Monday, March 31, 2008

Catching Up With John Tucker

One of the original members of the Tampa Bay Lightning, John Tucker is remembered by Lightning fans for being both a consistent scorer and hard worker on the ice. Signed as a free agent by the club in the summer of 1992, Tucker came to Tampa Bay after playing in Italy during the 1991-92 campaign. Tucker spent the majority of his career, however, making his mark with the Buffalo Sabres. It was there that he won the Fred T. Hunt Memorial Trophy as the team’s rookie of the year during the 1984-85 season and befriended future Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk. A veteran of 12 NHL seasons, Tucker finished his four-year Lightning stint with 49 goals and 131 points. Today, he remains an active part of the community and maintains his ties to the organization he finished his NHL career with in 1996.

Q. John, what have you been up to since retiring from professional hockey?

A. I do alumni work for the Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as being heavily involved in youth hockey here in the area. I’m a coach and one of the vice presidents of the Tampa Bay Junior Lightning in Clearwater. I’m also the North American general manager of A.S. Asiago, a professional hockey club in Italy, and I do some consulting for the Japanese national team. It keeps me busy.

Q. In 1992, you signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning. What was it like playing for an expansion team in a non-traditional market after playing for most of your career in Buffalo?

A. It was a real good experience. Most of the guys on our team were at points in their careers – not to put it too harshly – that they were not wanted by other teams. So you had 20 plus guys thrown into a city with great management in Phil Esposito who had a passion for the game. We were a bunch of muckers and grinders, and we made it work and had success for being a new team. We took a new organization and grew with it. Not a lot of guys can ever say that.

Q. You were a teammate of Dave Andreychuk’s in Buffalo during the 1980s. What was it like for you to see him take over the leadership of the Lightning and transform them into a Stanley Cup winner?

A. I thought it was great, just great. There was a point when (then-General Manager) Rick Dudley said he wasn’t going to bring players in just to retire, but Dave saw some of the talented young players down here and came in on a mission. It turned out to be a great move.

As far as the leadership goes, we were groomed by some great veterans in Buffalo. Gilbert Perrault, Larry Playfair, Lindy Ruff, Craig Ramsay, Mike Ramsey, they were our vets when we were rookies. We knew at 18 years old not to step on the team logo. That same tradition in Buffalo is what Dave brought to Tampa Bay. These are All-Stars and Hall of Famers, and to have those guys around, we were put in our place right away. They showed us how to become leaders and how to lead, what was expected of you.

Q. You spent most of your Lightning career playing on a line with Brian Bradley and Rob Zamuner. What did that do in terms of elevating your game?

A. You mean they played on a line with me! (laughs) When Brian came here, his career was kind of on a downward spiral because he had trouble fitting in with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Robbie Zamuner was a rookie, but he was one of Phil Esposito’s first picks when he was with the New York Rangers. We clicked, though, right from the first game. I did the passing, Rob did the checking and Brian scored. Then we started getting success and they brought in other guys like Petr Klima, Brian Bellows and Denis Savard, but Brian was a good guy to hook up with for sure.

Q. What was your most memorable game or moment as a member of the Lightning?

A. Really, just the whole first year. I was out of the NHL completely during the prior season when I went to play in Italy, so I had the chance to come back. I knew what I had, and then it was taken away for a year. So the excitement was big for me. The first game certainly was a thrill. Then several years later, making the playoffs during the 1995-96 season and being a part of that team was a lot of fun.

Q. What did it feel like to skate onto the ThunderDome ice and play in front of over 27,000 fans on opening night against the Florida Panthers in 1993?

A. It was pretty crazy. It wasn’t the best hockey game (Tampa Bay lost to Florida, 2-0), but it was a great experience. Skating out there and seeing all those fans, it kind of reminded me of the NBA Finals when the Pistons and Lakers played at the Silverdome. Just incredible.

Q. Even with all the success that the Lightning have had in recent times, the original team and its players still resonate with fans 15 years later. Why do you think that is so?

