Sammon: On this week’s edition of the Power Play Podcast, we not only go back 26 years ago to when the dream became a reality, but to the steps prior to that moment. The crucial choices made in the 22 months following the announcement that got the ball rolling - or puck sliding - in the right direction. We’ll hear from those that made it happen.

Commercial break

Sammon: December 6, 1990 is the day long-time Lightning fans remember, as that was the day the franchise was officially born with then-NHL president John Ziegler announcing that Ottawa and Tampa would be granted expansion franchises in 1992. While fans would be treated to some interesting - to say the least - times in these past 26 years, we’ve also seen a Stanley Cup championship, two Conference Finals, numerous great players, and a very bright future ahead. The bright future, in the current context, was created the day Jeff Vinik purchased the team. That’s another date that is etched in Lightning fans’ memories - March 3, 2010. But the idea that hockey could work in Tampa, Florida - well before there were any teams in the southern U.S. and after a failed stint of the Flames in Atlanta - well that was a foreign concept from the mind of someone who was the face of hockey in Canada and much of the Northeastern U.S. He was also out of job and sitting in his basement, wondering what to do next.

Eposito: And then when I got fired [as coach, general manager and vice president of the New York Rangers], that’s when I was just down in my basement in New York - in Bedford, New York. I’m sitting there and I just don’t know what to do with myself for the rest of my life. I had four years left on a contract and I’m thinking, “Wow. I just got fired. What the hell am I gonna do?”

I’m thinking, “There’s no way. There’s no way I can afford to stay in New York. There’s no way. Wait a minute - maybe I should go for an expansion team.” That’s how it was born.

I’m telling you - I talked to my brother [Tony Esposito] and he said, “Where do you want to do this expansion team?”

I said, “I don’t know. I gotta find out.” I said, “But boy, I’d love to go to Florida.”

He said, “Florida?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Aw, Phil. It’s a pipe dream. I mean, you know it’s a pipe dream.”

I said, “Well, I don’t know, Tony. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t stay in New York, that’s for sure.”

Sammon: That of course is Phil Esposito, the founder of the club and currently the radio color analyst, a position he’s held for the past 16 years. During the past few years on the Power Play Podcast and on our streaming station Lightning Power Play, you’ve heard various accounts of how the team went from an idea in a basement in Bedford, New York to on the ice at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Well today, we’re pulling all of those stories together, highlighting the chaotic and somewhat uncertain time period from the birth of the franchise to the night the first puck was dropped, and the first win was notched in the record books. While there was plenty of uncertainty during the 22 month time period between the awarding of the franchise and the first game, there was plenty more among Esposito’s acquaintances after he hatched this idea. Well, everybody but Esposito.

Esposito: I called a guy named Mel Lowell. Mel Lowell was the CFO of the round building, which was Madison Square Garden - and the Rangers under Knickerbocker. And he had left Madison Square Garden and was working for ADT.

I called him and I says, “Mel, [it’s] Phil.”

He says, “Yeah, what’s up?”

I said, “Listen, I’m going for an expansion team in the NHL.”

He said, “You’re kidding.” He said, “I’m there. I’m there. Are you kidding me? I’m there.” He says, “Where?”

I said, “Florida. Tampa Bay.”

He said, “What? Are you crazy? You can’t play hockey in Florida.”

I said, “Why not?”

He said, “Well. It’s too hot!”

I said, “Well, we’re not playing outside dumb-dumb.”

But that’s really how the whole situation started - and the rest is history, as they say.

Sammon: And what a history. In fact, the history books show Esposito would make his formal declaration of seeking a NHL expansion franchise based in Tampa on May 1, 1990. Esposito wasn’t the only group looking to land a team in the area though. Peter Karmanos, who later purchased the Hartford Whalers and relocated the team to North Carolina, had sights on bringing a team to St. Petersburg. Like much of local history since the Tampa Bay Area was settled in the 19th century, another rivalry between Tampa and St. Pete was getting stoked - by ice hockey this time. While both sides were trying to get that team, the concept of ice hockey being played in a warm weather climate had to be proved first. Nowadays, outdoor games in mild climates like Los Angeles are possible at the right time of the year. But in 1990, ice systems were comparatively primitive to today’s systems. And this was in the summer of 1990. Certainly not a mild climate, even with an indoor game. But Esposito and his early backers pressed on, staging an exhibition game at the new Florida Suncoast Dome - now Tropicana Field - in St. Petersburg. Esposito was able to talk the [Los Angeles] Kings and the [Pittsburgh] Penguins into an exhibition game. Despite some financial wrangling, both teams obliged. Both teams were rewarded, as was Esposito, with more than 25,000 people in attendance. The NHL took notice. Esposito says that exhibition game showed everyone it could work.

