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The Original Home of the Lightning: 25 Years Later
By Ian MacLeod
As the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate 25 years of play in the NHL, it’s the perfect time to reminisce about the short, yet sweet, history of the team. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Lightning’s 25th Anniversary celebration held at their original stomping grounds, the Expo Hall in the Florida State Fairgrounds. The 10,425 seat exhibition hall served as the home of the Lightning for one season, its inaugural 1992-93 season.
Given my familiarity with the Lightning’s current Amalie Arena, I’ll admit that my first impression was a little shocked. I immediately wondered how in the world you could play NHL hockey in that building. For comparison, Amalie Arena has a capacity of 19,092 (little under twice the capacity of the Expo Hall), yet the Expo Hall seemed smaller than its capacity would indicate. Despite its small size, its character and electric atmosphere emerged as I explored it further. The first object of interest was the floor. There on the floor was a ring that spanned the length of the rink where the boards would’ve been 25 years ago. The ring showed some of the best moments in our history, such as our founding by Phil Esposito, or our lone Stanley Cup win in 2004. These bite-sized memories went all the way around the “rink,” giving fans an account of the team’s history up until the present day. In addition, there were signs on the floor that marked things like the starting lineup for opening night in their respective positions and the location of the 10 goals scored that night. I thought these were nice touches; it was cool to stand on the markers and imagine myself in the moment from 25 years ago.
The second object of interest was the locker room tour. After waiting in a sizable line, I entered what appeared to be a nice sized room. That was until the guide casually mentioned that the room I was standing in used to be both the home AND away locker rooms. That certainly changed the dynamics of the situation. In the corner stood a replica of the lockers that they used for the inaugural season, which highly resembled a typical high school locker. In the back of the room was a set of double doors leading outside. The guide went on to comment how the room got so crammed that players had to exit outside through these doors to tape their sticks or participate in intermission interviews. Another story was told about the time that a father and his son unknowingly wandered through these doors in search of a bathroom, only to find that they were in the locker room with the Lightning players. After being given instructions to the nearest restroom, the father and son left, and the locker room erupted in laughter. Little stories like these are what truly made the experience memorable and the arena feels like home.
The third and most important object of interest were the fans themselves. The fans, decked out in their full Lightning attire, filled the arena with the same excitement and passion that they had 25 years ago. There were long lines for autographs, chances to meet the legends of Lightning lore, and there were large groups waiting to participate in various street hockey games and challenges. While listening to ‘The Last Call” radio broadcast with Matt Sammon and Brian Engblom, Mr. Sammon mentioned how back when the Lightning first started out, many of the fans had little or no clue what hockey was all about, yet they were excited for it all the same. There was a distinct parallel to this at the event. Even though many of the kids knew little about the original team from that 1992-93 season, they were just as excited to meet all the players as their parents were. The atmosphere created by the nostalgia of the arena and the passion of the fans just goes to show how well the game of hockey has grown and thrived since its introduction to Tampa Bay 25 years ago. As fans, we are the thunder, and we all know that there can be no Lightning without thunder.
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October 22nd, 2017