[Ed. Note: Some lists chronicle the best in hockey. Others the worst. Others the most memorable or greatest or essential. What Puck Daddy’s 2016 Summer Series seeks to do is capture those indefinable, quirky, oddities that occur every season. Moments that defy prediction or, in some cases, logical explanation. Welcome to WEIRD NHL.]
By: John Fontana, JustinG., and Brett of Raw Charge
1. Failing finances and fuzzy faxes
The 1996-97 Tampa Bay Lightning season didn’t go as far as the previous endeavor by the Bolts; the club had an 86 point regular season which led to the NHL playoffs for the first time ever. That next season, Tampa Bay was 14 points lower in the standings and that alone could lead to a weird story… Heck, isn’t that the truth with every team, though? Going over a single season and the gaffes that happen on ice and off?
The Lightning may have ended the season short of its second ever playoff berth in the then-26 team league, but the promise for the future was there in a lot of ways. The Bolts had just played their first season in their new arena (then known as Ice Palace, now known as Amalie Arena) with roster talent a solid mix of NHL veterans and up-and-coming young talent, such as #77 Chris Gratton.
It was Gratton’s season of ’96-’97 that raised optimism; a 21 year old in his 4th NHL season had 30 goals and 32 assists! Along with the contributions of Roman Hamrlik and Jason Weimer, Gratton’s young career gave Lightning fans optimism. They were all tools to build around and…
…and the Philadelphia Flyers saw this, specifically with Gratton. I can’t find a history reference to how restricted free agency had changed in the 1990’s but what I can tell you about is Gratton’s restricted free agent status in the summer of 1997. Unsigned, that is, up until inking an offer sheet with the Flyers on August 4th.
Now, player history itself could be credited as the weird factor here: Gratton only scored 30 goals once in his NHL career and only did 60+ points twice (’96-97 and ’97-98). The fact the man drew a $9 million signing bonus from Philadelphia is weird too.
We’re not writing about the history of the Flyers, though, we’re engaged with the Tampa Bay Lightning on a regular basis and the weirdness belongs to team founder and then-GM Phil Esposito and his quite fuzzy handling of the situation.
The offer sheet was signed on August 4th, 1997. While the simple summary of how things played out is that it became an example of the poor state of affairs that were in place for the Bolts organization. A $9 million signing bonus tacked on to the five-year, $16.5 million deal from the Flyers is what led to Esposito making a claim of smudges on the Gratton contract were illegible and voided the deal.
In an article summarizing Lightning organizational despair in 2000, Esposito told columnist Gary Shelton:
“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.”
An excuse made like that, claiming a fax was illegible and thus negated things, seems odd in retrospect (though it also seems somewhat irrelevant now. Ain’t technology grand?). Espo tried to pull off a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks (Ethan Moreau, Steve Dubinsky and Keith Carney were rumored to be coming back for Gratton) which was nixed by an arbiter as the powers-that-be explored the “smudge”.
What also seems odd in retrospect is the ironing-out of the situation for the Flyers and the Lightning. Instead of Tampa Bay accepting five first-round draft picks from the Flyers organization as part of RFA signing compensation, the Bolts traded those draft-pick rights (though the trade was made to look like for Gratton himself) back to the Flyers for right wing Mikael Renberg and defenseman Karl Dykhuis.
The oddness of it all – the overall weak situation with finances in Tampa Bay, the contract offer and immense signing bonus, the settlement — is complimented by the fact Gratton only lasted 108 games in Philadelphia, a single full season and 26 in 1998-99, before being traded back to the Lightning for Mikael Renberg. Heck, Dykhuis only last 110 games in Tampa Bay, just a few weeks longer than Renberg, before being traded back to the Flyers for Petr Svoboda.
Though it’s looked at as a mistake by Bobby Clarke in Flyers history, the situation was more pronounced and profound in the young hockey market in Tampa Bay.
2. The Lightning give new new meaning to playing in a “barn”
In a little over a year from now the Las Vegas something-or-anothers will take the ice for the first time in a shiny state-of-the-art building and join the NHL as the newest franchise. Twenty-four seasons ago the Tampa Bay Lightning were the newest franchise. The building that they skated in for the first game wasn’t state-of-the-anything.
It was Expo Hall.
An arena in the middle of the Florida State Fairgrounds that more in common with livestock than line changes was where the Lightning would play their first season.
As with most of the inaugural season for the Lightning, securing a place to play was a bit of a scramble.
Originally Phil Esposito, Lightning Governor David Lefevere and CFO Mel Lowell were looking to play in the newly built Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg. However, negotiations were dragging on as the city was working hard to attract a baseball team at the time. With time running out the Lightning agreed to lease the space at the fairgrounds in April of 1992, roughly six months before they would open the season.