A. I think that the game has changed so much that the experience at the Fair Grounds and Expo Hall was something completely different. In order to get to your car, you had to walk out into the parking lot
with everyone else. Nowadays, you can’t see players after the games because they have their own private lot. As a team we were just way more accessible. Espo had us out in the community making appearances, doing everything from signing autographs to bagging groceries. We were trying to build a market. Fans identified with our group because of the accessibility.

Q. How is the game of hockey, both on and off the ice, different now from your playing days?

A. You can go on YouTube now, for example, and see highlights. It didn’t use to be like it is now with the access to information. Before, you just had books, magazines and newspapers. Today, there’s nothing you can’t find out about hockey thanks to the Internet. On the ice, the speed of game is unreal. You look at old footage of the 1980s, it’s just embarrassing to watch. It sure must be fun to play now without all the hooking and holding!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Remembering Al Lopez Field

Built in 1955 at a cost of $282,901 ($2.1 million in today’s dollars), Al Lopez Field served as Tampa’s baseball Mecca for more than 30 years. Named in honor of Tampa native and Baseball Hall of Famer Al Lopez, the 4,000-seat stadium first served as the Spring Training home of the Chicago White Sox until 1959. The following year, the Cincinnati Reds made it their permanent preseason home until 1987.

It was here that Tampa baseball fans could watch future greats such as Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Pete Rose up close and personal. The Big Red Machine of the 1970s, which won two World Series championships, helped put Tampa on the map as a baseball hotbed. During the summer, as home of the Florida State League Tampa Tarpons, future baseball big-league stars plied their trades in front of the loyal and dedicated fans. Rose, for example, hit 30 triples and batted .331 for the Tarpons in 1961.

The Reds left Al Lopez Field for a new training site in Plant City in 1988, but the Tarpons played one final season as an affiliate for the White Sox. The Tampa Bay area’s quest for a Major League Baseball team of its own helped spell the end of Al Lopez Field, once considered as a site for a new domed stadium. Today, the former site of a Big Red Machine and baseball dreams is still a showcase for present and future stars, albeit in a different sport -- Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Spring Training, 1963

Now that Spring Training is in full swing, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on how this great annual tradition has changed over time in Florida.

In the not-so-distant past, players reported to their respective camps in order to get into shape. Nowadays, players are expected to stay fit year-round and show up at Spring Training in peak physical condition. Wooden bleachers and "knothole" seats have been replaced by party decks and private suites. Even Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, home to so many spring memories, is in its final days, soon to be replaced by a waterfront park or new permanent home for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Earlier this month, however, a great tradition that had been dormant since the 1990s was revived at Tropicana Field. The Governor's Baseball Dinner, established in 1947, traditionally was a gathering of state politicians, major and minor league baseball executives, beat writers and others connected to the game.

Laughter, merriment, and good times were had by all in an effort to toast the upcoming season. Former Yankees, Reds and Indians executive Gabe Paul was instrumental in organizing the event and establishing it as a must-attend event over the years. Paul died in 1998, but his son Henry, an attorney and former counsel for the Tampa Bay Lightning, recalls the Governor's Dinner as an important part of every spring.

"These dinners were a chance for baseball executives and the local government to connect and show their appreciation for each other," Paul said.

The 17th annual dinner, held at the Tampa Terrace Hotel on March 20, 1963, featured Florida Gov. Farris Bryant as the event's keynote speaker. In his remarks, Bryant paid tribute to how baseball in Florida heralds the change of seasons.

"The magnolia no longer is the sign of spring in Florida," Bryant said. "But instead it is the crack of the bat and the yells of the people who go to see you play."

Earlier that week 45 years ago, another event was held in Tampa to mark the arrival of baseball in Florida. The second annual Major League Baseball Bowling Tournament, held at the East Gate Lanes, featured showdowns between active major leaguers, coaches, managers and former players, as well as newspaper reporters.

