They don't jump out of their seats at Tampa Bay Lightning games to watch two players battling for the puck at center ice the way they did in Atlanta the last time the NHL launched a franchise in the South. They do, however, cheer just about everything else. A shot that comes within five feet of the net sends the crowd into a frenzy, and a routine save elicits an impassioned ohhhhh! When Sweet Home Alabama comes over the public-address system, the foot-stomping and caterwauling trigger seismic vibrations that rumble through Expo Hall. And when the Lightning strikes for a goal, better hang on to your hat.
No joke. After Chris Kontos scored for the third time in Tampa Bay's home opener, on Oct. 7, a lone fan paid tribute to one of hockey's most-honored traditions by flipping his cap over the boards and onto the ice. "You know what happened next?" says Lightning coach Terry Crisp. "The security guards tried to throw the guy out of the building."
Powered by Kontos's hat trick, Tampa Bay shocked the defending Campbell Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks 7-3. After a 3-2 victory over the Quebec Nordiques last Saturday night, the Lightning was 4-4-1, a surprising start for a first-year team. The Philadelphia Flyers, who went 31-32-11 in 1967-68, hold the record for the best finish by an expansion team. "It's been wild," says Lightning general manager Phil Esposito, the Hall of Famer who has been the franchise's driving force. "I'd be lying if I told you I thought we'd be this good."
Perhaps it's the setting. Expo Hall's dressing rooms open onto a view of palm trees gently swaying in the humid breeze. The Zamboni is parked outside, a few feet from a pond teeming with ducks. A mound of ice shavings melts rapidly beside Esposito's convertible in the parking lot. Taking advantage of last week's balmy weather, the visiting Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs moved the trainer's table outdoors.
The casual air seems to work in favor of the Lightning. "It's a holiday atmosphere," says Toronto coach Pat Burns, whose Leafs kept their focus and grounded the Lightning 5-2 last Thursday. "A lot of people are going to come here, get caught up in it and lose games."
NHL teams should consider themselves forewarned: Don't pack the golf clubs when you leave for Tampa, and after you get there, stay out of bars and restaurants that employ waitresses in T-shirts several sizes too small. "Oh no!" says Crisp. "We want them to have fun when they come to Tampa. We want them to lie out by the pool and eat at Hooters. But we also want them to know that they're not going to enjoy themselves in our building."
"It's loud in here," says forward Craig Simpson of the Oilers, 6-1 losers to the Lightning at Expo Hall two days before the Leafs came to town. "The fans are fantastic, unbelievably supportive. It's a tough place to play."
Why Tampa? "Why not?" says the 50-year-old Esposito, who was fired as general manager of the New York Rangers in 1989. "The phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook. So I thought, I want to stay in this game, but why the hell do I have to be cold?"
Espo headed for virgin hockey territory, checking out Miami and Orlando before settling on Tampa, which is loaded with northern transplants, many of whom were presumably hockey fans in a previous life. To bait the hook, the Lightning flooded the area with a pamphlet called Everything You Need to Know about Hockey Without Getting on the Ice. Hat trick is in there, tucked between game misconduct and high sticking. "If we can get people who haven't ever seen hockey to come out to one game," says Crisp, "we'll make them into hockey fans."
It's going to be an uphill battle. The Tampa area may be football-mad and baseball-starved, but it doesn't seem all that hungry for hockey. The Lightning sold a disappointing 4,700 season tickets, and although the house was full on opening night, none of Tampa Bay's three home games since then has been a sellout.
The Atlanta Flames set an ominous example for hockey in the South, moving to Calgary in 1980 after eight seasons in Georgia. One of the biggest obstacles to Tampa's long-term success may turn out to be the lack of a suitable arena. The group that promises to build a $100 million, privately financed 18,500-seat coliseum has yet to come up with the cash. When plans fell through to play in St. Petersburg's giant Suncoast Dome, the Lightning settled for Expo Hall—the smallest arena in the league—seven miles east of downtown Tampa. Designed for the Florida State Fair, as well as horse shows, dog shows and the circus, Expo Hall looks like a can of Spam covered with aluminum siding. The team spent about $2 million to renovate the place, installing an ice surface, dressing rooms, scoreboards, a sound system and a broadcast booth. The front row, at ice level, is exactly 19 inches from the boards.