Esposito: That made it. And I’m gonna - Mel [Lowell] and Henry [Lee Paul], they did so much work. I put the money up. I did. There’s no doubt about it. Every penny that I had ever made in my life went into that game. My wife at the time didn’t like it. It did affect our marriage to the point where we couldn’t make it. I don’t blame her, There’s no doubt about it. But I had to do this. It was something that I just had to do. And I had to get it done. I’m one of these guys, when I put my mind to somethin’ and say that I’ve got to get it done, I don’t stop until I get there.

The NHL came down - about ten of them, owners - and when they saw these fans, and they saw the enthusiasm, and they saw what we did with the building, and the ice lasted until the last ten seconds of the game.

Wayne Gretzky - we went out to the outfield because Hooters was there and Outback [Steakhouse] was there and we had kids games on. Gretzky came with me after that game and he went into these tents and he signed autographs and he talked to people. He said, “Phil, whatever I can do to help you, I’ll do it.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t have asked for a better guy to do this for me. He was the best in the game.

Sammon: The league was sold, but the roots had to be laid locally as well. With his eyes set on basing the team in Tampa, Esposito had to convince local government that it could work. Sandy Freedman was in a bid for re-election as Tampa’s mayor that summer. In an interview with Todd Wright on Lightning Power Play, Freedman admitted that she never imagined hockey being played here until Esposito brought up the idea.

Freedman: I think the first time I heard about it was from Phil Esposito. I think Phil came to see me and told me he was interested in getting a hockey team here. Kind of a strange notion in those days. I thought, “Gee whiz. Is anybody gonna go watch hockey in Tampa?” Hockey being - especially at that time - thought of as a cold weather sport. Here we were with all the water and the sun and so many things to do. Would anybody watch it? Oh, I think a lot of people were skeptical. A lot of people in my staff were skeptical. Why would we get involved with something like that? We hadn’t been able to get baseball. I don’t remember - we were working on baseball - but I don’t think we’d gotten baseball at that time, and that was always a popular sport here. People, we had all these sports figures who went onto professional baseball from our little leagues. So we know about that. We knew that would fly. But hockey? Gee. People would look at you like, “Okay. She’s finally lost her marbles.”

Sammon: The city government, with doubts in hand, moved forward. But then a sudden jolt was delivered, when one of Esposito’s biggest financial backers, the Pritzker family - billionaire owners of the Hyatt hotel chain - backed out just weeks before the pitch to the NHL’s Board of Governors. Needing 43 million dollars of the 50 million dollar franchise fee, Esposito was scrambling - eventually going to the land of the rising sun for help. Former Tampa Bay Times columnist Gary Shelton followed the money trail from billionaire hotel operators to sketchy - and possibly nonexistent - Japanese investors.

Shelton: The Pritzker group, which was his main financing, had tried to change the terms on him late in the ball game and he [Esposito] had let them walk. So Phil was desperately trying to get money. He went to the Duke of Manchester who did exist - he’s actually in jail. So he ends up in Japan and he’s talkin’ to this - these shadowy people from Kokusai Green, led by [Takashi] Okubo - who people still aren’t sure if he existed. Phil went to dinner one night with a guy he thought was Okubo. He gave him a gift, as is customary in Japanese culture - a very nice silk tie. And he’s sitting in there having dinner and they’re talking and they’re having a good time. Finally it dawns on Phil - this isn’t Okubo. This is his interpreter. He never did meet with this guy. You can make up anything about Okubo - he could’ve been dressing like Batman in his room for all we know. We don’t know if he even existed. That was amazing. Sports Illustrated ran an article once and called this the worst organization in hockey. They couldn’t reach Okubo for an interview. None of us ever reached Okubo for an interview.

Sammon: After many nights - and drinks - the Japanese group was on board, albeit in principle, which didn’t ease Esposito’s fears after the Pritzkers backed out. But the pitch had to be made at the Board of Governors meeting in Palm Beach. With the full 50 million dollar franchise fee promised, compared to the Karmanos group reportedly wanting to pay only 29 million dollars of the fee, Esposito’s group seemingly had the upper hand. But it was more than just money that would close the deal. As Freedman recalled in her interview with Todd Wright, the Esposito charm and hockey royalty played well to the room.

