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.

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