There's a very popular pastime in the northern United States, especially along the Rust Belt: Moving to Florida! So naturally, if you're the NHL and you're trying your hand at southern expansion, the first southern state you're going to make a real push for is the most northern-like of the southern states.
When the NHL announced yet another expansion in the late 80's, two groups in the Tampa Bay Area began fighting for the rights to bring the team to south Florida. One was headed by Peter Karmanos, the other by Phil Esposito. Karmanos eventually came into charge of the Carolina Hurricanes, so I'll spare the gory details of legal wrangling. It goes without saying that obviously, Karmanos came out on the losing end. Esposito, one of the greatest NHL players of all time, won. One of the new team's limited partners was New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
In Esposito, the new Tampa Bay team - it's not allowed to be only Tampa down there; it always has to be Tampa Bay - already had a big star. While he wasn't able to lace 'em up anymore, he did immediately grant the team presidency to himself, and general managership to, er, himself. His brother and fellow NHL legend Tony became the chief scout. To be the first head coach, the Brothers Esposito got Terry Crisp on the horn - Crisp had a known name as a player on the infamous Broad Street Bullies teams, the Stanley Cup-winning Philadelphia Flyers of the 70's, and as head coach, he helmed the Calgary Flames dynamo that broke up the Edmonton Oilers dynasty to win the Stanley Cup in 1989. Esposito held a contest to think up a name, but in his autobiography, he confessed he was inspired to name the team the Lightning just before it was held upon seeing a lightning bolt capable of reviving the dead. He held the contest anyway, but knew beforehand his team would be the Tampa Bay Lightning no matter the result.
Esposito is known best for his stint with the Boston Bruins teams of the early 70's, a gang known as the Big Bad Bruins for being both scary talented and just plain scary. Reading his autobiography, I got the impression that the best times of his life were with those teams. Also, his teams won the Stanley Cup twice. So his natural first move was to try to build a team in much the same way those old Bruins teams were created. He also signed the first woman to play in the NHL - Manon Rheaume, a goaltender who appeared in a single exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues as a publicity stunt. When the Bolts took to the ice for the first time in the regular season against the Chicago Blackhawks, they pounded the Hawks 7-3, with four of their goals coming from an unknown player named Chris Kontos. With Kontos and Brian Bradley having fantastic seasons, the Lightning jumped right up to the head of their division. Unfortunately, they also played in the Norris Division with the St. Louis Blues well over 1000 miles down the road. That was their closest divisional rival. They also got to take long-ass road trips to see the Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota North Stars, and Toronto Maple Leafs. The long trips wore the team down, but even so, their 53 points were one of the best ever for an expansion team.
They shifted to the Atlantic Division the next year because the NHL is terrible when it comes to handling expansions. They also picked up Darren Puppa, Denis Savard, and Petr Klima. Puppa did great in goal, and the team's defense improved drastically. On the other hand, Savard was just about done, and Klima played defense like wet tissue paper. They started finishing last, although they still looked like the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70's compared to their expansion brethren, the Ottawa Senators.
In 1996, the Lightning finally made the playoffs for the first time. They beat out the defending Champion New Jersey Devils for the final spot. They were also dumped by the Flyers in six. The next year, they picked up Dino Ciccarelli from the Red Wings, with him and Chris Gratton both having 30-goal seasons. They also moved into a nice new home, the Ice Palace, and looked like a playoff lock before injuries started wiping them out. John Cullen developed a form of lymphoma. The team missed the playoffs, and by 1998, Phil Esposito was showing that as general manager, he was a damn great hockey player. Free agency hurt the Bolts, and Esposito's trades kept backfiring. Jacques Demers took over as coach and couldn't sort out the mess. That was saying something, because Demers had brought Detroit's Dead Wings teams back to life in the 80's and won the Stanley Cup as Montreal's coach in 1993. The Bolts lost 55 games. While the on-ice product had its problems, by pretty much all accounts, the problems were actually started up on high. Rumors started in the second season that the Bolts were not only bankrupt, but existed in large part as a money laundering scheme for the Yakuza. It's scouting operation was strictly Tony Esposito and his satellite dishes. I like to picture him presiding over several college and NHL games at the same time, like some kind of Orwellian security master. They were investigated by the IRS. In late 1997, Forbes magazine wrote that the Lightning's debt was equal to a staggering 236 percent of its value. Sale time! The Lightning was bought by Art Williams. He took the reins for a 54-loss year before selling it again.