Freedman: I still marvel at going to Palm Beach with Phil and walking into that room with all the owners sitting up at a big head table and we had to make a presentation. You could just see when we walked in the room, the awe and the respect that Phil Esposito commanded. For me, it was a strange experience because I was the only woman in the entire room. Phil - you could just see mouths drop open, “Oh, it’s Phil.” I mean they were in awe of this icon in the hockey world. And that’s why we won the franchise. There’s no question in my mind that had it been, you know, Joe Blow - it would never be here .

Sammon: The positive vibes were felt back in Tampa Bay, stoked by the silent backbone of a lot of the area’s sports franchises. That would be Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen. Former Channel 10 sports anchor Dave Wirth, in an interview with Todd Wright, recalls the day that McEwen tipped his hand.

Wirth: I walked out to my driveway that morning to pick up the morning paper. And as I sometimes do if the weather’s good, I’ll start reading the paper while I’m walking back in. I can’t wait ‘til I’m inside the house to read the paper, I gotta start reading it immediately. There was Tom McEwen’s column about, “There is a good possibility we’re going to get hockey in the Tampa Bay Area,” and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “Really? Really?” ‘Cause I honestly had no idea - this one was under wraps. I was surprised to see McEwen’s column, but all the detail is in there, and I - to remember my childhood of watching the Chicago Blackhawks of Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull and Glenn Hall and Eric Nesterenko. I was thrilled. I thought, “Man this is going to be great. Hockey in the bay area. There’s gonna be a lot of people who don’t know what the sport’s all about, but we’ve got so many northerners here that grew up with hockey. It’s gonna be great.”

Sammon: Sure enough, the announcement was made. Much to the shock of quite a few people, especially north of the border.

Cut to broadcast from 1990

Broadcaster: Today John Ziegler announced the league would expand to Ottawa and Tampa. That’s right, Ottawa and Tampa.

Sammon: In a matter of months, Esposito had concocted an idea, drained his bank account, and managed to keep the whole thing together just for the chance at bringing the team to life. After the announcement, an exasperated Esposito was excited to get the phase two going.

Cut to interview with Esposito from 1990

Esposito: This is something that I can only compare to 1972 when we were playing against the Russians. Those of you who remember that, we were down and we came back and won that series. It was the greatest emotional thrill I’ve even been in on my life. I’ve never been able to duplicate that until right now. To those Japanese investors, I thank you. Absolutely thank you. You’re going to love hockey. There’s no doubt about it. [crowd laughs] If you think baseball is exciting, forget it. [applause]

Sammon: The ownership would prove to be an ongoing headache for Phil, right up ‘til the last day he worked as the team’s general manager - but that was down the road. At that moment, he had to pull together the people that would get things off the ground when the rapidly approaching 1992-93 season started.

Commercial break

Sammon: Here we are, 26 years to the day, looking back at how the Lightning was started. After the NHL granted Phil Esposito’s group the franchise, well then the heavy lifting really started. Not only did financial obligations have to be met on time - and they often barely were - Phil had to create a hockey operations department. He had to market the team and sell tickets. Oh, and he had to find a place to call home, since no permanent hockey arena existed. When you’re starting a venture like this, you reach out to the people you know best. Who do you know better than your brother? Shortly after unveiling the team’s logo and colors in the spring of 1991, Phil named his brother Tony the Director of Hockey Operations. Then came the task of finding a home rink. Sandy Freedman, then the mayor of Tampa, recalled that may have been the toughest part of the creation of the team.

Freedman: We had a lot of conversations back and forth about where to play, because there weren’t any [arenas], of course. We didn’t spend as much time talking about where they could play as could we get ‘em. As you probably know, the [Hillsborough] County Commission said no to anything. It almost went down the tube at that point. I remember going with Phil and several of the other people involved to the County Commission, making a presentation, and they turned it down. They didn’t want any part of it. They didn’t want to help if we were gonna build something, or help to even make a proposal or anything. We walked back up Kennedy Boulevard, back to my office with our heads held down and said, “Oh. I don’t know whether we can.” You know, everybody was kind of down in the dumps. Yeah, it looks like all is dead and then a day or two later it’s revived. But [Esposito] is still working on all those pieces and he didn’t have a whole slew of people working with him - he had a few. But it was mainly Phil and the force of his personality and his good name in hockey.