Just imagine for a moment the modern-day spectacle of seeing Carl Crawford, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in a televised bowling showdown. Roger Clemens has a better chance of pitching to Barry Bonds in an All-Star Game than an event of this kind does to take place again.

Lee Strange, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, captured the championship trophy along with a $500 cash prize (over $3300 in today’s dollars). Strange, who said he participated in a Friday-night bowling league during the off-season, defeated Cincinnati Reds pitcher Marvin Fodor in the "roll off" televised locally on WFLA-TV.

While a bowling competition doesn't necessarily evoke the spirit of Spring Training, the simplicity and unpretentious nature of the event calls back to an era in sports that no longer exists.

Today, Spring Training is big business. Most relationships between major league teams and local governments are contentious, with new stadiums, financial incentives and hundreds of millions of annual dollars at stake.

Something else has changed: It’s hard to believe now, but in 1963, 70 percent (14 of 20) Major League teams held training in Florida. While the Sunshine State is still a Spring Training hotbed, by this time next year, barely more than half of Major League teams (16 of 30) will call Florida home in the preseason.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Debut of Tampa Bay Bandits, 3/6/83

“So, come on folks, let’s get the fever, be a Bandit Ball believer. We believe you're gonna love Bandit Ball.”
– Lyrics from “Bandit Ball” by Jerry Reed.

On March 6, 1983, Tampa Bay football fans got their first formal introduction to the concept of “Bandit Ball.” When the Tampa Bay Bandits of the newly formed United States Football League arrived on the scene 25 years ago, nobody knew quite what to expect. At least with movie icon Burt Reynolds as general partner and former University of Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier as head coach, fans knew Bandit football would be anything but dull.

There was certainly enough pre-game hype leading up to the team’s season-opening debut at Tampa Stadium. In the week before the game, an executive with the New England Patriots of the rival National Football League took a verbal shot at the Bandits, describing their roster as that of a semi-pro football team. Bandits’ owner John Bassett, in an act of equal parts defiance and showmanship, challenged the Patriots to a $1 million game after the completion of the USFL’s season. The winner would take home $500,000, and the other half would go to the charity of the loser’s choice.

Although that game never happened, Basset wanted to prove the USFL was more than a semi-pro league. Rosters throughout the league were dotted with former NFL players and newly drafted college stars, such as 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker from the University of Georgia. The Bandits’ roster featured numerous players with NFL experience, including its starting quarterback, John Reaves. A local product who attended Robinson High School, Reaves starred at the University of Florida, and then played 10 years in the NFL with Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Houston.

The Bandits could not have asked for more ideal conditions for their debut against the Boston Breakers. On a sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s, more than 42,000 fans gathered at Tampa Stadium for the spectacle that would become known as “Bandit Ball.” Although Reynolds missed the game because of a scheduling conflict, his friend, Jim Nabors of “Gomer Pyle” fame, drew a rousing ovation for his rendition of the National Anthem. One of the few glitches of the day occurred before the game, when windy conditions scuttled a planned delivery of the game-ball to midfield by parachutists.

In contrast to the 1976 expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who struggled to move the ball on offense and put points on the scoreboard, the Bandits showed early on that they would have no such problems. On the Bandits’ first drive, Reaves showcased a no-huddle attack that provided a glimpse of “Bandit Ball” excitement.

However, in a sequence that undoubtedly caused flashbacks to the first season of Buccaneers football, the Bandits’ initial scoring attempt, a 42-yard field goal try, was blocked as the result of a low snap.

Boston took advantage of the miscue, scoring the first points of the game with 58 seconds remaining in the first quarter, a 30-yard field goal by Tim Mazzetti.

The Bandits answered at the 8:59 mark of the second quarter with a six-play, 75-yard drive that produced a 6-yard scoring pass from Reaves to running back Ricky Williams. Williams, who took over primary tailback duties when starter George Ragsdale broke his ankle on the opening kickoff, earned a spot in the USFL record books with the first touchdown in league history.

Boston retook the lead before halftime with a 6-yard touchdown pass of its own from quarterback John Walton to tailback Anthony Steels. The score capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive that put the Breakers on top 10-7 at halftime.

