NHL Lightning Strikes in Tampa Bay

The NHL awarded Tampa, Florida an expansion franchise in 1990. Henry Lee Paul, Mel Lowell and Hall of Fame member Phil Esposito spearheaded an ownership group that would begin lobbying efforts in the fall of 1990 by hosting an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins at the Florida Suncoast Dome. Over 25,000 fans attended that game and the NHL’s move to Florida was a reality. The group struggled to work out the financial equation until Kokusai Green came in with a large infusion of cash and a restructured offer. The NHL and the ownership group reached an agreement, and in December of 1991 they welcomed the Tampa Bay Lightning in as an expansion franchise.

The Lightning then shocked the hockey world with the signing of a woman, Manon Rheaume to a minor league contract. She was the first female to play in any of the four major professional sports. She played in goal for one period of a pre-season game against the St. Louis Blues. The Lightning’s first home game was at the Lakeland Civic Center in Lakeland, Florida. The Bolts won their opening home game 7-3 against the Chicago Blackhawks. The team was led by ex-Canuck Brian Bradley, who went on to represent Tampa Bay in the All-Star game that year. They finished their inaugural season looking like the usual expansion team. They finished with 53 points, missing the playoffs. The next few seasons were ugly as Tampa Bay finished well out of the playoff picture. The big headlines came off the ice. The franchise was in financial trouble and the IRS was investigating the Bolts books. In 1995 the team on the ice was looking good. Coach Terry Crisp and players like Paul Yserbart and Roman Hamrlik were becoming stars. The goaltending of Darren Puppa was outstanding. The Lightning finished the season sixth in the Atlantic division with 88 points and made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time ever. They lost to the heavily favored Philadelphia Flyers, but managed to win two games. The next season, the Lightning moved to the brand new Ice Palace in downtown Tampa. They were playoff bound until the last weekend of the season.

The ownership’s Japanese partner was determined to sell the team, because the organization was hemorrhaging money. While this was taking place the Lightning had serious problems on the ice. The team lost John Cullen, Troy Mallete, Dino Ciccarelli and Vladimir Vujtek to injuries. Also, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Chris Gratton 感應燈 to a multi-year offer sheet. Unable to match the $16.5 million salary for the young Gratton, Phil Esposito performed his magic and got the Flyers to send Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis to the Lightning instead of the obligatory draft picks. As was the teams luck, Renberg was lost to injury later that season. Jacques Demers replaced Terry Crisp as coach but the team would finish at the very bottom of the standings, with their worst record ever. The only bright side was that their dismal 17 wins put them in position to draft the highly touted center, Vincent Lecavalier.

After winning only 17 out of 82 games in 1997-1998, the next couple of seasons saw the Lightning continue to perform poorly, only winning 19 games in each of the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 seasons. It was only by the 2002-03 season that many of the young players drafted or acquired would start to pay off. The acquisition of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin the year before would also ensure that their goaltending would be improved. So the Lightning, led by Khabibulin in net and the maturation of forwards Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavlier, Brad Richards and Vinnie Prospal found themselves leading the Southeast Division and in the playoffs for the first time in seven years. New coach John Tortorella allowed his players to create and skate, which, in turn created a formidable playoff contender. They faced off against the Washington Capitals in the first round and quickly dropped the first two games. But working their way back from this deficit, they went on to beat the Capitals in a six-game series with Martin St. Louis scoring the series-winner in a triple overtime nail-biter. The Lightning could not hold their own against their second-round opponent, the New Jersey Devils, losing that series in five games. New Jersey would go on to win the Stanley Cup and the Lightning fans got a taste of what might be in store for them with a talented young team looking to add to its achievements.

Since 1975 author Bill Philp has been involved in the sports industry. He began setting up at local venues, selling sports cards. This evolved into becoming a full time card dealer in his hometown of Farmington, MI.

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