Tampa fans get Lightning-quick lesson in winning

This column from sports columnist Dave George originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post on Oct. 8, 1992:

Bring a glacial game to a tropical setting and there’s bound to be some fog. So it was Wednesday night in the final minutes before the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning broke the ice for the NHL in Florida with a shocking 7-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Hey, Tony, good luck,” shouted a neophyte puckhead with a silly grin on his face and his right hand extended toward the tuxedo-clad president and general manager of the Lightning.

“I’m Phil, but thanks anyway,” said Phil Esposito, Tony’s older brother and one of the game’s most recognizable faces. Esposito is the name that gave this franchise instant credibility but Kokusai pays the freight.

Now before you get all upset about Japanese ownership of a North American pro franchise, remember that everything about hockey in Florida is foreign, right down to the tans on the fans.

This is the team that wasn’t supposed to get off the ground, so tardy and troubled was the effort to raise the $50 million franchise fee. Esposito was asked at a crucial moment in the process how in the world he got a bunch of Japanese money men interested in hockey.
“They thought I said saki,” replied the only man who could sell pucks in paradise.

It won’t always be this easy but this is a day Tampa won’t soon forget.

George Steinbrenner got a Defense Department contract to save his shipbuilding company from bankruptcy, Buccaneers coach Sam Wyche got a standing ovation at the Lightning game and for one shining moment a greatly overlooked sports market got to enjoy that major league feeling.

Wednesday the Lightning played their first regular-season game in what can only be described as the world’s largest warehouse at the center of the Florida State Fairgrounds. The promise of a new arena can wait. 

Tampa Bay fans, banking on baseball since Joe Garagiola had hair, are a patient, and appreciative, lot. They sat through opening ceremonies Wednesday that delayed the scheduled start of the game by nearly an hour, suffering gladly the corny jokes of master of ceremonies Alan Thicke.

THE ONLY ROAD HOME

Thicke may have been out there because he is Canadian and thus entitled by hockey law to stay on the ice until someone with bigger muscles and fewer teeth pushes him out of the crease. More likely it’s because the sitcom that made him famous is called Growing Pains.

What expansion team could resist that theme?

The NHL seemed intent on getting the Lightning off to a good start, right down to bringing a big-name team in for opening night.

“At first, they had us scheduled to play our first five games on the road,” Esposito said. “I told them we weren’t going to go. They let Ottawa (the other 1992 expansion team) open up at home. I told the kid who makes up the schedules we were opening at home, too. We paid $50 million, didn’t we?”

Esposito digs hard for his goals, punching up interest in the team last month with a one-game exhibition performance by a woman goalie, Manon Rheaume. She’s with a minor league team in Atlanta now, but the Lightning were intent on making a similar dent in tradition in Wednesday’s regular-season opener.

And what a spectacle it was. Tampa Bay went wild with five goals in the first period against last year’s Stanley Cup finalists. But those are merely statistics. Here are the ballistics.

CHILLING OUT

Before the game was a minute old, there was a helmet spinning behind the Tampa Bay goal. Fortunately, it was empty, but in this game it always pays to check.

The first mass shoving match came with two minutes gone and before long there were three Blackhawks pressing the walls of the penalty box outward, three beefy tuna stuffed in a sardine tin.

Chris Kontos had two Lightning goals, both of them short-handed before some red-sweatered Chicago boosters had popped their third beers, and that’s fast working, friends.

He got two more in the second period, giving concessionaires a suggested name and a number to put on those Lightning sweaters they were selling blank to fired-up fans on their way out the door.

Since my first experience on ice skates came just two months ago and resulted in a broken elbow, there’s no point in feigning any particular expertise in this game.

This much, however, I do know. The Lightning’s first-round draft pick, Roman Hamrlik, has just been cleared to play by his team, ZPS Zlin (Czechoslovakia). That’s not to be confused with the smaller program with the same name, ZPS Zlin (Ohio).

Buy a bag of Berlitz tapes if you’re really interested in finding out more about the only game that can give you chills without leaving the state. But be prepared to learn fast.

The Lightning, 6-2-1 in preseason play and 1-0 in real life, certainly are.