Monday, October 26, 2009

Catching Up With Brian Bradley, Part I

When he announced his retirement from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, Brian Bradley ranked as the most prolific offensive player in team history. His 300 points in a Lightning sweater – 111 goals, 189 assists – highlighted a career that began in the 1985-86 season with the Calgary Flames. In 1992, the Lightning selected Bradley from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL Expansion Draft. During the team’s first season, Bradley led the team with 42 goals and 86 points, earning the first of his two career All-Star Game appearances. Though injuries forced him from the game prematurely, Bradley remains one of the Lightning’s all-time greats. He recently sat down to talk about his career in Tampa and how he remains involved with the organization today. The following is the first of a two-part interview with Brian Bradley.

Q. What was it like coming to Tampa for the first time in 1992 and seeing the place you were going to play hockey?

A. It was actually exciting, and interesting just to see the Fairgrounds for the first time. I’d played in Calgary, Vancouver and then Toronto, where Maple Leaf Gardens was like a hockey shrine. Expo Hall really wasn’t set up as an NHL facility, but we made the best of it over there. The weather is always great here, and I knew coming down that I’d look forward to getting some sun in the winter especially after playing in three Canadian cities (laughs).

Q. Coming from Maple Leaf Gardens, it had to feel like you’d gone back to juniors playing in a building like Expo Hall.

A. Absolutely. I played juniors in London, Ontario, in a building that was about the same stature as Expo Hall. I remember the stands at the Fairgrounds were all aluminum, so they were noisy as anything. The building only held 10,000 or so for hockey, but in a place like that fans could make a lot of noise. It was a noisy building, which was very nice, but there’s no way that today you could ever have a building like that in the NHL.

Q. What are your memories of Opening Night in 1992 against Chicago?

A. Well, we had a really good team that people probably underestimated at the beginning. We had some young kids -- with Roman Hamrlik being our first-round pick that year -- but we had a core group of older guys like me, Joe Reekie, Rob Ramage, Basil McRae, Doug Crossman, and Wendell Young in goal. We went out there as a team and played solidly. The Blackhawks had gone to the Finals the year before, and probably expected to come out and beat an expansion team 5-0 or 10-0. We had a lot of pride and respect for our jersey, so we went out there and worked hard. Chris Kontos had a four-goal night, we won 7-3, and the rest is history.

Q. Do you think that win helped kick-start the passion for hockey that took off in this area?

A. I think so. We got off to a good start and built on it the whole season. We caught a lot of good teams off guard. It wasn’t until about Christmas time that teams started to realize that, yes, we were an expansion team, but we weren’t a bunch of rookies. Some guys had played 800-plus games in the NHL, so they knew we weren’t young kids. I think the novelty wore off on a lot of teams though, and as time went on it was tougher for us to win.

Q. You had a career season with goals and points. Do you attribute it to more ice time or better chemistry with your linemates?

A. I think it was a little of both. I had some chemistry with John Tucker and Rob Zamuner, but I definitely think it had to do with having more experience. Things never worked out in Toronto according to plan, so I just wanted to come down here, regroup and focus on my career. I played hard, earned ice time and things went my way. It started with a good off-season that year. I got in better condition .To be honest, I think I even exceeded my expectations. I thought maybe I’d score 30 goals, and ended up with 42. I had a very successful season that was a culmination of the training regiments I started in the beginning of the summer.

Q. You were rewarded with a trip to Montreal to play in the All-Star Game. What was that experience like?

A. Well, the two big things from that season were the first game, and then to play my first All-Star Game in Montreal. I played on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull for a little bit. To be in the All-Star Game was a very special moment in my career and it’s something I’ll never forget.

Q. In 1993, you went from Expo Hall to the ThunderDome. How did it differ going from playing in basically a barn to a baseball stadium?

A. Yeah, it was a totally different atmosphere. You had the FanLand set up in the back for kids. It was a fan-friendly situation and made for great interaction with our fans. I think those were three really fun years. We had some major crowds there, breaking all kinds of league attendance records. I think you could even get a ticket for five or ten dollars, so people would show up at the last minute. It all really culminated when we made it to the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1996.

Q. What was it about that 1995-95 team that clicked so well?

A. Well, we built a solid team. We had three really solid lines, we had Daren Puppa in net, who was the key to our team and our MVP that year. We had Paul Ysebaert, Brian Bellows, Alex Selivanov, Bill Houlder, Petr Klima was a huge part of our power play, Chris Gratton and Roman Hamrlik were up-and-coming kids. We were made up of guys who’d been the league a long time, and we picked up some key components along the way. Daren injured his back in the first game of the playoffs and wasn’t as strong as he could have been. That really hurt our chances, to lose a goalie of that magnitude. We lost the series four games to two, but Philly definitely knew they were in a series.