The damage from the first owners was still brutal, and over the late 90's and early millennium, the Lightning became the first NHL team to ever endure four straight years of 50 losses or more. And this is the NHL, which was allowing ties at the time, making that one of the more understated unbreakable records in sports. But by now, things were starting to dawn. The team traded for goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. John Tortorella was made coach, and players Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier became stars. Martin St. Louis also started breaking out. By 2003, they had a new Captain in Dave Andreychuk. They finally returned to the playoffs and made it to the second round, where they lost to the eventual Champion New Jersey Devils. In 2004, the Bolts finished the season with their best point standing ever - 106, second to Detroit. In the first round, Khabibulin posted three shutouts as the Lightning beat the New York Islanders in five games. In the second round, they swept Montreal. They faced Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a tight series, and neither team won consecutive games. That means it was a good thing Tampa Bay won the first game, because it also meant they won game seven, catapulting them into the Stanley Cup Finals against the Calgary Flames and their versatile superstar and Captain, Jarome Iginla. This was another tight seven-gamer. In game seven, Tampa Bay's Ruslan Fedotenko scored both goals in a 2-1 victory. The Tampa Bay Lightning were Stanley Cup Champions.
The Lightning had apparently peaked kind of early, and the next year - well, in any case the next year that hockey was actually played - they barely got to the playoffs, with 93 points. Ordinarily that's very good, but the Eastern Conference that year was ridiculously powerful, and SIX TEAMS posted 100 points or more. They were quickly ousted by the Ottawa Senators. In 2007, Vincent Lecavalier broke the single-season goal record for the team, with an impressive 52. He also got the new team record for points in a single season with 108. Throughout March, they fought back and forth with the Atlanta Thrashers for the division, but an important loss to the Florida Panthers set them back. So they had to settle for the seventh seed with a record of 44-33-5 for 93 points. They lost to New Jersey in the playoffs.
By 2008, the Lightning were back in last. With the exception of a 46-25-11, 103-point year in the 2011 season, the Lightning have been perpetually in the first year of a five-year rebuilding plan.
The Lightning haven't retired any numbers. They've had some notable players: Dino Ciccarelli, Denis Savard, Brad Richards, and Nikolai Khabibulin. Their current stars are still Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, along with Steve Stamkos, who is currently having a Hart year. But they might be more notable for the ex-players they've had in management: Their first president was Phil Esposito. Their first head scout was his brother Tony. Their current general manager is Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman. For most of their existence, their most notable goaltender so far was Manon Rheaume - at least until Khabibulin's days. Rheaume became an inspirational figure, and her single-game stint with the Bolts has opened a lot of doors for her. But she did only play a single exhibition game, so it speaks legions about Tampa Bay's quality of goalies that she was still the most prolific goalie in the Lightning's history for so long.
The natural geographical rival to the Tampa Bay Lightning has been the Florida Panthers over in Miami. Their rivalries tend to be overlooked by big-time purists because the Lightning are a southern team, and the southern fantasies are showing the league that they haven't figured out just what ice is yet. So you don't really get the sense of big, all-out war between two southern teams. The Panthers rivalry CAN be intense at times, but let's be honest: That's not a rivalry, but an insult to the Lightning. The Lightning also have rivalries with the Carolina Hurricanes and, in probably their only rivalry with an established team, the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately, these aren't marquee battles. The teams are too young to have much history with each other, the fans are sporadic, and they all just plain suck half the time anyway.
Among NHL purists, the Lightning are known mainly as the team Phil Esposito used to own. He is still their radio color guy. They're also known as the team that played Manon Rheaume, which pissed off purists keen to write that out as nothing but a publicity stunt - which Esposito outright admits was exactly what it was. They're also known as the Yakuza team, and the team that once lost over 50 games for four straight years. Now they're known as the team of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steve Stamkos. Those three are starting to do a lot to clear the bad name of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they still have a long way to go.
I'm not sure of the Tampa Bay Lightning are even stable. They seem to pop up in conversations about who's moving to this city or that city sometimes, although they're not nearly the conversational subjects the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators are. They're definitely the better option for adopting fans in Florida, so I can give them that.