Bolts fans go back to the future

Updated: May 11, 2004, 12:51 AM ET
By Rob Parent | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's almost bittersweet, but no longer do the hockey fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning have to drink Kool-Aid before repeating their team has a chance to win. Those really are the Bolts with a regular-season title in tow and a 1-0 lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final.

So why do the people around them keep acting like it's 1996?

That was the last time these teams met in the playoffs, a first-round scrum in a place called "ThunderDome" with a circus atmosphere around it. Sports talk radio bozos established a battle line outside the Flyers' hotel and taunted them with bullhorns and idle threats (a revival of this act would prove popular in Toronto several years later, which is usually how long an entertainment idea cultures before accepted as original in Canada). Sports columnists stopped explaining the game to their readers only long enough to make comic analogies between hockey and hoagies, Rocky and cheesesteaks.

And Tampa's team?

Maybe it wasn't quite an expansion club anymore, but it sure looked like it.

If hockey had been slow to catch on during the franchise's first four seasons -- after Phil Esposito somehow convinced a consortium of Japanese businessmen to finance a team in a sport they knew nothing about in a place most of them had never been -- they were certainly popular by then, those fourth-year Bolts.

Heroes like ... would you believe Brian Bellows, Brian Bradley, Petr Klima and John Cullen? ... attained sudden springtime sanctity. Who here knew they were still mostly a group of veteran castoffs from other clubs? All those Bolthead ticket buyers saw was a first-time playoff team with a winning record (fifth in the division, but good enough to slip into the elite eight), that actually won two games before the Flyers eliminated them.

All well and somewhat respectable, except what happened next.

Instead of turning that popularity into growth, Esposito, then the general manager, made a mess of it. Players didn't want to come but they certainly went, including the club's two young cornerstones, Chris Gratton and Roman Hamrlik.

The Japanese businessmen finally flew to Florida's gulf coast to see where all their yen was going. They promptly began looking for a buyer, and a revolving glass door was installed at the entrance to the head coach's office, while the casual fans and all those transplanted Snowbirds from up north returned to the spring training complexes.

And the losses began to mount. It would be seven years before the Lightning made the playoffs again.

But the team that won the first playoff round in franchise history, before losing to the Devils in five games, was the product of new ownership, new management, new coaching and years of finishes in the cellar. It was young, gifted, solidly structured and capably led, and now its time has come.

So why can't the people around them grow up with it?

On the sports talk stations, various cheerleading segments abound, though the bullhorns no longer seem in vogue. In the weekend editions of the area's two major newspapers, you could find insert sections of "Dr. Hockey's Guide," complete with illustrations and definitions of the Stanley Cup, the history of the game, the positions of players and, of course, the obligatory "Pronunciation Guide" to Lightning player names.

Same newspaper, same day: A sports columnist writes: "Philadelphia you say? Cream cheese in our hands."

Different newspaper, next day: A graphic explanation of a puck.

There was also a huge account of the "Tampa-Philly Rivalry," complete with the 1998 mess of a Gratton trade/signing to the Flyers (and Esposito trying to get out of the deal because he claimed he couldn't read the fax of the Group II free agent offer sheet the Flyers were using to try to steal Gratton). That was accompanied with another in the endless and hackneyed accounts of Philly fans' booing Santa Claus, interviews with Philadelphia sports talk radio bozos and, of course, the inevitable talk about the Bucs and Eagles.

So throw the flag on the media, too, for doing its part to keep Tampa's hockey fans in a holding pattern for the last eight years. The organization here doesn't need any help doing that.

Take a few good entry draft selections and trades, good hires in the front office and coaching rooms, lots of growing pains for Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, and -- voila! -- this Lightning team is as balanced and prepared for a parade as any in the league.

Kudos for that. But must we still have short instructional videos during games on penalty calls? Puffy mascots doing pseudo-sumo wrestling during intermissions? Oh, and pep rallies prior to Game 1 featuring "Flyers Car Smash?"

Attention marketers: It's been 13 years since Phil sold this idea in Tokyo, so you don't have to keep selling this team to the fans like it's a novelty. The Lightning have more than just a legitimate shot at winning a Stanley Cup this spring. And guess what, their fans know it.

It is why the Lightning had the best record in the East after 82 games.

It is why they pummeled the Islanders in five games, then swept the Canadiens in the conference semifinals.

It is why the St. Pete Times Forum (nee Ice Palace) had its largest crowd ever Saturday for the opening game of this series.

It is why Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock keeps preaching confidence while crossing his fingers.

It is why Tampa not only led entering Game 2 Monday night, but had beaten the Flyers five out of five times this season.

The Flyers try to forecheck and physically bottle this young Tampa team, and it usually finds a way to skate out of trouble. The Flyers try to trade chances with this young Tampa team, and it burns them in the transition. The Flyers try to play a quiet, patient game against this young Tampa team, but since they are the elders, it is usually the Flyers who fall asleep first.

Read their frustrations: It is the Lightning as the deserved favorites in this series, in this playoff year. Regular-season conference champions, the better team in this conference finals. A maturing, soaring team with an established fan base -- as sound as the organization's financial base -- was and still is shaky.

But at least they've finally stopped worshipping the castoffs of 1996.

It's a new hockey dawn down by the Bay. Why can't everybody here see that?

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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