[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Blunderful

A decade ago, the Tampa Bay area got an NHL team. With the looniness that has ensued, the tough part was narrowing the list of weirdest moments to 10.

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


They grow up so fast, don't they?

One minute they are babies, cute and toothless, innocent and precious. There will be a lot of wobble before they walk, and they will fall from time to time. But in those sweet days following the miracle of birth, all dreams seem possible.

The next thing you know, they are 10 years old. Still young, still immature, still unable to clean up most of their own mess. Daily you look for clues as to what they will be when they grow up.

Happy birthday, Lightning.

You've reached double digits.

Has it really been a decade? Has a franchise that has always struck you as a 2-year-old turned 10? Sunrise, and furthermore, sunset.

It was 10 years ago today that Phil Esposito walked into a room in Palm Beach and showed the NHL the old soft shoe. He did a few magic tricks. He told a few stories. He smiled a lot. Whenever the league's Board of Governors asked about the money, he nodded and said, "You betcha."

And when it was done, Esposito was a proud father. Tampa Bay had hockey. And the strangest 10 years any team has spent began.

"It has been," Esposito said, "wacky as hell."

It has been a decade of oddballs and odd moments, of icemen and con men. There have been blurred faxes and a woman goaltender, owners you saw too little and owners you heard too much. There have been bad backs, bad breaks, bad budgets.

Throughout its history, there has been an Amazing Mets-like quality to this franchise. At the times it does not make you cry, it makes you laugh uncontrollably. It has been so incredibly warped that the only relief it has provided has been comic.

A decade ago it wasn't like that. Esposito was confident as he walked to talk to the Board of Governors. Lord knows why. Six weeks earlier he had lost the bulk of his financing when the Pritzker group tried to change the structure of the offer and he let them walk. A few nights earlier he had learned the taxpayers wouldn't build a coliseum. Someone told him later the odds against him were 500-1. Whoever said it was an optimist.

"I really felt the ownership in the league knew me and trusted me," Esposito said. "I think they knew I'd get it done."

Esposito swears he didn't know there would be scrambling ahead to pay the franchise fee (not to mention, say, the light bill). If he had, he thinks it would have shown on his face. Terror, no doubt.

"As soon as we got the franchise," Esposito said, "Mel Lowell and David LeFevre looked at me and, in unison, said: "We've got it. What do we do now?' "

You buckle your seat belts. You return your tray tables to the upright and locked position. And you hang around until you can laugh at the silly times.

Through 10 years, here they are. The 10 wackiest stories of the shakiest team alive:

1. THE FUZZY FAX: If there has been a defining moment, it was this one. When the Flyers signed Chris Gratton to an offer sheet in August of '97, the Lightning was revealed to be cheap and desperate, clumsy and excuse-ridden. The team had no money to pay a $9-million signing bonus. So it clutched at straws, noting one line of the faxed offer sheet was smudged.

"You could figure it out by the total," said Esposito, who later compared himself to an attorney trying to keep a client from the electric chair. "But I was trying to buy time. I knew we didn't have a hope in hell."

To this day, Esposito says he had struck a better deal with the Flyers than what he got, Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis. "Bobby Clarke (the Flyers' GM) won't admit this," Esposito said. "But the deal I had was Renberg and Rod Brind'Amour." 2. THE MYSTERY OF THE ORIENT: Who was Takashi Okubo? Did he exist? And if so, did he have any money? Who knows?

After the Pritzker group fell apart, Esposito looked everywhere for money. He found some in Japan. "The more we drank, the more it made sense," Esposito said then. "I said hockey. They thought I said sake."

Okubo never saw a game. For that matter, he never saw Esposito, either.

"I was supposed to go to dinner with him in Tokyo," Esposito said. "Steve Oto (the team president) set it up. So my wife and I go to this restaurant, and there is Yoshiyuki Sugioka (a member of the team's board of directors) and this other Japanese man. We exchange gifts. I remember I gave him a lovely tie, and they gave us robes. And we sat down and had dinner. We ate raw fish and raw turtle. We were almost done before I found out the other guy was an interpreter. For 45 minutes I thought it was Okubo. But you know, the interpreter was a hell of a good guy."

3. THE ART OF THE DEAL: He wasn't long, but man, was Art Williams loud.

Williams was the Lightning's second owner after an 11th-hour deal (and some suggested it was later than that) when it appeared the team would be sold to Bill Davidson. Williams, a former football coach and insurance salesman, was half blarney and the other half bluster.

In his opening statement, Williams talked about how some players were studs and others duds. He gave Esposito and coach Jacques Demers a year to prove themselves. A few weeks later, he met with the team on a game morning, then talked to them for 40 minutes. A streak ensued in which the team lost 11 of 12. Not long after that, he referred to his players as "pansies."