Then the Bandits and Breakers provided a wild and memorable second half of football. The Bandits marched down the field from their own 17, behind the arm of John Reaves, who connected with receiver Eric Truvillion from 6 yards out to put Tampa Bay back on top, 14-10.

Truvillion provided one of the highlights of the day on Tampa Bay’s subsequent drive. With the Bandits threatening to score from Boston’s 4-yard line, a Reaves pass attempt was batted and intercepted in the end zone by Terry Love, who scampered the other way for what looked to be a 102-yard touchdown return. But Truvillion, a former quarterback at Florida A&M, tackled Love at Tampa Bay’s 2-yard line to prevent the score. Unfortunately for the Bandits, it didn’t take long for former Buccaneers running back Troy Davis to punch it in from the 1-yard line to give his team a 17-14 lead.

Boston had a chance to increase its lead in the fourth quarter, but a field goal attempt by Mazzetti hit the uprights. After that gaffe, it wasn’t too long before Tampa Bay scored the go-ahead touchdown on its ensuing possession. From Boston’s 33-yard line, Reaves found a wide-open Willie Gillespie, who made an acrobatic catch for a touchdown after blowing past Breakers cornerback Charles Harbison.

Ahead 21-17, Tampa Bay turned to its defense to ice the game. Safety Ken Taylor disrupted a John Walton pass at the Bandits’ 5-yard line on fourth down to prevent a potential game-winning score late in the fourth quarter. The change of possession would result in yet another dramatic example of “Bandit Ball.”

With just 1:36 left and facing fourth-and-inches at their own 29, Spurrier decided to keep the Bandits’ offense on the field rather than punt. Fullback Greg Boone was stuffed for no gain, but to the delight of all those wearing the Bandits’ colors of red, silver and black, the Breakers had lined up offsides on the play. The penalty resulted in an automatic first down and allowed Tampa Bay to successfully run out the clock.

Tampa Bay fans were not only treated to a successful 21-17 victory by the home team, but were given an entertaining brand of football that would become the franchise’s hallmark during the three years of its existence. Reaves put on a passing clinic in his debut, completing 28 of 39 passes for 358 yards and three touchdown passes. Williams gained 97 yards on 25 carries, while catching six passes for 49 yards and a touchdown.

It may not have been the NFL, but it certainly wasn’t semi-pro quality. The combination of Spurrier’s daring coaching style and Reaves’ cannon arm helped make everyone in attendance that day a “Bandit Ball” believer.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Catching Up With Tony Esposito

The Esposito name will forever by synonymous with Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. Legendary brothers Phil and Tony founded the team in the early 1990s, bringing the NHL to Tampa. Tony Esposito, a former goaltender who earned induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988 after a remarkable career with the Chicago Blackhawks, helmed the scouting and player development side of the Lightning from 1991-98. Working side-by-side with his brother, the two quickly established the Lightning as one of the hardest-working clubs in the NHL, and in only their fourth season had built a playoff team. Although his official ties with the Lightning ended in 1998, he attends almost every home game, and judging from well-wishers who stop by to say hello or request an autograph, his contributions to Lightning and the NHL are still appreciated. Sharp and insightful, Esposito holds nothing back while reminiscing about his time with the Lightning.

Q. So Tony, what have you been up to since leaving the Lightning in 1998?

A. Basically, I've done a lot of appearances, memorabilia stuff. It's quite lucrative and you do well. Now I'm back with the Chicago Blackhawks full-time as an ambassador. I'm an employee of theirs when they need me, but I can still live here. They're having a convention this summer for fans, so I'll do things like that.

Q. What is your most lasting memory from the inaugural 1992-93 season?

A. I really enjoyed that we came so far, so fast. We had a veteran team, but we had one weakness and that was in goal. In the expansion draft, the NHL changed the rule on us. Teams were able to protect two goalies, and they could protect any goalie who had three years of service time or less. So we had to choose from their fourth or fifth guy. That was the only bad thing. They didn't give us a break.

