Tampa Bay Lightning:
The Tampa Bay Lightining were awarded an NHL expansion franchise in 1990. Led by a group that included Henry Lee Paul, Mel Lowell and Phil Esposito, they would begin their lobbying efforts in the fall of 1990 by hosting an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins at the Florida Suncoast Dome. A banner crowd of over 25,000 fans attended that game and set in motion hockey's move to southern Florida. Finacial woes plagued the bid from the get go and the process was almost scrapped until Kokusai Green came in with a fresh infusion of cash and a restructured deal was accepted by the NHL. In December of 1991 the NHL welcomed the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators expansion franchises.
The Lightining weren't done with surprising the hockey world as Esposito signed Manon Rheaume to a minor league contract. She became the first female to play in any of the four major professional sports, playing one period of a pre-season game against the St. Louis Blues. The Lightning started play at the Lakeland Civic Cneter in Lakeland, Florida and won their opening home game 7-3 against the Chicago Blackhawks. On offense the team was led by ex-Canuck Brian Bradley, who would represent Tampa Bay in the All-Star game later that year. They finished their inaugural season much like an expansion squad, with 53 points and out of the playoffs. They would continue to chug along in the next two years, finishing out of the postseason hunt. The buzz around the team wasn't on the ice, as it was off. The financial situation was getting precarious by the day and the Internal Revenue Service began an investigation of the team. By 1995 as the partners started to fight amongst themselves, the team on the ice was starting to come around thanks to the coaching of Terry Crisp and the trio of Darren Puppa, Roman Hamrlik and Paul Yserbart. The Lightning finished the season sixth in the Atlantic division with 88 points and ventured on their first ever playoff run. They faced off against a powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers team and squeaked by two games before losing to them in six. The following season saw the Lightning move to their new home, the Ice Palace in Tampa. They had a shot at a playoff berth up until the final weekend of the regular season, but it was not to be.
The ownership saga continued to brew as their Japanese partner was determined to unload the team. They were unable to find a suitor for the team and the Ice Palace lease and all the while the Lightning had more serious problems on the ice. In a season marred by setbacks, the team lost John Cullen, Troy Mallete, Dino Ciccarelli and Vladimir Vujtek to a various injuries and ailments. To add insult to injury their best young player, Chris Gratton was signed to a multi-year offer sheet by the Philadelphia Flyers. Unable to match the $16.5 million salary for Gratton, Esposito lucked out as the Flyers agreed to send Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis instead of the four first round picks. The injury bug would soon catch up with Renberg as he was lost in later that season with a broken wrist. Behind the bench, Jacques Demers replaced Terry Crisp but the team finished dead last with the worst record of its six year existence. Their 17 wins put them in a prime spot in the upcoming amateur draft, where they selected the highly regarded QMJHL center Vincent Lecavalier.
After winning only 17 (of 82) games in 1997-1998, the next couple of seasons saw the Lightning continue to perform poorly, only winning 19 games in each of the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 seasons. It was only by the 2002-03 season that many of the young players drafted or acquired would start to pay off. The acquisition of Nikolai Khabibulin the year before would also ensure that their goaltending was secure. So the Lightning, led by Khabibulin in net and the offensive breakout efforts of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavlier, Brad Richards and Vinnie Prospal found themselves atop the Southeast Division and in the playoffs for the first time in seven years. With coach John Tortorella allowing the young offensive players to use their creativity, the team would make an instant impression in the playoffs. They faced off against the Washington Capitals in the first round and quickly dropped the first two games. But working their way back from this deficit, they went on to beat the Washington Capitals in a six-game series with Martin St. Louis scoring the series-winner in a triple overtime nail-biter. The Lightning though could not hold their own against their second-round opponent, the New Jersey Devils, losing that series in five games. New Jersey would go on to win the Stanley Cup and the Lightning fans got a taste of what might be in store for them with a talented young team looking to add to its achievements.
Tampa Bay Lightning Overview:
Arena: St. Pete Times Forum
Stanley Cup wins: 1 (2004)