Tampa embraces Hamrlik, return of hockey

Tampa embraces Hamrlik, return of hockey
January 20, 2013, 11:00 am
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Capitals-Lightning highlights 1-19-13

Say what you want about hockey in Southwest Florida, but the Tampa Bay Lightning put on quite a show in their season debut on Saturday night.

From the blue carpet arrival of players at 4 p.m. to the pre-game ceremony marking their 20th anniversary in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 19,204 fans, the Lightning proved that hockey and warm weather can go hand-in-hand, even after a 119-day work stoppage.

“These fans have been terrific over the years,” Lightning radio analyst Phil Esposito, who raised $80 million to start the franchise 21 years ago, told the Tampa Tribune. “I get so angry at people up north, the snobs who talk about hockey in Florida. This is just as good as any market in hockey.”

The Lightning celebrated their 20th birthday by inviting four members of their inaugural 1992-93 team – forwards Chris Kontos and Brian Bradley, defenseman Joe Reekie and goaltender Pat Jablonski – onto the ice. They also asked Capitals 38-year-old defenseman Roman Hamrlik to take part in the ceremonial puck drop with Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier.

Hamrlik was the first player taken by the Lightning in the 1992 NHL draft. He shook hands with his former teammates and owner before the ceremonial puck drop.

“I said to Roman, ‘You’re skinnier now than you were at 18,’” Esposito said.

Hamrlik said the Lightning have come a long way from their modest beginnings, when players would fish for bass behind the old Expo Hall. Today the Lightning play in the posh Tampa Bay Times Forum, which was recently installed with a $5 million high-def video scoreboard that spans 50 feet in length and weighs 54 tons. [An arena electrician told me the Forum roof is capable of holding a maximum of 60 tons and installers were wary of standing under it when it was installed a few months ago].

Twenty years after his arrival, Hamrlik said he’s happy to see that hockey has taken root in Southwest Florida.

“I have really good memories of this team,” he said. “It was a thrill to get a chance here to start my career.”