Monday, October 13, 2008

Catching Up With Phil Esposito

With the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs for the first time ever, the Tampa Bay area has finally been able to enjoy meaningful baseball games at The Trop in October. It’s hard to believe, but 15 years ago this month The Trop was the newly rechristened ThunderDome, ready to serve as the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. After playing their first season at Expo Hall in Tampa, the Lightning embarked across the Bay to make a new home in a stadium built for baseball. I recently sat down with Lightning founder Phil Esposito to discuss how hockey first came to be played at the Dome.

Q. How did the first pre-Lightning exhibition game come about?

A. Well, before we could get a team, my partners (Henry Paul, Mel Lowell) and I decided we would have to put on an exhibition game for the NHL. I'll never forget going over to (what was called at the time) the Florida Suncoast Dome for the first time. I remember looking around and thinking, "How in the hell are we going to get ice in here, and where are we going to put the rink?" So the guy who was running the place at the time – I can’t remember his name, but he was a real nice guy -- asked us if a tennis configuration would work. Absolutely it would, I told him. I remember we put the yellow police tape all the way around the floor, and then we marked it off and went to the top corners of the dome to make sure people could see the rink from all angles.

Q. You chose two high-profile teams -- the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins -- to play in the exhibition game on Sept. 19, 1990. How did you pull that off?

A. I called Los Angeles, which was run by their former goaltender, Rogie Vachon. I asked if they'd come play an exhibition game in Florida. They wanted to know where, so I said in a baseball facility in St.
Petersburg. Rogie said fine, but with if we wanted Wayne Gretzky to come it would cost us $150,000. I said, "Come on Rogie, $150,000 is too much. I can't afford to give you that." He told me that's what we get when Wayne plays, but that they could come without him.

Well, the point was to have Wayne because we knew the place would be packed for people coming to see him. Eventually he said that they'd do it for $100,000. Then I decided that I wanted to get Mario Lemiuex with Pittsburgh, so I called their general manager, Craig Patrick. I intended to pay them the same amount. I asked Craig if they'd come, but that Mario's gotta play. We wanted to charge the first row $99 and the second row $66 to honor Wayne and Mario. Craig asked me why I was doing that. He said it would look like Wayne was worth more money and Mario wouldn't like it. I remember saying to him, "Yeah, so what's your point?" Little did I know, he had no intention of bringing Mario.

So I told my partners that if Mario doesn't come, I'm not giving Pittsburgh $100,000. Mario ended up not coming, so after the game we only gave them a check for $70,000. Craig asked me what happened to the other $30,000, and I said to him, “That was for Mario to come.” He said that's not right, but I told him I don't care. What was he going to do to me? But, that's why when we got the Lightning, we could never get the Penguins to play us in an exhibition game. They wouldn't do it.

The bottom line is it cost me -- and I put all the money up, every penny I had in my life -- $500,000. People wondered why I wanted to do this, but we had to show the NHL that we could draw a crowd. And it turned out to be a huge success. We drew over 25,000 that night. The game was fabulous. Afterwards, Wayne showered up and went over to our corporate tents that we had set up in the outfield. He signed autographs, talked to people, and told me, "Phil, anytime you need help here, anything you need, you call me. I'll be glad to do what ever I can to help you get a franchise." I'll never forget that. He was so good to us it was ridiculous.

Q. The team announced it would be moving to St. Petersburg in July of 1993, which only allowed for a few months to get the stadium hockey ready. What were some of the challenges?

A. It happened real fast. We had to do something about the upper deck to get people up there. Then we wanted to put some corporate tents in centerfield, a place where kids could kick field goals, play floor hockey, maybe do some miniature golf, make it fun. You know a lot of kids came to the games, but never even watched the game. That was great for the parents because all they'd pay is $5 to get them in the door. It worked out fine.

Q. Was it hard leaving the Fairgrounds behind?

A. I liked the Fairgrounds, and the fans loved it. I thought it was so much fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There were only 10,000 seats, so everyone was on top of the action. The reality was we couldn't afford to play there. Who knows what would have happened if we had stayed? If we didn't go to the Dome, we may have never gotten a new building in Tampa. The move to St. Pete made the city of Tampa stand up and say, "We want you to play here in Tampa." We were negotiating with St. Pete to put a new building south of the Dome, at the other end of the main parking lot. I really thought we should have built in the Gateway area, so it wouldn't be such a long commute for everybody.

I’ll tell you though, the atmosphere at the ThunderDome was unbelievable. I don't know if it's the acoustics because of the roof, but in 1996 when we won that playoff game in overtime, I've never heard anything so loud in my life. Not even when we won the Stanley Cup. If they'd never gotten a baseball team or we never got a new building, it wouldn't have bothered me one iota to have stayed in that building. We'd have reconfigured it as a circle and put in new seats ourselves. I was pretty content there, but I knew we had to get a new building because the league insisted on it. That was the only way we the Lightning, and the sport of hockey, could survive in this area.

Q. Do you have fond memories at the Dome?

A. The crowds were terrific. Opening night against the Florida Panthers we set the indoor attendance record for the NHL with over 27,000 fans. We finally made some money that season. I have to give David LeFevre (former Lightning governor) this. He wanted to charge a $99 season ticket for upper deck seats. I loved the idea. We found out later those people were spending $24-30 per game in concessions. And to this day, people tell me they had more fun at the Dome than they knew what to do with. I think being over there those few years really helped grow hockey in this area.

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