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Roundtable: NHLers from 1990s Sun Belt expansion share their weird and wacky memories

Matt Larkin
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NHLers from 1990s Sun Belt expansion share their weird and wacky memories

Mellanby+Bradley+Fitzgerald: Robert Laberge/Allsport

Brunette: Matthew Manor/HHOF Images

Wilson: HHOF Images

News

Roundtable: NHLers from 1990s Sun Belt expansion share their weird and wacky memories

Matt Larkin
By:

It's not easy being part of an expansion team. From the draft process through to stepping on the ice for the first time, these six NHLers share their unique experiences.

With great weather came great responsibility. Members of the NHL's Sun Belt expansion franchises were players, but they were also teachers to uninitiated fan bases. The pioneers braved rickety barns, white-knuckle travel, and blowout losses. Now they share their weird, hilarious and inspiring memories.

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The Panel

 

HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE PICKED IN AN EXPANSION DRAFT?

TOM FITZGERALD (Florida, Nashville): Back in ’93, there really wasn’t much on the computers. You were able to watch it, and I was like, “Oh my God, I was just taken by Florida.” Nashville in 1998 wasn’t even a draft. You just submitted your team, ‘This was who we picked in the war room."

SCOTT MELLANBY (Florida): It was during that period of time when the Oilers were getting rid of a lot of their team that had won Stanley Cups. We went to the semi-final in my first year, and the next year we missed the playoffs. So the team was being turned over a bit, and Glen Sather just said, “Look…you know, right?” I think he said he'd rather have someone score 12 or 14 goals for half the money than have me score 20. It was a little shocking, but I did know, so I was at least prepared.

BRIAN BRADLEY (Tampa Bay): I was playing golf in Calgary with Al MacInnis or Gary Roberts, and then one of the guys said, “Hey ‘Brad,’ you just got picked up by Ottawa.” I said “Oh my God, Ottawa? I had just been to Calgary, Vancouver, and now Ottawa. Can’t I get a break and go to Tampa or somewhere in the U.S.?” They started laughing and said, “You just got picked up by Tampa Bay.”

FITZGERALD: The Islanders told me I was going to be protected. Then, right at the last minute, I was left unprotected. So I was disappointed, because I saw what expansion was like. I saw San Jose. I saw Ottawa. Tampa was a lot more competitive than the other two teams. It was like, “Aw man.” I was in an organization that was scratching and clawing trying to make the playoffs in New York, and now I had to go back and scratch and claw again. So it wasn’t all happiness until my new bride and I showed up down in South Florida and thought, “Oh this is pretty good,” with the beach and palm trees.

ANDREW BRUNETTE (Nashville, Atlanta): The landscape of the NHL was different then. You were stuck in an organization until you were 31. You didn't really have arbitration rights until 26 or 27. You weren't an unrestricted free agent until 31. I was in Washington through that stretch. A very deep team. They did a really good job drafting and always had strong AHL team. It was really hard for a young guy at that time to crack their roster. So for me there was a lot of excitement get an opportunity to get out on your own and hopefully get a chance to prove you can play in the NHL and be a good player.

MELLANBY: I was hoping I wasn't going to get picked, because it's a 'We don't want you anymore' type of a feeling. It almost felt like all those guys going to the expansion teams played a year or two and their careers were over. Those teams had all struggled mightily. But once I was picked, Bob Clarke was the GM, and I had a relationship with him from Philadelphia. I talked to him and I turned the page pretty quickly as far as feeling wanted again. I had somebody I knew had faith in me as a player, who drafted me and had me in Philadelphia.
 

WHAT WAS IT LIKE BONDING AS A TEAM OF TRANSPLANTED PLAYERS IN A NEW CITY?

RAY FERRARO (Atlanta): There’s awkwardness and uneasiness, and nobody really knows where they fit. There’s a hierarchy on every team. You go to camp, and there are new players, here’s the new draft pick, here are the veteran guys… well, there’s none of that with an expansion team. It’s all scrambling around. The first couple days or weeks, you’re trying to figure out everybody’s name.  Everybody thinks they’ve got a toehold on the roster, but 30 guys think that, because they were all brought in. It’s odd. It’s unlike any other camp I’ve gone to.

BRADLEY: You go through training camp and exhibition games. And to be honest, you probably knew 10 or 15 guys that were on the team, because you played junior against them, you played in the NHL against them, you knew a friend of a friend that knew them. On the team that we had I probably knew 10 guys that I played with before, or played junior against, or played with them at the World Junior Championship.

FITZGERALD: Our leadership in Florida from the get-go… you had Bill Torrey as the president, you had Bobby Clarke as the GM, you had Roger Neilson as the first coach, so you had credibility right away. We walked into that first meeting in Doral, because that’s where they put us up. We were like, “Oh my God, we’re in Doral.” Bobby Clarke’s meeting was not, “Hey, this is great.” It was, “We will not be a f----ing doormat, and if you think we’ll be a f----ing doormat for the rest of the league to come in and get their points, get the f--- out. We don't want you.”