After 13 victories, Williams sold the team to Davidson. But on his way out the door, he nixed a trade for Dallas backup goaltender Roman Turek, who came into his own the following season. Instead, the new Lightning bosses traded the No. 1 draft choice, in part, to obtain a goaltender.

4. THE GOOF WITH MALOOF: On the eve of the '97 draft, the Lightning turned its lonely eyes to ... some guy named Tony.

Can you imagine remodeling your home for a guy who might buy it? Esposito couldn't, either. But there Tony Guanchi was, running the show, demanding trades, dictating draft picks. Guanchi represented the Maloof family, which was window shopping, as the Lightning was for sale. Evidently, the family wanted a test drive.

"It was the worst day in the history of the franchise," Esposito said. "I said, "Who is this guy? Why is he here?' He kept saying we had to cut payroll and we had to get rid of this guy and that guy. Steve Oto was just nodding his head. I was appalled."

In the end, the Lightning traded Shawn Burr and Rick Tabaracci. Oh, and the Maloofs didn't buy the team.

5. THE PAIN OF PUPPA: THE SAGA. Oh, if only the rest of the franchise were this consistent.

Three owners, and three coaches, had faith Puppa would be able to return. In the end, all of them were left shaking their heads and wondering just how badly the goalie hurt.

Puppa had been the star of the Lightning's playoff season, and Esposito still swears that if he hadn't been injured in the opening game against the Flyers, the Lightning would have won. But Puppa was never the same, nor was the team.

"The thing that gets me is in (1997), we were going to arbitration with Puppa," Esposito said. "If we won -- and I was confident that we would -- I had talked to Mike Keenan, and Mike was going to trade us Curtis Joseph for Puppa and a draft choice. But I walked out of a movie, and I had 10 phone messages, and nine were from my brother (team official Tony). Steve Oto had decided to give Puppa the ($2.3-million) he was asking for. I don't know why. It was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of this franchise."

6. STEVE OTO, HOCKEY DUDE: Oto came to the Lightning not knowing whether there was a prize inside the puck. Soon afterward, he was the guy with the answers.

"Does it seem like 10 years since we got the franchise?" Esposito said. "The three years with Oto seem like 15 years by themselves."

For three years the Lightning improved. Then came Oto with the directive to keep costs down. And to drive Esposito crazy.

"We used to walk out of meetings and look at each other and say, "What was that about?' " Esposito said.

He said he blames Oto for driving a wedge between him and Terry Crisp, the Lightning's first coach. When Oto came, he put himself between the two. Once, he refused to let Esposito replace Crisp. Later, when Crisp finally was fired, Esposito said it was Oto who insisted upon it.

"The guy drove me crazy," Esposito said.

7. THE WOMAN IN THE NET: Looking everywhere for players, and for publicity, the Lightning turned to Manon Rheaume.

Oh, at the time, the Lightning denied it was about publicity. "She isn't a dancing bear," Crisp said. But she was.

"Of course it was about publicity," Esposito said. "Everyone was against that. My brother. Terry. The scouts. But I wanted to do it. I wanted the publicity. No doubt about it. The fact that she wasn't bad made it so much better."

8. THE ROYAL FAMILY: There was King George (Steinbrenner), briefly. There was Count Dracula (David LeFevre). Most of all, there was the Duke of Manchester.

In Angus Charles Drogo Montagu, the 12th Duke of Manchester, a member of the House of Lords, the Lightning thought it had its money man. Instead, the team was bilked out of $50,000.

"He's still in jail," Esposito said. "And every year I get a little bit of my money back."

9. JACQUES SAYS HELLO: Seldom has a nice guy snarled as loud as Demers did on his first day as Lightning coach. Demers, always a players' coach, came in saying, "The cheating stops now" and promising changes.

It didn't happen, of course. The players continued to play up and down, and no one was traded. Still, Demers proved to be a popular coach, fracturing the English language as he went.

The strange thing about that day is that it was mainly money that was responsible for Demers being the coach in the first place. After Crisp was fired, Esposito wanted either Ted Nolan or Terry Murray. Both wanted $750,000 per year.

"When I talked to Jacques, the first thing I told him was that I only had $350,000 to spend on a coach," Esposito said. "If he wanted it, he could have it."

10. WHY ARE THERE TWO HALFTIMES?: In any collection of weirdness, of course, you have to include the fans of the franchise.

There was the guy, for instance, who asked Esposito why he didn't sign a really, really fat guy as his goaltender.

There was the fan who was ejected from the first game for throwing a cap onto the ice to celebrate the hat trick from Chris Kontos (who disappeared after one year and, one assumes, is still holding out).

Then there was the fan who yelled at Terry Crisp, while the Lightning was clinging to a rare one-goal lead, "Hey, the other team pulled its goaltender. You can pull yours!"

Somewhere, they know where they are. Whether they know where their team is is another question.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.