The Lightning were busy during the summer converting the pavilion a few miles east of downtown Tampa into a practical hockey arena. When it was completed it was the smallest building (and most literal “barn”) in the NHL.
At one point during a planning session at the fairgrounds Lowell nudged Lefevere. The lawyer looked to see a cow defecating just outside the window.
Seating only 10,400 fans the building was so small that the Zamboni’s were parked outside. If the weather was nice, the team would move the massage tables outside under a palm tree. The players would often move the workout equipment outside as well.
Distractions were aplenty. Not only during the Florida State Fair where thousands of people were enjoying rides and deep fried foods just steps outside of the arena, but also during things such as team meetings. Head Coach Terry Crisp remembers one instance where young defenseman Roman Hamrlik wasn’t in attendance. Crisp was informed that the 18-year-old was out fishing in a pond about a football field away from the back door.
No matter the troubles, the Lightning did manage to put everything together in time for the season to start. And what a start they had. Led by journeyman Chris Kontos’ four goals they thrashed the storied Chicago Blackhawks 7-3 on opening night.
The fans (and staff) were still getting used to hockey in Florida. When Kontos scored his third goal of the night, a few fans tossed their hats onto the ice to celebrate the hat trick. Those fans were promptly escorted out of the building by security.
The team lasted one season in Expo Hall before finally moving to the Suncoast Dome which was quickly anointed the ThunderDome. They would play in the converted baseball stadium for a few more seasons (and set an all-time NHL attendance record) before finally moving into their current home.
3. Art “Dud or Stud” Williams
Art Williams blew into the Lightning world like a Florida hurricane. His tenure was brief, noisy and shook some things up.
“You can be a stud or a dud”.
For Lightning fans, that sentence is his lasting legacy. The former insurance mogul only owned the Lightning for one year, but what an entertaining year it was. From comparing newly drafted Vincent Lecavalier to Michael Jordan instead of The Great One because in his own words he was “a football coach, and knew a little bit about basketball, so I didn’t know who [Wayne] Gretzky was…I haven’t gotten the terminology yet”.
Fans can forgive an owner that doesn’t know anything about hockey as long as he cuts the checks and stays out of the way. Art Williams wasn’t a stay out of the way owner. In fact he was the type of owner that could make things uncomfortable for players and the press as Sports Illustrated noted:
“Ira [Kaufmann, writer for the Tampa Tribune], why didn’t you award Darcy [Tucker] one of them three stars?” Williams says. “You gave one to [Lightning defenseman Pavel] Kubina, and that boy didn’t play but one quarter. Tucker here’s a stud.”
“You’re right, Art,” Kaufman replies. “He played great.”
“Great, Tucker, hear that?” Williams says. “Used to call you ‘sorry.’ Now they’re writin’ how great you are ’cause it comes from your soul. Yessir, ain’t that right, Ira?
There was also the numerous pregame pep talks that he liked to give to fire up the team. They often didn’t work out as he planned. After one of his “dadgum” filled meetings the Lightning went out and lost, at home, to the New York Rangers 10-2. They would then depart on a road trip that saw them lose 11 out of 12 , not exactly Zig Ziglar levels of positive motivation.
He also fired the only General Manager the organization ever knew in Phil Esposito and placed that responsibility on head coach Jacques Demers.
As damaging as thunderstorms can be they do often provide some beautiful rainbows. Williams did do a lot of good for the franchise. First of all he was an owner that people in the organization had actually met unlike the mysterious previous owner. When he bought the team he eliminated most of the $100 million debt that they had acquired under the previous regime. He upgraded the Ice Palace and put some money into the product on the ice. He didn’t screw up the Lecavalier draft (no offense David Legwand).
While the team wasn’t much better during his brief ownership (they finished 19-54-9) some of the groundwork was laid for what would become the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Of course, he couldn’t leave without one last intrusion.
Per the St. Petersburg Times as the paperwork was being finalized for the sale to Bill Davidson and the Palace Sports & Entertainment Group, the Lightning were trying to improve their goalie situation. Dallas’ Roman Turek, believed by many to be a promising young netminder, was available and Rick Dudley had a deal in place with the Stars to trade Darcy Tucker for Turek.
Williams, in a fit of stubbornness, refused to sign off on the deal and Dallas instead traded the goaltender to St. Louis. That move sent the Lightning down a long path of suboptimal goaltenders before finally acquiring Nikolai Khabibulin. Could Turek have led the team to a Stanley Cup sooner than 2004? It’s hard to say, but it was a solid hockey trade that would have helped the team. To have it blow up because the sale of the team wasn’t moving along fast enough is somewhat pathetic.
With a Stanley Cup banner hanging from the rafters it’s easy to look back and laugh at some of his antics. After all, Art Williams doesn’t even rank as the worst owner in the team’s history.
