TAMPA, FLA. – The Tampa Bay Lightning were 90 minutes away from a faceoff in front of another sellout crowd at Amalie Arena. Fans were mingling and consuming beer on the large plaza outside the front gate. There were two radio stations with promotional booths and young ladies representing Hooters also were present.
James and Josie MacDavitt were among the early arrivers, after making the 2½-hour drive from Melbourne on the East Coast. James became a hockey fan watching the Syracuse Blazers in the Eastern Hockey League. Josie became a hockey fan after meeting James, her military husband, in her native Philippines, and returning to upstate New York with him.
“The Blazers played in the old Onondaga County War Memorial arena,’’ MacDavitt said. “Part of ‘Slap Shot’ was filmed there. I saw the Carlson brothers – the prototypes for the Hansons in the movie – play for the Johnstown Jets against the Blazers. The EHL was crazy hockey.’’
The MacDavitts relocated to Florida’s Space Coast long ago. And when the Tampa Bay Lightning debuted as an NHL expansion team in 1992, the MacDavitts started making the drive regularly from Melbourne.
“I’m the No. 1 Lightning fan,’’ Josie said.
Her husband nodded and said: “She might be right.’’
The MacDavitts attended games in the Lightning’s first season, with the home arena at the Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. It was converted to a hockey arena holding 11,000. It was larger but otherwise not above the standards of War Memorial Arena in Syracuse as a hockey venue, and far short in hockey knowledge.
“Brian Bradley scored his third goal against Detroit early that season and a few people threw hats on the ice,’’ James said. “The PA announcer warned that people throwing objects on the ice would be ejected. Even the PA guy had no idea what a hat trick was that first year.’’
Eleven years later, the Lightning had a Stanley Cup and now 15 years after that, Tampa Bay has a team that will go into the playoffs in April as much of a favorite as a team can be in the one-goal-game, crapshoot that is the NHL tournament.
The Lightning sells 15,500 season tickets and has a long streak of sellouts in the 20,500-seat Amalie Arena.
“I got these tickets through MacDill Air Force Base here in Tampa,’’ MacDavitt said. “They were $115 apiece. Not too bad.’’
What did you pay to watch the Blazers play the evil Johnstown Jets? MacDavitt nodded at the contrast and said: “Three bucks, maybe.’’
A boost from a legend
Phil Esposito was fired as general manager and vice president of the New York Rangers by the MSG Sports Group on May 23, 1989. There was some time left on his contract, but he was 47 and hadn’t gotten rich being a great NHL goal-scorer and knew this:
“If I was going to continue to live the way I wanted to live, I needed a job.’’
The NHL had announced plans in 1989 for a two-team expansion that would occur in 1992, hoping to find two groups to come up with a $50 million expansion fee. Ottawa was a favorite, and it came down to Hamilton, another Ontario city, or a team in Tampa Bay, either St. Petersburg or Tampa.
Esposito decided he was the man to bring the NHL to Florida. “I was getting ready to dive in and talked to Henry Paul, Gabe’s son — you remember Gabe from baseball — and a successful guy down here,’’ Esposito said. “I said to him, ‘Tell me the truth. Can hockey work here?’
“And Henry said, ‘They love football. They like car crashes. They like boxing. They like pro wrestling. Why wouldn’t they like hockey?’ ’’
To which Esposito said: “OK, let’s do it.’’
Paul came in as a partner, and while the rival group headed by Peter Karmanos wanted to pay around $30 million to put the team in St. Pete, Esposito showed up at the NHL meeting and said, “We’ll give you the $50 million up front.’’
Karmanos would buy the Hartford Whalers in 1994 and then move them to Raleigh, N.C., as the Carolina Hurricanes three years later.
Esposito made his commitment for the $50 million even though his first sugar daddies, the Pritzker family, had backed out. Esposito found a Japanese group headed by Takashi Okubo, a businessman worth an estimated $250 million, and that was the Lightning’s first ownership.
What made it extra-interesting is that Okubo never had been to Tampa and never met Esposito. The first time Okubo met Esposito and most of the people in the organization was in 1998, as the Japanese group was getting ready to sell and Phil was being replaced as head of the hockey operation.
The franchise was carrying an operating debt of over $100 million, plus its share of financing for the arena (originally named the Ice Palace) that had opened in downtown Tampa in 1996.
Getting the right owner
There is a statue of Esposito paying tribute to him as the person who brought the NHL to Tampa Bay on the plaza. Fans stand next to the statue and have cell phone photos taken with the inanimate Phil. Inside, the 77-year-old Esposito is the radio analyst for Lightning home games and as animated as ever.
The Lightning was riding high in the standings, the building was jammed for a lively game with the Vegas Golden Knights, and Esposito was asked:
“Did you think it was possible that Tampa could become ‘this’ a hockey town?’’
The adjective and adverb-free version of Esposito’s response was: “Yes. Why do you think I did it? Remember, we averaged 22,000 for a season while playing in a baseball stadium [now Tropicana Field] for three years. We made the playoffs in 1996 and had 28,000 for Game 4 against the Flyers.
“All that was needed to realize the full potential for hockey here was the right owner. We finally got him now in Mr. Vinik.’’
Jeffrey Vinik, famous in the financial world for his work with Fidelity Investments, bought the Lightning for $170 million in February 2010. That was $30 million less than Oren Koules and Len Barrie had paid for the team two years earlier.
Koules and Barrie were the fourth owners after the original Japanese group. Art Williams came and went fast. William Davidson, the owner of the Detroit Pistons, had the team from 2000 to 2008, with the Stanley Cup title in the middle. Then came Koules and Barrie – strong in ideas with their general manager, Brian Lawton, but short on cash.
Vinik fired Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet two months after buying the team, and on May 25, 2010, he hired Steve Yzerman out of Detroit’s front office to run the hockey operation.
Yzerman brought in Julien BriseBois as assistant general manager. Tom Kurvers came with Lawton and remained part of the Yzerman brain trust before joining Paul Fenton in Minnesota early last summer. Yzerman stepped down to an adviser role in September, and BriseBois is now the general manager.
“Yzerman and his guys did a terrific job putting this roster together,’’ Esposito said. “This is an outstanding offensive team. They also have solid goaltending. You’re not going to do anything in the playoffs without that.’’
Esposito’s sounding board
The financial machinations that Esposito went through with the Lightning, first to come up with $50 million and the rest of the seed money, then to keep it afloat, are legend in NHL circles.
Lou Nanne grew up three blocks from the Esposito brothers, Tony and Phil, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Nanne still was the president of the North Stars when Phil made his pledge of $50 million to NHL owners in 1990.
“It was so bad for a while with the Lightning that Phil was tapping into his own money to pay the bills.’’ Nanne said. “Tony was with him at the start, and I can imagine those conversations.
“Phil and Tony are complete opposites. Phil always has been a risk-taker; always believed it work out, no matter odds. Tony analyzed everything before he made a move. Phil’s like his mother was, and Tony’s like his father.
“Phil had an amazing ability to plow on through — and that’s why it’s so great that he’s there every night watching his dream come true.’’
During the recent conversation, Esposito said, “Louie always has been my sounding board,’’ on hockey and other matters. And then he added: “I now tell Louie that he’s my richest friend.’’
Not counting Jeff Vinik, who continues to make sure Esposito is properly honored for his place at the forefront of Tampa Bay hockey.
Is this your only statue outside an NHL arena?
“Yes,’’ Esposito said. “I wasn’t good enough as a player to get a statue. They have Bobby Orr in Boston, and that basketball player [Michael Jordan] in Chicago.’’