Q. What kind of working relationship did you have with Phil?

A. What you've got to understand is that Phil and I worked hand-in-hand. We're very close, my brother and I. He listened to my thoughts on players, depending on what player we were after. We had a good thing going until we got into a financial crunch. Our ownership started to cut, cut, cut. Every day, we'd go in and we'd argue with them. We know hockey, we're experts. But we were arguing with Japanese guys, who when they first got here, didn't know what a hockey puck was. Then all of a sudden, they became the experts! We had to get rid of players. We didn't want to get rid of Roman Hamrlik, for example, but they wouldn't pay him. Do you think we wanted to trade Hamrlik for Jason Bonsignore? People said we were idiots and don't know what we're doing, but it wasn't us. If we'd had the money and resources, we could have built this team up in a hurry. Our hands were tied that way, but that's okay. That's how it works. One thing we never did is go and cry to the newspapers about how our owner's won't give us money. They're your owners, you can't do that. You can say it now though, because they're long gone.

Q. How good was the team that reached the playoffs in the 1995-96 season?

A. We were a very good team. Our problem was when our goaltender, Darren Puppa, got hurt. He was playing really well but hurt his back. Then Brian Bradley got hurt, had some problems with his knee. He was a smaller guy and that was the beginning of the end for him physically. So you had your top goaltender by a mile and your best scorer hurt. That was the end of it.

Q. What do you think was the reason for the team's decline after reaching the playoffs?

A. Money, with a capital M! You know, we'd defy the ownership sometimes and they'd back off. Otherwise we'd have had nothing. You have to draw the line somewhere. Phil and I sat down and we said that we can't keep doing this. We were trying to build a team. Then when the team got sold to Art Williams, he had his own agenda. That's okay though, you gotta understand that. But he would compare us to when he was coaching high school football in some small town in Georgia. Like it's the same thing. So we had to sit and listen, but he just went on and on. The night before the 1998 season opener in South Florida, we were all sitting down for a meal together as a team. Then all of a sudden, Art gets up and starts talking. Went on for over an hour. The guys just wanted to eat so they can go get some rest. Then he brought up all this high school stuff again. I couldn't believe it. The next night we lost to the Panthers, 4-1.

Q. Three of the Lightning's first four number-one picks -- Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton and Daymond Langkow -- are all still playing in the NHL. When you scouted and drafted them, did you imagine they would have such lengthy careers?

A. Yeah, I did think so. As far as Hamrlik, I think if he had stayed with us he would have been a better player than he is today. He's a good player, and you've got to be to last 15 years, but I think he would have been better. The guy we made a mistake with was Jason Weimer (in 1994). I had a bad feeling about him. He never had to work for anything. Everything in his life came too easy. I don't know if it was the heart, but he just didn't have the desire. I don't think he was willing to sacrifice.

Q. Your final draft with the Lightning featured the selections of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, who are now cornerstones of the organization. What do you remember about that draft?

A. Taking Vinny was a no-brainer. He was the best junior player I've ever seen. Ever. Probably the best because of his size, strength, speed, and mean streak. Whereas there are a lot of other great players now like Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, I don't think they're going to have the longevity like Vinny. I think at 35 and 36 years old he'll still be one of the top players in the league, because of his attributes. We thought Brad Richards was going to be a real good player, but we didn't know how good. The reason we got him in the third round was because at the time, his skating was suspect. Otherwise, he probably would have gone a little sooner, because he had such great hand skills and smarts on the ice.

Q. Before there was even a Lightning team to put on the ice, did you have faith that hockey could succeed in a non-traditional market like Tampa Bay?

A. Everyone was skeptical when we first came here to get organized. But in the first few years, Phil and I used to go out on appearances twice a week to different bars. These appearances were jammed. Hundreds of people would come out. Since we didn't have any players yet, we had to promote something. So we promoted ourselves. That's when we picked up on it and knew we had something here. Look at it now.