Sammon: Despite the obstacles, everyone agreed that for a temporary home, the Florida State Fairgrounds made sense. Once again, Phil managed some fine stick-handling, squeezing in a regulation size rink into Expo Hall and convincing the league it could work. As soon as the NHL left, Esposito demanded the rink be shrunk to fit in more seats. Always the salesman, Esposito created more room and a rink more like his well known Boston Garden. Quite literally the day after the agreement was signed to play at Expo Hall, the team found its first coach. Just three years earlier, Terry Crisp was leading the Calgary Flames to their only Stanley Cup championship. In the spring of 1992, Crisp was still looking for work after the Flames had let him go. After being tipped off at the Winter Olympics that the position in Tampa might be a good fit for him, Crisp met with Esposito. It didn’t take long for Crisp to get on board.

12 Oct 1992: Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Terry Crisp looks on during a game against the Buffalo Sabres at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, New York.
Joe Patronite / Allsport

Crisp: It was a no-brainer because there wasn’t a lot of jobs open at that given moment. If you want to get back in, you don’t turn them down. Cliff Fletcher told Bill [inaudible] helping me along with it, is that two things you’re going to get from Terry Crisp is - you’re going to get a coach that’s a proven winner and he can relate to people and help sell tickets. And then that’s what Phil said. He said the two things he was looking for in a coach was a coach that could coach a new franchise team and one who could help sell tickets. Probably that’s one of the reasons I got the job.

Sammon: Not only did Crisp’s championship experience as a coach and a player help, as well as his time as part of two expansion teams during his playing days, he would be perfect for the excited but somewhat naive fans and media. Times columnist Gary Shelton remembered some of the biggest faux pas in the early days.

Shelton: No one knew anything about this wonderful sport. People knew they liked it. They knew the ad-lib and the fact that you don’t stop and design a play. It was just wonderful. But that had no idea of just how it worked. When Terry Crisp was doing his interviews - and Terry, who had been an ogre when he was in Calgary, was a pussycat here. He was the perfect first coach, ‘cause he understood all the stupid questions he got. One guy asked him once, “Why don’t you find a really fat guy - you know short and really really really fat - and just stick him in front of the goal?” They asked it like they had discovered the cure for hockey. Another guy said, “Well, gee, why don’t you take two guys and put ‘em in goal at the same time? You’ll never give up a goal.” A fan called the Lightning in the early days and said, “How do I go about getting two tickets on the 50 [yard line]?” Well, there’s not a 50. A friend of mine actually went to a hockey game the first year and he left after the second period, ‘cause he thought it was over. He thought they had had one halftime and then played the second half and it was time to go.

Sammon: As for on the ice, Crisp needed the right guys around him to instruct the players while he was busy instructing the fans and media. Another connection from Phil’s playing and coaching days, and once a bitter rival to Crisp’s Philadelphia Flyers, Wayne Cashman would be tapped as an assistant coach. He was leaving an up-and-coming New York Rangers team for an uncertain future in an untested market.

Cashman: I’m leaving a team that is favored to win the Stanley Cup. Going back to be with Phil, we had great success together. We were good friends. I knew Tony pretty well. It was a new challenge. Being able to go to an area that didn’t have hockey, go a team that’d never been established. I looked forward to that challenge. That’s what sports is about is challenges. We had to be the hardest working team. That was what we really pressured our team with. To establish what the identity of a hockey team would be. And that was just hard work - our team, that team worked very very hard.

Sammon: Eventually joining as a coach in the team’s second season, but first coming in as a broadcaster - and well, everything else - a personal setback brought former 50-goal scorer Danny Gare to Tampa Bay.

Gare: I was unfortunately going through a divorce at the time and I wanted to start something new. Phil gave me the opportunity and I thought it was great to be able to do something at the grassroots level with the team, to bring hockey to Florida. I did the Street Lightning program with Pecks and Cashman. I did sales and marketing with Gerry Halper and John Swinson. Then I did television with John Kelly. It just kept going on and on, but that’s the type of thing we all had to pitch in and help out.

Sammon: Much like Crisp, Gare found out quickly he was dealing with a different crowd watching this team.

Gare: They had that open house at Expo Hall and people would ask, “Can I get a ticket near the 50 yard line?” [laughs] And it seemed to be the same way over - you know, ‘cause there was a baseball stadium, “Can I get a ticket near the dugout?” We had some exciting teams then. They drew pretty good there. They had the 99 dollar season ticket which I couldn’t believe - in the 300s, the upper levels. It was fun. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Sammon: So now the arena was set. The coaching staff was in place. It was time for the players to be assembled. On June 18, 1992, the NHL held its expansion draft. Wendell Young, the third goaltender of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, was selected first by the Lightning. In the pre-internet summer of 1992, Young found out while he was on vacation - at the Magic Kingdom [in Orlando, Florida].