4. OK (Not Really) Hockey Group
We’ve already touched on ownership weirdness with Art Williams, but a more pronounced and competitive odd was in the form of former NHL player Len Barrie and Hollywood producer Oren Koules in 2008 through March 2010. OK Hockey Group LLC, pairing Oren Koules and Len Barrie as team owners, purchased the Lightning from Palace Sports and Entertainment. Koules had previously been part of a failed potential ownership group in Absolute Hockey.
Three weeks before the ownership group formally introduced itself in Tampa Bay, management parted ways with John Tortorella as head coach. While the previous season had been a letdown for the Lightning in results, Torts had largely been successful in his time with the Bolts, going 239-222 with 38 overtime losses and 36 ties in his time as coach.
On the day after OK Hockey revealed itself to the masses, the news leaked out that Tortorella’s replacement would be ESPN studio analyst and former NHL coach Barry Melrose. Let’s stress that former NHL Head coach status a bit here; Melrose hadn’t coached in the NHL since 1994-95 with the LA Kings. He’d coached some singular games in the UHL in 2003-04 and ’05-06, but to be given head coaching responsibilities on a revamping club?
Oh, sure, the Lightning drafted Steven Stamkos with the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, and there’d be a few player moves of note in the 2008 off-season but to bring Melrose back to coaching is the spotlight of the absurd introduction of OK Hockey. Koules and Barrie were involved with the hype, a-la Jerry Jones in the NFL, but positive results by way of their team building method was not on the agenda.
When your head coach hiring of much fanfare lasts only 16 games in the position, something’s wrong. When the record of said-head coach is 5-7-4, something sure doesn’t fit… But it’s probably broader than coaching alone.
Melrose was told he wasn’t living up to expectations, and yet that would be the extent of the OK Hockey Group’s tenure of ownership in Tampa Bay: not living up to expectations (or competitiveness). Coach Rick Tocchet, who had been an assistant for Melrose, took over as coach. His tenure in control lasted until the end of OK Hockey’s reign over the Bolts: 148 games total and a lackluster 53-64-26 record.
5. Mike Smith’s butter fingers cost the game
Soon after Melrose’s termination, it became apparent the Mullet wasn’t the only curse of (anything but) OK Hockey’s regime. Things didn’t get better as three out of the first five games Tocchet coached were lost in a shootout. With a dismal 7-15-8 record going into a home game against Colorado in mid-December the Bolts surrendered another shootout loss, but in extreme bizarre fashion long before questionable plays were reviewed on iPads, or before iPads were even invented for that matter.
The third round was to begin with both sides still scoreless after Milan Hejduk was unsuccessful on the Avalanche’s second attempt, or so it seemed. Despite Mike Smith’s blocker save, his dropped goalie stick raised suspicion of interference even though it had no impact on the play. Sure, there have been plenty of instances with goaltenders deliberately throwing their twig, typically at an unguarded net, to prevent the puck from going in, but this was not the case.
Was Smith concocting a sneaky, disguised plan to throw Hejduk off track in a surefire attempt to completely turn around Tampa Bay’s trainwreck of a season, or did he just innocently lose grip of his stick as he quickly slid across the crease? We’ll likely never know since the play was deemed unreviewable for whatever reason, but on the bright side Tim Peel probably picked up the tab that night to make up for it.
Martin St. Louis was unsuccessful on the Lightning’s third attempt, automatically making Colorado the game’s winner despite not putting the puck in the net. This is likely to be the only ever officially recorded NHL shootout to have neither team actually score a goal. In hindsight it didn’t really matter. The season was already thrown away, as was the next one. Fortunately, the ownership & management the entire League has grown to admire eventually came along 14 months later, but it felt like an eternity.
Honorably Weird: Has your team mascot appeared on Jerry Springer?
Previous Weird NHL Posts: Anaheim | Arizona | Boston | Buffalo | Calgary | Carolina | Chicago | Colorado | Columbus | Dallas | Detroit | Edmonton | Florida | Los Angeles | Minnesota | Montreal | Nashville | New Jersey | New York Islanders | New York Rangers | Ottawa | Philadelphia | Pittsburgh | San Jose | St. Louis
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About the authors: John Fontana is site manager and co-founder of Raw Charge. He’s blogging about the Lightning since February 2004. A long time. A really long time. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnny_fonts, but you better not expect constant and only hockey chatter.
JustinG is a staff writer at Raw Charge. He’s one of two Lightning fans who live in Chicago (no really, he counted). He had the pleasure of talking on the phone with Darren Puppa right after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. He tweets about hockey, Chicago food and nonsense @TorchRamrod
Brett has been a Raw Charge staff writer for the past three seasons. His hockey coverage has had no happy medium split between the collegiate club level sitting next to a leaky Zamboni and in a comfy swivel chair from the press box of NHL arenas.