Monday, December 3, 2007

Lightning Strikes in Tampa Bay, Fall 1992

In the days before the St. Pete Times Forum, the team played in a glorified barn called Expo Hall. Before Brad Richards, there was the original No. 19, Brian Bradley. Before the team ever won a Stanley Cup, it played a woman, Manon Rheaume, in goal during an exhibition game.

As Archie Bunker would say, "Those were the days."

Fifteen years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were brand new and enjoying their status as a sports novelty in the Bay area. The National Hockey League awarded an expansion franchise to the Tampa Bay Hockey Group -- led by Hall of Famer Phil Esposito -- on Dec. 6, 1990. Less than two years later, Esposito built a franchise from the ground up that would exceed everyone's expectations during its inaugural season.

When the Lightning arrived on the scene in the fall of 1992, the Bay area was a vastly different place than today. The Buccaneers still were an orange-clad punch line, baseball fans hoped Vince Naimoli would relocate the Giants from San Francisco and anyone who predicted the University of South Florida’s football team could be ranked second in the nation would have been a candidate for a relaxing stay in Chatahoochee.

The Lightning arrived at the perfect time -- think of them as a buffet table on ice for a community starved for an exciting and competitive sports franchise.

From the start, fans of the Lightning knew to expect the unexpected, starting with the Rheaume experiment during training camp. Esposito, always colorful, defended her presence and said he would put skates on a horse if he knew it could stop a puck.

Rheaume won over the fans and media with her captivating personality, then acquitted herself nicely with a seven-save performance against the St. Louis Blues in an exhibition game, becoming the first woman to play in an NHL game.

The Lightning kept the surprises coming on opening night, Oct. 7, 1992, against the defending Campbell Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks. Despite the presence of actor Alan Thicke, the Lightning would experience few, if any, growing pains on that night.

Behind four goals by forward Chris Kontos, Tampa Bay shocked the hockey world and dazzled the home crowd by soundly defeating Chicago, 7-3. It was one of the most impressive debuts by any expansion team in any sport, and the win proved to be anything but a fluke during the first two months of the season.

The Lightning started 9-8-2, and briefly enjoyed a stay in first place. From Nov. 3-16, Tampa Bay went on a season-high six-game unbeaten streak, wining five and tying once.

The streak featured one of the most exciting games of the season, a 6-5 overtime victory over the Islanders in New York. Lightning defenseman Doug Crossman registered three goals, including the game-winner, and added three assists. Crossman’s six points that night remain the single-game mark for a Tampa Bay defenseman.

From the first game, the Lightning defied the cliches that accompany expansion franchises. Unlike many fledgling teams that struggle to score, the Lightning averaged nearly four goals per game through the first 19 games. Plus, Tampa Bay did not experience its first shutout until the 35th game of the season, a 2-0 setback to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 18.

The Lightning played exciting hockey, even in defeat. Of Tampa Bay’s first eight losses, six were by just one goal. Instead of being a punching bag for the NHL, the Lightning, with their mixture of veterans and young talent, earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working teams in the league.

On Nov. 9, the Lightning earned a standing ovation after a 5-1 drubbing of the Rangers. Amazingly, the game was played in Madison Square Garden and the ovation was courtesy of a New York crowd.

During that inaugural season, fans immediately embraced the team's first superstar, center Brian Bradley. A castoff from the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, Bradley found his calling in Tampa Bay by tallying 42 goals and 44 assists in 80 games, and led the team in almost every major offensive category. Additionally, Bradley earned a selection to the Campbell Conference squad for the All-Star game, as well as team MVP honors at the end of the season.

Eventually, the rest of the league caught up to the Lightning and the inevitable slumps and losing streaks followed. Still, the Lightning provided Tampa fans with a successful and memorable inaugural season.

The team finished with 23 wins and 53 total points, 14 more than the San Jose Sharks recorded in their expansion season of 1991.

Esposito called the Lightning's 53 points "incredible," and who could argue with his choice of words. The success of the 1992-93 Lightning helped build the strong bond that exists between the team and its fans.

It began with that first game against Chicago in 1992 and culminated with the Lightning’s greatest triumph, the 2004 Stanley Cup victory over the Calgary Flames.

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