Revisiting Lightning’s First Game 30 Years Ago

About seven miles east of downtown Tampa sits the 10,000-seat Expo Hall on the grounds of the Florida State Fair. On Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their very first game there as a member of the Norris Division.

Their first opponent was the 1991-92 Campbell Conference champs, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Lightning’s debut was surprising to many, with the final score being 7-3 in favor of the home team. Even though many lifelong Tampa residents were unfamiliar with the game of hockey, they quickly learned what a hat trick was when Chris Kontos scored four goals against goalie Ed Belfour, who is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and Hall of Famer. Let’s recognize the people who were part of the Lightning’s original team and revisit that first game played 30 years ago today.

Leaders for the Lightning

NHL legend Phil Esposito took a chance when he became president and general manager of the Lightning, which was the first NHL team located in Florida. But he built the foundation of the team with the perfect coach, Terry Crisp, who played 10 seasons in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers, and then became a head coach and eventually won a Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989.

Related: Tampa Bay Lightning Jersey History

In 1992, Crisp acknowledged that it would be a difficult job to lead the expansion Lightning team. “What appealed to me,” he says, “was when Phil said, ‘Let’s do something everyone says we can’t do.’”

Helping Crisp behind the bench was long-time Boston Bruins right winger Wayne Cashman, who served as his assistant coach. The coaches had their work cut out for them – not just on the ice, but with building a fan base. Although their first game sold out, the Lightning only sold 4,500 season tickets their first year. Since the Tampa Bay area wasn’t a hotbed for hockey, Esposito and the organization distributed a pamphlet, Everything You Need to Know about Hockey Without Getting on the Ice, as a cheat sheet to get fans up-to-speed on the game.

To honor the Lightning’s founder, Phil Esposito, a statue was erected outside their arena. By LindsayAnne17CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Roman Hamrlik has the distinction of being the first player drafted by the Lightning. The Czech defenseman was the first overall pick in the 1992 NHL Draft and became the first European defenseman to be selected first in an NHL Draft. Six-year veteran center Brian Bradley provided the offense, scoring 86 points in his first season with the Bolts. The team also played without a captain, and would not name one until the 1995-96 season.

Game Summary

It was a sloppy, penalty-filled contest. Less than three minutes into the game, the Lightning’s Mike Hartman drew an interference call that the team successfully killed off. Then they went on a two-man advantage, which supplied them with one of the four goals by Kontos. About a minute later, he scored his second goal of the night, also on the power play. The Bolts would then add three more goals before the first period ended. The Blackhawks, who went to the Stanley Cup Final the previous season, scored only one goal by Cam Russell.

Kontos remained on fire in the second period, when he scored his third goal, thus earning the team’s first hat trick. He then put the game out of reach with his fourth and final goal with minutes left in the period.

The third period was scoreless until Michel Goulet got one past Lightning goalie Wendell Young with about five minutes remaining. At the end of their first game, the Lightning had scored seven goals against Belfour while Young made 23 saves and allowed only three goals. Although the veteran goalie won his first game with his new team, he only won six more, ending that first season with a record of 7-19-2.

Building the Lightning’s Fan Base

Brian Bradley played in the Lightning’s first game on Oct. 7, 1992. (photo courtesy of the NHLPA)

Not many fans wore Lightning apparel to the game, but the crowd at Expo Hall waved signs that read “Kick Ice,” which had become the team’s motto. They also yelled and cheered throughout the entire game.

To keep fans coming back, the Lightning made tickets affordable, with the average ticket costing $22.25 and many seats being $15 or less. (from ‘Lightning announces ticket plans, prices,’ Tampa Bay Times, 1/29/91). In contrast, the Ottawa Senators, who was the other expansion team in 1992-93, had average prices of $48 per ticket during their inaugural season.

Those who couldn’t watch the game live enjoyed the play-by-play call of John Kelly on WTOG, an independent TV station that broadcasted Lightning games during the team’s first decade. He also served as the radio voice of the team.

Hockey in Tampa

One of my favorite stories from the Lightning’s first year came from Jon Scher of Sports Illustrated. It perfectly highlights the 30-year transformation of Tampa Bay into a true hockey town.

“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?’ said Lightning coach Crisp. ‘The security guards tried to throw the guy out of the building.’ “

Although the Lightning played well during their first season, as Kontos scored 27 goals and Brian Bradley led the team with 42 goals, they finished sixth in the Norris Division with 53 points. However, let’s put this in perspective, as the Senators finished with only 24, and the San Jose Sharks could only generate 11 wins in their second year of existence. So, by those measurements, the Bolts had a great inaugural season.

From their humble beginnings at Expo Hall (which, by the way, was the location of my high school graduation), The Lightning hold the NHL’s longest active sellout streak and have brought three Stanley Cups to the city. Whoever said that hockey couldn’t thrive in Florida was wrong.

Sign up for our free ‘Lightning Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.
Sign up for our free ‘Hockey History Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.