Q. You were on the ice for the overtime winner in Game 3. What are your memories of that goal?

A. I had the puck on the half-wall and threw it back to Billy Houlder on the point. He took a shot on goal, and Alex grabbed the rebound and shot it in. Just to hear the crowd of 26,000 erupt was something special. We went up two games to one at that point. I think it was a really fun time for the fans here. They were so excited for us and those were special moments for the Lightning franchise.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Florida Federal Open, 10/14/84

On the morning of October 14, 1984, Michelle Torres fought off the nerves one might feel going into a tournament final. Instead of being anxious, Torres felt relaxed and confident of her chances in the championship of the Florida Federal Tennis Open in Tarpon Springs.

“There was no pressure,” she recalls. “I felt like I was out there having fun and trying to do my best.”

At just 17 years old and in her fourth week on the pro tour, no one could have faulted Torres for butterflies in her stomach. Instead, she delivered a steely performance that would make even the unflappable Chris Evert – the player after whom she patterned her game – quite proud.

As she geared up for the match, Torres found herself a long way from home. Still a senior at New Trier West High School in Northfield, Ill., Torres straddled the line somewhere between being a carefree high school student and serious touring pro.

"When a tournament ended, I went back to my high school," she says. "Since I was only on the tour part-time, it didn’t feel like a job. It was more of a thing on the side for fun.”

She’d prepared herself for life as a pro, however, by spending two weeks at a time in Bradenton the previous year training with tennis guru Nick Bollettieri. Already a state high school tennis champion, and at one time ranked as the 10th best junior player in the world, Torres felt like she belonged on the tour.

The previous month, she made waves in Ft. Lauderdale at the Maybelline Classic, making it all the way to the finals. Her opponent in that match: Martina Navratilova. A young player new to the tour could not have drawn a less-favorable matchup. From 1982-84, Navratilova dropped a total of six singles matches during one of the most dominant stretches by any athlete in any sport.

Torres left Ft. Lauderdale a witness to that dominance, falling 6-1, 6-0.

“That was an embarrassing experience,” she says. “I had not played her before and wasn’t prepared for her style. She had this left-handed kick serve which I wasn’t used to, and her serve-and-volley game the way she’d come into net behind these amazing drop shots. I wasn’t disappointed though, because overall I had a great week. I just felt bad because people had paid to come see the finals and it would have been nice to make a match out of it.”

Wiser for the experience, she entered the Florida Federal with as good a chance as anyone in the draw. Navratilova, the defending champion, declined to play in the tournament due to scheduling conflicts. Hana Mandikova, a winner of four Grand Slams and the fourth-ranked woman in the world, presented the biggest challenge to Torres’ chances.

Torres opened the tournament with victories over Ann Henrickson and Mary Lou Piatek to set up a quarterfinal match with No. 3 seed and Largo resident Bonnie Gadusek. Torres made short work of Gadusek in the quarters, 6-3, 6-4, to avenge a defeat earlier in the year at the Virginia Slims of Florida.

Tournament favorite Mandikova, suffering from flu symptoms and a 102-degree temperature, dropped the first set in her quarterfinal against Camille Benjamin before retiring from the match. So instead of facing Mandikova, Torres drew the unseeded Benjamin in the semifinals.

Benjamin was no pushover, however, and raced to a 4-3 advantage in the first set. Torres rallied back to take the first set 6-4, then held on in a thrilling second-set tiebreaker, winning 7-6 (7-2).

That set up a showdown with fellow 17 year old and recent U.S. Open semifinalist Carling Bassett. Bassett, the daughter of Tampa Bay Bandits managing partner John Bassett, came into the tournament ranked 10th in the world and riding a high from her recent run of success in New York. The two Bollettieri proteges were each seeking their first pro tournament titles.

"I had played Carling in practice, and was familiar with her game, as she was with mine," Torres recalls. "Going into the finals, you feel comfortable and aren't intimidated with what you're going to see.

Carling didn't play very well in the first set. She made a lot of errors, which was great for me because I got an easy set and was halfway to winning the match. All I had to do was hang in there. She played a lot better in the second set, but I think she was just nervous that day. I stayed mentally tough and remember eeking it out in a 2nd set tiebreaker."

Torres captured the match 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) along with a check for $28,000. She vividly remembers the trophy presentation, which included the requisite giant check, and for some reason, a photo op of her holding a chimpanzee.

