With the first postgame season looming between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers later today, it’s time to look back at the first time the two teams met on the ice. Officially it happened on October 9th, 1993, a 2-0 Panthers win that was their first in franchise history. That’s not the game we’re going to talk about, though. Three weeks earlier the two teams met in a pre-season game that was pretty much peak 1990s Florida hockey.
On September 16th, 1993 two things happened. One - I turned 17 years old. That has nothing to do with this story, especially since I was living in Maryland, didn’t follow hockey, and still believed a major league baseball team needed a left-handed pitcher who barely cracked 75MPH on the radar gun. I had been accepted to a Florida school, St. Leo College, so I was about a year away from moving to the Sunshine State. The second, and much more relevant, event was the Panthers traveled up to Lakeland to meet the Lightning in the first pre-season game of the 1993-94 season.
The Lightning were preparing for their second NHL season following an inaugural year that was good, especially compared to most expansion teams during that era. They finished with a record of 23-54-7 and a respectable 53 points. In the off-season they had brought in some veterans to bolster what had been a hard-working, if somewhat offensively-challenged team. The biggest upgrade was in net where Daren Puppa was ready to take over as the number-one netminder.
Puppa actually came to the Lightning thanks to the Panthers. In the summer, the league held an expansion draft to stock up the Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. General Manager Phil Esposito wasn’t exactly thrilled that one year after he brought hockey to Florida, he was having to compete with a new franchise a couple of hours south of Tampa. He was also not exactly amused with the draft rules that didn’t exempt the Lightning and also forced teams to protect only one goaltender, as opposed to the two that teams could protect the previous offseason when the Lightning drafted the players that made up their inaugural team.
“They’re going to get an absolute starter in the NHL...we got backups,” Esposito told the Tampa Tribune prior to the draft, “That’s not a reflection on Wendell [Young] or anybody. It’s just the truth.”
Sure enough, the Panthers and the Mighty Ducks drafted goaltenders with the first six picks. The Panthers took John Vanbriesbrouck, Glenn Healy, and, from Toronto, Daren Puppa. His stay in South Beach was brief. Because the NHL always finds the most complicated way to do things, there was a second phase to the expansion draft in which the five most recent teams (Panthers, Mighty Ducks, Sharks, Senators, and Lightning) could draft up to two players from each other’s rosters, minus 17 players each team could protect. If a team took a player in the second phase of the draft, they would have to expose someone from their exempt list to the other teams. Simple, right?
Well, Espo took advantage of the second round and drafted two goaltenders. First it was Glenn Healy from Anaheim. The Lightning traded Healy to the Rangers for a third round pick they had sent to New York as compensation for signing Rob Zamuner as a free agent (that was a thing back then as well). The Bolts used that pick on Allan Egeland.
The Senators and Sharks passed on selections and the Lightning were on the board again. This time they took Puppa from the Panthers (who had reportedly drafted him with the intention of trading him for a third-round pick at the draft). The consensus from around the league was that Esposito had played the second round of the expansion draft to perfection, picking up a third round pick and a starting goaltender while losing nothing.
Despite that, Esposito still wasn’t exactly pleased that the Panthers existed. He, and other members of the organization, refused to refer to them as the “Florida” Panthers, instead calling them “Miami”. That was one of the nicer things he said about them.
The rivalry was off to a pretty good start before they had even taken a shift against each other. Just prior to the preseason game things went up another notch when it was reported that Esposito had told Hockey Pool magazine that the Lightning would “kick their ass” when the two teams met. The full quote, as reported by the Tampa Tribune was, “I can’t wait to play the Panthers. We’re going to beat the hell out of them. We’re going to kick their ass.”
Lightning head coach Terry Crisp had some fun as well, reportedly stating, “We can’t wait to play the Kitty Cats from Miami, at a luncheon organized to bring baseball to the Tampa area. Florida General Manager, Bobby Clarke was, as usual, a little surly. According to the Tribune his reaction to the quotes was,
“First of all, Phil Esposito never kicked anybody’s ass when he played. Phil Esposito was a pussycat when he played. That’s no way to start a rivalry. That’s not funny at all. I don’t know who he thinks he is. There’s no Stanley Cup banners hanging in their building.”
The 1990’s were never lacking in fun quotes, were they?
Once the two teams took to the ice, following a surprise, literal kiss-on-the-cheek from Esposito to Clarke, it was a bit of a mucky game. Based on the box scores, and game accounts the following day, it wasn’t exactly a testament to free-flowing hockey. The Lightning emerged with a 4-3 victory in front of a Lakeland Civic Arena sellout of 3,876 fans (100 of which were part of Panthers’ owner Wayne Huizenga’s traveling party). Brain Bradly called it a “sloppy, ugly kind of game with no flow to it.”
While they did score four goals (Roman Hamrlik, Petr Klima, Denis Savard, and Bill McDougall) they probably should have had more. They outshot Florida 17-3 in the first period and didn’t score, had almost three consecutive minutes of five-on-three power play during a seven-minute stretch and had thirteen (!) power plays, two of which they converted. The Panthers had their fair share of time on the power play as the Lightning took 15 penalties.
Young defenseman Roman Hamrlik had the first goal (yes, it was on the power play) while Puppa picked up the first win between the two teams by making 22 saves on 25 shots.
The first on-ice fight between the two franchises took place between Brantt Myers and Rick Hayward in the first period. They would also have the second fight as they squared up for a rematch in the second period.
Notable names that were on the roster for the game were:
Chris Gratton - The Lightning’s first-round pick of 1993 made his debut
Marc Bergevin - the future Canadiens GM was on defense for the Lightning.
Len Barrie - the future Lightning owner missed on a breakaway when Hamrlik slashed him.
Dallas Eakins - Ducks head coach and Dade City native was listed on the roster for the Panthers, he did play in the second match-up a few days later
Rob Niedermeyer - also made his professional debut for the Panthers
Both franchises have come a long way since that inaugural game. It took almost 30 years for them to meet in the playoffs and take the in-state rivalry to the next level. Starting tonight, we’ll find out how intense the games will be.
Information and quotes for this article were pulled from the Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, and Miami Herald off of newspapers.com