MELLANBY: And he walked out. That was it. He said, “See you tomorrow.” He set the tone for sure.

FITZGERALD: We were the Island of Misfit Toys. No one wanted us, and we were castaways. We took that motivation when we played each other’s old teams. It was always, “Prove that team wrong. They exposed the wrong player, and now we’re gonna show you.”
 

WHAT WAS IT LIKE PLAYING IN A NON-TRADITIONAL HOCKEY MARKET?

BRADLEY: People didn’t really have any idea about the Tampa Bay Lightning and the NHL. What was hockey? Really, they were all newcomers. They just wanted to go to the games. They didn’t know us, but they found fighting was an awesome thing to watch.

BRUNETTE: In Atlanta and Nashville, there might be a whistle and then they'd explain it, what an offside is, what icing is. So you're looking around going, “What?” It was on the jumbotron or they even announced it. Some fans had earphones that explained some of the rules. It was different. But in Nashville the excitement level was so high. Maybe they didn't know much about hockey, but they were so excited to have a team. They loved the speed of the games, and the crowds were electric, especially that first year I was there. It was a real fun place to play.

DOUG WILSON (San Jose): All the players and coaches, we took it as our responsibility to share the great game of hockey with all these people that wanted to learn about it. That was fun. There were questions you would get asked – why people would leave after the third period when they thought there would be a fourth quarter, for example. There were a few moments like that. I look back at it fondly.

BRADLEY: The first game we played in was against the Chicago Blackhawks, and Chris Kontos had a hat trick. I don’t think people realized they could throw a hat on the ice.

MELLANBY: We had six or seven players in August go around South Florida in this little mini van. We went to all these little hockey clinics and quick Q&A's at malls. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't better than I thought. It was what it was. When you're doing Q&A's and little clinics in front of 30, 40 people, it really is planting seeds one at a time. In the entire week, I don't know, did we maybe see a thousand people? By today's standards, if you went the Bell Centre, we get 18,000 for a red-white game in training camp. So it was eye-opening, but it was stuff that needed to be done.

FITZGERALD: You had to give back. It was part of our mantra. Being a pro hockey player wasn’t just about showing up for practice and being on the ice, skating. You’ve got to grow your sport, and in the Sunbelt states like Florida and Tennessee, it was a must.

MELLANBY: There definitely were some people excited to have us down there. We were doing what the organization thought was needed, and for us personally it just was really good to see the area, to get a feel for it. We had wives and girlfriends there. I had just gotten married that July, so it was just good to get to see the area and to get a start on bonding. We drank a lot that week. I was going from Edmonton to Florida, so I was picking up about 100 degrees in the transaction. It wasn't that bad a deal.

BRUNETTE: I can remember we were teaching kids at schools how to shoot, what hand they were, what a hockey stick is or what a net is. The media relations were really big in trying to expand the game, and they did a lot of different things to try to have people understand the rules and what the game's about. I'm not sure they grasped it, but they were willing to listen and try to learn it.

FITZGERALD: The one thing in Florida they were betting on were the transplants, the northerners coming down. You had a lot of French Canadians, a lot of New Yorkers, a lot of Bostonians. You had a lot of hockey knowledge down there. I think they craved it. They missed the sport that they loved growing up watching.

MELLANBY: Hollywood, Fla., is where the Quebecers have gone forever. So I think it's different than Tampa, because we had transplants from the Northeast, a lot of New Yorkers, people that were snowbirds down there. It was a great rink, it held about 15,000, and we did really well with the crowds early on. The team was a success so it was a hot ticket for a while.

WILSON: There was a hotel in Burlingame, Calif. One of our famous trainers Tommy Woodcock lived out of the hotel. There was a little sports bar in there called Knuckles, and he would hold court in there. A lot of the fans would come there after games, and we as players would go there after. Here we are sitting and drinking and talking hockey, and with our fans that were just at our games. That happened a lot. It is probably unheard of today, but it was just people who loved the game, people who loved to talk hockey. We might have just gotten our butts kicked. Pittsburgh might have just beaten us by five or six and Mario probably got six points. But you go back there and realize that we had to make sure we were promoting this game. So, it's not just players, but it was trainers, it was coaches.
 

Scott Mellanby

Scott Mellanby Image by: Getty Images

DID YOUR TEAM FEEL LIKE A FULL-FLEDGED NHL FRANCHISE? WERE THERE ‘AMATEUR HOUR’ MOMENTS?

MELLANBY: Our dressing room was basically thrown together with drywall. I don't know how many hundred square feet it was, but it wasn't much, and you're an NHL hockey team.