"I asked my mom if I could buy it, but she said no," Torres recalls with a laugh.

Her triumph in Tarpon Springs was the sole championship during a career in which Torres rose to as high as No. 18 in the world before retiring in 1989.

Torres, now known by her married name of Michelle Casati, remains active in tennis as an instructor in Northbrook, Illinois. The passage of time, however, has done little to dull her memories of that week a quarter-century ago.

"I think about it now and then because it was my only win on the pro tour," she says. "As a teen, you really don't take it in as much as when you're older and have the benefit of time to appreciate it."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Super Saturday in Tampa, 10/11/69

Ever since the University of South Florida began playing football in 1997, local fans have become accustomed to having the Bulls and Tampa Bay Buccaneers play home games on the same weekend. See the Bulls on Saturday, go see the Bucs on Sunday and have a nice football doubleheader.

On a warm fall Saturday 40 years ago, football fans experienced something even better than two games in two days. That's because on October 11, 1969, Tampa Stadium played host to two college football games on the same day, a mega-event that became known as Super Saturday. Prior to the playing of Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, this arguably ranked as the biggest sporting event in Tampa history.

The West Coast Bowl Association, sponsors for the first half of the twin-bill featuring the University of Florida and the Tulane Green Wave, anticipated a sellout crowd approaching 52,000.

Meanwhile, University of Tampa Athletic Director Sam Bailey anticipated a crowd of 23,000 for the nightcap between his Spartans and the University of Tulsa Hurricanes, which would approach the school’s single-game attendance record of 23,865.

Just how did this event come together? For starters, the West Coast Bowl Association purchased the game from Tulane, which had been scheduled to host the Gators in New Orleans. Tulane earned a payday of $105,000, or $610,000 in today’s dollars, while Tampa Stadium reaped the financial rewards that accompanied a local appearance by the Gators.
Some boosters of the University of Tampa, however, saw the Gator game as an intrusion that would overshadow their game. UT simply could not match Florida in terms of prestige, fan support, or sponsorship dollars. Still, hosting both games would be a winning proposition as a whole for the city of Tampa.

There was plenty of off-field entertainment and festivities to go along with the football games as well. Prior to the 2 p.m. Florida-Tulane game, the Florida Alumni Club of Greater Tampa hosted a lunch pep rally at Al Lopez Field. The Columbia Restaurant catered the event, called the “Futbol Fiesta-Dos,” which featured performances by the Gator band and cheerleaders, the Plant High School German band and an appearance by Florida head coach Ray Graves.
Between games, fans could return to Al Lopez Field for the “Super Supper,” an event featuring the Miss Tampa Quarterback beauty contest and a concert by recording artist and Florida orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant. For her part, Bryant predicted a Florida win but the Oklahoma-native stopped short of saying Tampa would defeat Tulsa.

“I’m sorry Tampa, but old school ties are there,” she said.

Despite Bryant’s protestations, the Spartans were motivated in this game to avenge a 77-0 thrashing at the hands of the Tulsa Hurricanes two seasons earlier. The Gators, who came into their contest against the winless Green Wave undefeated and ranked 12th in the nation, simply hoped to avoid an upset.

“Tulane always gives us fits,” Graves warned prior to the game.

The “host” Green Wave indeed gave more than fits to Florida - they nearly stole the show.
It took a touchdown in the game’s final minutes by Florida to avoid a huge upset. With 2:10 left, tailback Tommy Durrance scored from 1 yard out to pull Florida within a point of Tulane, 17-16.

Urged on by the partisan crowd of 49,102, Graves signaled that the Gators would go for the win rather than settle for a tie. Robinson High product and Gator quarterback John Reaves tossed a pass to Carlos Alvarez in the end zone for a successful two-point conversion, giving Florida an 18-17 lead. An interception on the ensuing drive preserved the heart-stopping victory for the Gators.

The Spartans had no such difficulties in handling the Hurricanes. Before a below-projected but still healthy crowd of 20,179, the Spartans thoroughly outplayed Tulsa on both sides of the ball. Running backs Bruce Brown and Leon McQuay paced Tampa on the ground, combining for three touchdowns en route to a 31-14 victory.

In all, nobody could ask for a better day. The Gators and Spartans each won, the “Futbol Fiesta” and “Super Supper” were both huge hits, and a total of 63,281 fans turned out at Tampa Stadium on the day. In its own way, the day billed as “Super Saturday” helped set the stage for the many Super Sundays awaiting Tampa’s future.