Ken Levine / Getty Images

Young: We were in Disney, in Orlando, when I get picked up by Tampa in the expansion draft. We were in the Disney hotel and it was like three o’clock in the afternoon and I go, “Oh yeah, the expansion draft is today.” Like 15 minutes later, the phone rang. It was my agent who told me I got picked up by Tampa Bay. I paid for a long vacation to Disney. [chuckles] I was going to live in the vacation-land.

Sammon: Brian Bradley was also taking a holiday, getting a much-needed break on the back nine from third line duty in Toronto.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - DECEMBER, 1996: Brian Bradley #19 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates with the puck during an NHL game in December, 1996 at the Thunderdome in St. Petersburg, Florida.
B Bennett / Getty Images

Bradley: Obviously, in the expansion draft with 50/50, you could go to Ottawa or you could go to Tampa. I was praying that I was going to Tampa. Someone said to me, “Brad, you got picked up in the expansion draft. You got picked up by Ottawa.” At first, I was pissed. I was like, “How can I always go to Canada? Maybe my next one’s Quebec City or Montreal. I’m just working my way east.” I was hoping to go to Tampa. The guy says, “No, you actually went to Tampa.” I was so pumped up.

Sammon: Defenseman Shawn Chambers was on the brink of ending his career due to constant knee injuries when he got a break that day as well.

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 01: Shawn Chambers #22 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates with the puck during a hockey game against the Washington Capitals on January 1, 1994 at USAir Arena in Landover, Maryland.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Chambers: Washington [Capitals] had a bunch of great defenseman, so I was like, “Well, I’m leaving here and I’m going to Tampa and hopefully I’ll be one of the better guys down and be one of the leaders on the back line.” I was a little disappointed that I didn’t help them [the Capitals], but at the same time I knew that Tampa could be a new lease on life basically for my career. I wasn’t unhappy, let’s go there.

Sammon: Chambers career would be revived. Not only after successful laser surgery on his knees, but getting back on the ice in Tampa Bay - leading defensemen in scoring that first season. He would later win Stanley Cups in New Jersey and Dallas. Now several weeks after the expansion draft, the free agents were signed, including future fan favorite Rob Zamuner from the Rangers.

11 Mar 1999: Rob Zamuner #7 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looking on during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, New York.
Rick Stewart / Allsport

Zamuner: Roger Neilson was the [New York Rangers] coach back then and I remember him writing me a real nice letter that summer. It basically was saying that I’ve got a real good chance to make the New York Rangers and have a good chance to kind of get my foot in the door. That was very attractive to me, but I think at the end of the day, I thought that going down in Tampa was something that’s exciting - being part of something that Phil was going to bring down there and going to a market where hockey wasn’t really on the front page - to kind of be a trailblazer, so to speak, and I’m really glad with my choice.

Sammon: And another former Ranger, more famous for his successful playoff drive with the Kings a few years earlier, Chris Kontos.

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 7: Chris Kontos #16 of the Tampa Bay Lightning poses in the locker while holding up the four pucks in which he scored during the first game played by the Lightning against the Chicago Blackhawks on October 7, 1992 at the Expo Hall in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning defeated the Blackhawks 7-3.
B Bennett / Getty Images

Kontos: You know, sometimes with players, you’re always looking for a fresh start, a clean start with nothing predetermined. I think I went into Lakeland [small city outside of Tampa] and I had a super camp. I was leading in scoring, or right up near the top. Eyebrows were being raised at the time going, “Hm, this guy’s looking okay so we might as well - he’s earned it. We might as well give him a shot.”

Sammon: And of course, mostly for promotion, an invite went out to Manon Rheaume.

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 23: Goalie Manon Rheaume #33 of the Tampa Bay Lightning defends the net during an NHL preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on September 23, 1992 at the Expo Hall in Tampa, Florida.
B Bennett / Getty Images

Rheaume: When I got an invite, I was like surprised that it actually came. Because they said something at the tryout - I want you - but you never know if it’s just something they said. To get invited, I was like in shock and also excited. For me, so many times throughout my life when I was younger, people said no to me because I was a girl. I don’t know how many tryouts I did at the higher level that I was good enough to make the team, but because I was a girl, they cut me. That made me work harder and work harder. Then someone finally invite[s] me - at that point, I didn’t care the reason why. I had the opportunity to do a tryout at the highest level of hockey. Also, I didn’t want to have any regrets. I didn’t want to be, in ten years from now, “What if I went there?” So I went for it. I was young and I was the kind of person - I’ve always been determined and wanted to see how far I can go. Anybody that’s playing hockey that has an opportunity to tryout for the highest level possible would never turn down an opportunity like that.

