Beaches, Palm Trees and Football. That’s what many people think about when it comes to the Tampa Bay area, not to mention the state of Florida. In this area, hockey isn’t expected to flourish, let alone survive. However, 20 years ago the NHL awarded Phil and Tony Esposito an expansion franchise there–the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning, or Bolts as they’re often referred to, began play in early Oct 1992 at Expo Hall, located at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. They started in the Campbell Conference’s Norris Division where their rivals were Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota. That first preseason also saw Manon Rheaume become the first woman to ever play in an NHL game. Another thing seen that season was Brian Bradley scoring 42 goals, a team-record until broken by Vincent Lecavalier in 2006-07′ . Sadly, the Lightning finished in last place but there was lots of hope surrounding the future.
In 1993-94′ the Lightning moved to the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. They also changed arenas, moving from Expo Hall to the Florida Suncoast Dome, renamed the Thunder Dome, in St. Petersburg. The team then moved to the Ice Palace (currently the Tampa Bay Times Forum) in downtown Tampa for the 1996-97′ season and beyond.
After this came some down years. However, the prize ended up being worth some of the pain as Lecavalier was selected first overall in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. The Lightning also drafted Lecavalier’s QMJHL teammate, Brad Richards, in the third round of that same draft. In 2000 Martin St. Louis, an undrafted free agent with the Calgary Flames, was signed by the Bolts.
With most of their pieces in place the Lightning, led by Lecavalier, Richards, St. Louis and captain Dave Andreychuk among others, went on a postseason tear in 2004 which resulted in the franchises first ever Stanley Cup. Sadly, the team was unable to properly celebrate or defend that cup because of the 2004-05′ lockout which wiped out that entire season.
After that, the team had some truly horrible years (anyone remember Barry Melrose, Brian Lawton and Company?) However, through those tough years the team gained one of the NHL’s top goal scorers and players, Steven Stamkos, bright young defenseman Victor Hedman and others.
During the 2009-10′ season, and nearing bankruptcy, the Lightning were then sold to Boston banker Jeffrey Vinik. Once the season ended he worked quick, firing both Lawton and then coach Rick Tocchet, before hiring his staff. That staff consists of general manager Steve Yzerman, a Detroit Red Wings legend, head coach Guy Boucher and Tod Leiweke. They also saw almost instant results as the Lightning made it all the way to Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
All in all, the Lightning have a wonderful past to reflect upon.However, sadly and quite unfortunately the current NHL lockout is robbing Bolt fans and this great team of a proper celebration. Let’s just hope things get resolved in time for a proper, though shortened, celebration! Either way, Happy 20th Anniversary Lightning!