"I don't care that it's 85 degrees outside," Esposito says. "The ice is here. The boards are here. The players are skating here. This isn't Florida. It's hockey."
The Lightning is counting heavily on the annual migration of snowbirds to their winter homes. "What are the five toughest places to play in the NHL?" asks Crisp. "I say New York, the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit. We've got hard-core fans from all those places who come down here in the winter. It's going to be five times as crazy in here when those people start showing up."
If they don't, Esposito will at least be able to say that he tried everything. The Lightning has a catchy slogan ("Kick Ice"), snazzy uniforms and souvenirs that are selling almost as fast as those of the San Jose Sharks, a second-year franchise that sold more merchandise last season than any hockey team. Training camp was packed with sideshows, including a failed comeback by flamboyant Ron Duguay and the appearance in goal of Manon Rheaume, the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game. We haven't heard the last of Rheaume; she'll spend the season with the Atlanta Knights, Tampa Bay's farm team in the International Hockey League. Forward Brent Gretzky was in camp, too, but the Great One's 20-year-old brother was also sent to Atlanta. He'll be back.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the circus. "I looked around in camp," says center Rob DiMaio, "and I saw the guys we had, and I said, 'Geez, this looks like a good hockey team.' "
In the expansion draft last summer, Esposito concentrated on obtaining veterans like goalie Wendell Young and defensemen Joe Reekie, Doug Crossman, Peter Taglianetti and Rob Ramage. "That's where you start, with defense and goaltending," says Crisp, who played for two expansion teams, the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues and the '72-73 New York Islanders. "Then you start worrying about finding your Mario Lemieux and your Brett Hull."
No one on the Lightning roster will be mistaken for those guys. Instead, Tampa Bay must rely on players like Kontos, a 28-year-old free-agent forward who had been discarded by the Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings. As of Sunday, though, Kontos led the Lightning in goals, with eight.
Roman Hamrlik, 18, the Czechoslovakian defenseman who was the first overall pick in the June amateur draft, showed in the Edmonton game that he can both rush the puck and shoot, scoring from the point with an explosive blast. "With the exception of Roman," says Ramage, "we're a cast of castoffs."
The fiery Crisp was a notorious screamer in his one previous NHL head-coaching job, with Calgary from 1987 to '90, but he won the Stanley Cup in '89. All Terrible Terry demands now is effort. "A lot of nights we'll be successful," he says. "A lot of nights we won't. But anyone who pulls on that jersey knows he's got to work. We won't tolerate slack nights."
Crisp keeps a hard hat emblazoned with the Lightning logo in a corner of the tiny office he shares with assistant coach Wayne Cashman. Crisp appreciates the difficulty of this construction job. "What appealed to me," he says, "was when Phil said, 'Let's do something everyone says we can't do.' "
Esposito has surrounded himself with so many of his friends and family that people are starting to call the Lightning's home arena Espo Hall. His brother, Tony, a Hall of Fame goalie, is director of player personnel. Phil's daughter Carrie is a member of the hockey-operations staff. Cashman was his linemate and bodyguard with the Boston Bruins. Cashman's daughter, Becky, is a marketing assistant. Esposito made a trade with the Bruins to get center Ken Hodge, son of the third member of that old Boston line.
Too bad the extended family doesn't have any lawyers. Esposito, never combative as a player, decided the time had come to kick ice when he spotted Toronto Star columnist Bob McKenzie after an Oct. 15 loss at Maple Leaf Gardens. He ordered McKenzie, against whom he has a long-standing grudge, out of the Lightning dressing room. When McKenzie rightfully refused to leave, a scuffle ensued. McKenzie filed a complaint with Toronto police, claiming that Esposito had hit him. Espo contends he merely delivered a gentle push.
Dealing with Toronto authorities should be a cakewalk compared with the task Espo & Co. face at home. "We're making progress," says Crisp. "People are starting to talk about us in Tampa. My daughter tells me that some of her high school friends have even asked her for tickets—on the 50-yard line."
Esposito was half right. This may be hockey, but it's still Florida.