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Lightning Round: 25 years since Fax-Gate

Ahh, the late-90s, what a time to be alive!

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Chris Gratton

Twenty five years ago Tampa Bay Lightning founder and general manager Phil Esposito claimed he couldn’t read a fax. It was a rather blatant ploy (though not as blatant as Fernando Tatis Jr.’s “ringworm” ploy) to buy time to work out a deal to trade young center Chris Gratton for something more than the four draft picks they would receive from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for not matching the offer sheet they had signed him to earlier in the week.

For those who might not remember one of the more infamous moments in Lightning history, the Lightning in 1997 were a team looking for a new owner. Cash was a bit scarce and Gratton was a 22-year-old center coming off of a season where he scored 30 goals and added 32 assists. He was also a restricted free agent looking to get paid. Mr. Esposito did not have the money to sign him to a fair market deal.

So, on August 4th, he traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks for Ethan Moreau and Keith Carney. The only problem was that a few hours earlier, the Flyers had signed Gratton to a five-year $16.5 million offer sheet. Truth be told, the Lightning probably could have matched that if the money was spread out over the length of the deal, but the Flyers had included a $9 million signing bonus in the first year - a sum that was roughly half of the Lighting’s payroll from the previous season.

Needless to say they didn’t have the money to match so Mr. Esposito claimed that he couldn’t read the numbers on the fax so it wasn’t a valid offer. That allowed him to make the trade with Chicago (teams were not allowed to trade the rights of a restricted free agent that had a valid offer sheet from another team).

clipped from the Tampa Tribune August 16th, 1997 edition via

The Lightning also argued that they had consummated the deal with Chicago prior to the fax, but couldn’t contact the league with the details, possible because Bill Daly, the NHL’s vice-president at the time, didn’t have his phone on.

Naturally, the Flyers weren’t buying any of this and took it an arbitrator. On August 15th, 11 days after the whole mess started, John Sands ruled that the offer sheet was valid and that the Lightning had to match it or take the compensation from the Flyers. Needless to say, Mr. Esposito was not happy with the decision, telling the Tampa Tribune*:

“Believe this thing isn’t over yet. Payback’s a b*tch”.

He also didn’t take the compensation of four first round draft picks. Well, he did, but then he traded them back to the Flyers for Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis. For the record, the Flyers drafted Simon Gagne, Maxime Ouellett, and Justin Williams with those picks (they swapped 2001 picks with Ottawa who drafted Tim Gleason).

According to his autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, Mr. Esposito claims that he had a different deal on the table with Flyers GM Bobby Clark. Not only would they get Dykhuis and Renberg, but Rod “The Bod” Brind’Amour would also come to the Lightning if Mr. Esposito also included a second-round pick in the deal.

Unfortunately, Mr. Esposito claims that Lightning CEO Steve Oto had made a deal with Flyers owner Ed Snider for Renberg, Dykhuis, and Dan Kordic. That was the only deal that Ed Snider would accept. Mr. Esposito was not a fan of Kordic (or Oto) so, in the end, he wasn’t included in the deal.

In a sense, the Lightning did get a little bit of payback as just over a year later the Lightning re-acquired Gratton, along with Mike Sillinger, for Daymond Langkow and Renberg. So, in essence they got him without having to pay the signing bonus. Gratton played another 110 games for the Bolts between 1998 and 2000, recording 67 points (21 goals, 46 assists) before they dealt him to Buffalo for a package that included Brian Holzinger, Wayne Primeau, and Cory Sarich.

He would boomerang back to the Lightning one more time in 2007 when the Florida Panthers traded him to Tampa Bay for a second round pick (that turned into Jacob Markstrom). He added another 10 goals during his third stint with the team.

What a time to be alive.

*Simple Fax: A legible offer” Ira Kaufman, Tampa Tribune, August 16th, 1997. retrieved via on August 14th, 2022.

Lightning / NHL News

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Finland 9, Slovakia 3

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