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.' "