Monday, October 5, 2009

James Wilder Leads Bucs to Win, 9/30/84

On Nov. 8, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will debut their Ring of Honor during halftime against the Green Bay Packers. Lee Roy Selmon, the team's only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will be the first inductee.

The Ring of Honor -- not to be confused with the previous Tampa Stadium Krewe of Honor featuring Selmon, Ricky Bell, Doug Williams and John McKay -- will feature just one inductee per year and include players and coaches who left an indelible mark on the franchise.

One can only speculate who will be the second inductee in 2010, but a sometimes-overlooked player in Buccaneers history merits worthy consideration: running back James Wilder.

Taken in the second round of the 1981 draft out of the University of Missouri, Wilder played nine seasons for the Buccaneers. Arguably the best running back to ever wear a Bucs uniform, against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 30, 1984, Wilder proved why he should someday join Selmon as an inductee in the Ring of Honor. Consider that just a week earlier, New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor called Wilder the "best back I've ever played against in my life." He then turned in one of his best games of the season against Green Bay.

In front of 47,487 fans at Tampa Stadium, the Buccaneers and Packers both stumbled into the game with matching 1-3 marks. They delivered, however, one of the more exciting games of 1984.

Wilder opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 33-yard touchdown run, at the time the second-longest scoring run by a Buc at Tampa Stadium.

Things quickly took a crazy turn as Tampa Bay linebacker Scot Brantley intercepted Packer Lynn Dickey's first pass of the game. One play later, however, Tim Lewis intercepted Buccaneer Steve DeBerg. It took but one play for Jessie Clark to score on a 43-yard touchdown run to even the game at 7-7.

The teams traded field goals and were tied 10-10 until late in the second quarter. As the half neared its end, DeBerg engineered a 10-play, 83-yard scoring drive capped by his six-yard bootleg run for a touchdown. Leading 17-10 with 30 seconds left in the half, however, the Bucs gave up a quick 4-play drive that resulted in a 51-yard field goal by Packer Eddie Garcia to make the score 17-13 going into the break.

DeBerg's second interception of the game set Green Bay up at the Tampa Bay 16 late in the third quarter. It took 5 plays, but a 4-yard Lynn Dickey touchdown pass to Paul Coffman put the Packers on top 20-17.

The Buccaneers responded on their subsequent drive. Kicker Obed Ariri -- who would successfully kick three field goals of over 40 yards on the day -- nailed a 49-yarder to tie the game at 20.

With 6:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, Bucs nose tackle David Logan seemed to make the play of the game. Logan intercepted a Dickey screen pass and galloped 27 yards to the end zone, giving Tampa Bay a 27-20 lead.

This set the stage for a miraculous Green Bay comeback. Driving late from their own 25 with no timeouts, the Packers made it to the Tampa Bay 36-yard line. With 8 seconds left, Dickey connected with wide receiver James Lofton on a crossing pattern at the Tampa Bay 22. Surrounded by would-be tacklers, Lofton lateraled to running back Gerry Eillis who took it the rest of the way for a game-tying touchdown.

The Bucs lost the coin toss to start overtime, but the defense forced a Green Bay punt. The Packers pinned the Bucs back at their own 2-yard line, however, and Tampa Bay faced an almost-certain defeat if they were unable to change the field position.

James Wilder made one of the biggest plays of the game for Tampa Bay by catching a 20-yard pass from DeBerg to give Tampa Bay some breathing room. Although the Bucs would punt to end the possession, they would start their next drive on their own 33.

Wilder set the tempo for the drive with a 15-yard carry. Eight plays later, the Bucs had advanced to the Packers 31. The Nigerian-born Ariri then calmly drilled a 48-yard field goal with 4:22 left in overtime to give Tampa Bay a 30-27 win.

Wilder's monster 172-yard day on the ground -- with 44 more receiving -- made the victory possible. After the game, he seemed unaware that he'd tied the NFL single-game record with 43 carries.

"I lost count of how many times I carried the ball," he said. "When you gain a yard, you don't think about how many carries you have."

It has been 25 years since Wilder turned in one of the most dominating offensive seasons in NFL history.

In 1984, Wilder set a then-record with 407 rushing attempts, ran for 1,544 yards and caught 85 passes for 685 yards. Although he fell just 15 yards shy of breaking O.J. Simpson's record of 2,243 all-purpose yards in a season, his 492 total touches from scrimmage for the season remains an NFL record to this day. For this and his other career contributions as a Buccaneer, Wilder should one day take his rightful place in the Ring of Honor.