Sammon: While the invite went out for a promotion, it turned out to be a turning point in encouraging tens of thousands of little girls to lace up the skates and play the great game of hockey. Now while Rheaume would get assigned to the Lightning’s farm club in Atlanta, the rest of the squad pressed on, readying for opening night on October 7. Now you know how things went there. Kontos scored four goals in the game. The Lightning topped the defending Campbell Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks 7-4. Brian Bradley shares a lot of the same memories as for why they put up such a great performance in that game as his teammates did. It was simply vindication for the dream becoming a reality 22 months earlier.

Bradley: I think we all wanted to go out there and play well and not be embarrassed. Our opening night game, the anticipation with Phil and Tony, and the ownership group from Japan. I think with the crowd coming in, I don’t think a lot of people understood the game. They didn’t understand the rules - off-sides. They understood about fighting, which they really liked.

Sammon: With the new team came new sights and sounds. As Shawn Chambers remembers, quite humorously all these years later.

Chambers: There were times when we were playing in the [Florida State] Fairgrounds there where we’d be over our blue line. All the sudden the fans would start cheering. [laughs] They didn’t know exactly what was going to happen when we got down the other end. I think they thought we were gonna score. It was kind of a cool experience - they were all excited every time we got over the blue line. As a player, you’re like, “Well at the least the fans are excited any time - every time we came over the blue line.” It was different, that’s for sure.

Sammon: Even Gary Shelton got to see how hockey was changing the lives of players here in Tampa Bay - and giving himself a little boost of confidence.

Shelton: The state fair is going on and it dawned on me how difficult it must be for Roman Hamrlik, who is from the Czech Republic. He’s an 18 year old kid and he’s living here. He doesn’t speak the same language his teammates do. He picks up the newspaper, he can’t read. He turns on the TV, he can’t understand. We walk out into the night and I’m like five feet behind him, and the state fair is in full session. He walks to a little concession stand and he looks up and there’s this inflatable purple Crayola. I don’t know what you would use an inflatable Crayola for, nor did Hamrlik, who sat and looked at it like it was from Mars. It was the strangest look on his face and it just encapsulated me what it must be like to be playing in this league, this far from home. But you know, the kid had a pretty good career. I remember going and walking out one night with [former Lightning defenseman] Doug Crossman, who was a great guy. Doug actually went to a lesser car than I went to and I’m going, “A professional athlete is driving a [Toyota] Celica?” [chuckles] Now maybe it was his wife’s car, maybe it was their third car or whatever, but it was a piece of junk. It was great. I felt like I was strutting.

Sammon: Of course it wasn’t an easy ride from that season forward. It would be four years before Amalie Arena was completed. It was a painful 12 years before the team lifted the Stanley Cup. Esposito would realize that achievement as a broadcaster, not as a partner of the team after he was ousted in 1998. But the reality that was born 26 years ago, that’s now become an unmistakable worthwhile gamble. Under Jeff Vinik, the team has become a success on and off the ice. It was recently named the number one team, as voted by the fans, for the ESPN Ultimate Fan Rankings. The organization will be a positive force for the community for many years to come - and to think, it all started as a whim by an unemployed Hockey Hall of Famer sitting in his basement wondering what’s next. It’s fun to wonder what’s next now as we look back at a moment 26 years ago. Hopefully in roughly 26 weeks there will be another great moment in team history - a Stanley Cup parade route.

I would like to thank all of our guests who were part of various programs, including Todd Wright Talks Hockey on Lightning Power Play and the Power Play Podcast - and even before the podcast existed, our look back during the 20th anniversary season of Lightning hockey in 2012-2013. I’m your host Matt Sammon. Thank you so much for tuning in to another edition of the Power Play Podcast. We’ve got another one for you, coming your way next Tuesday, from Lightning Radio.

Outtro: Access all episodes of Lightning Radio’s Power Play at TampaBayLightning.com and follow the Lightning Radio network on Facebook and Twitter (@BoltsRadio). This is Lightning Radio.