FERRARO: There’d be guys showing up, they’d be at practice, and you’re like, “Who’s that? Where’d he come from?” We’d have no idea.

BRADLEY: We were playing against Detroit. They had, Yzerman, Ciccarelli, just an all-star team. We were losing 5-1. (Coach) Terry Crisp came in after the first period, and Wayne Cashman was our assistant coach. Terry was yelling and screaming like there was no tomorrow. “This is embarrassing, f---ing guys, I don’t care if we’re an expansion team.” He’s going off on everybody. “God damn it, we’re losing 5-1. This is our home rink.” He’s giving it to everyone like a coach should. We had a bad period. It was one of those games he wasn’t going to allow.

All of a sudden, a door opens up to the back of the Fairgrounds, where the dressing rooms are. It was February, and the State Fair was going on in behind. So a guy came in, he had a corn dog, a pop and some popcorn in his hands. He said, “Hey is this the bathroom here?” He walks right in the middle of the dressing room. “Is this the bathroom here? ‘Cause I’m at the fair, and I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” Terry Crisp is just like, “What the f--- is going on here?” Wayne Cashman is literally crying laughing. Terry Crisp walked out of the room into his office. The whole f---ing team broke out. The whole team was like, “Are you f---ing kidding me?” We couldn’t even f---ing talk. We were literally pissing our pants laughing so hard.

We came back. I think we ended up losing that game like 9-7 but it loosened everyone up. I’ll never forget that one. There’s no way that would happen today, where a guy can open up a back door into an NHL team in between periods.

FERRARO: We were playing at the Fairgrounds when I was with the Islanders, and we were cutting our sticks at the morning skate. The room was too small, and it was nice, so you just went outside – and they were moving the elephants from one place to another. They walked right by, and we were like, “Where the hell are we?”

WILSON: In the old Chicago Stadium, you had to walk up stairs, and in the old Cow Palace you had to walk down. I found that interesting. Some of the events they would have there with the rodeo and other things would leave unique aromas and flavors in the building. And just the proximity of the fans. You'd walk out after the game, and all the fans would be right there, and you'd get to meet them and talk to them.

FITZGERALD: The Panther fans were fantastic. After every practice they would be lined up outside, hundreds, for autographs. You went through that line. The accessibility we gave them was incredible. I’m not sure you could do that now.

FERRARO: Phillips Arena was gorgeous. The practice rink was brand new and not quite finished when we got there. The weight room looked like a public gym. They had calf machines, all universal equipment. I walked in there, because after I signed I had to pass the physical. I said to the guy who was bringing the tour around: “What is all this stuff?” He said, “It’s our gym.” And I’m like, “We don’t need most of this stuff.”  They just didn’t know, and it’s beyond me how they didn’t know.

BRADLEY: The travel was tough. We didn’t have a lot of charters. We flew commercial. It’s crazy what we had to do at the beginning years. We didn’t make the playoffs until our fourth year, but we could have made the playoffs a couple more years. Travel was a factor. We were literally getting into places on the day of games and flying in the afternoon to places just because they didn’t have money for charters.

FERRARO: We called our plane the trash can. Our first flight, we were walking onto the plane, and there was a whole bunch of tools under one of the wings. They were doing some repairs on it.

BRUNETTE: David Poile and Barry Trotz were in Nashville at least a year before and got everything situated. When you got in there you really didn't feel like it was an expansion team. You just felt it was an NHL team besides some of the strange things that happened in the game. The fans would boo an icing or an offside. That left you head-scratching a little bit.
 

HOW DID YOU COPE WITH THE LOW EXPECTATIONS THAT ACCOMPANY AN EXPANSION CLUB?

FERRARO: It was just loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, get on the plane, go to another place, lose another game. So if you didn’t laugh, you probably would have quit.

WILSON: Our goal realistically was not to win the Stanley Cup. It was to build a franchise, an organization, from Square 1 and start something that would go on to have long-term success. That was a huge challenge and opportunity, and that's how it was presented to me. We welcomed it. We relished it. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears a lot of people put into it, but to see where this franchise got to, it was well worth it.   

BRADLEY: We made the playoffs in Year 4, 1995-96, and we played Philly and lost four games to two. We had a really good team then, but we probably lost 10 guys from the team because of financial reasons. We had to change our whole team from a pretty good team that made the playoffs to losing guys because they went other places to make more money. The team couldn’t afford them, not like today. We had to bring in all these new young kids again, and when you rebuild every year it kills you. You can’t blame (partial owners) Phil and Tony Esposito. You can’t blame the players. They’re going to go for more money because they’re veterans, and you only play in the league so long.

FERRARO: The night we broke our 12-game losing streak, it was the 20th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice, and we beat Colorado in Colorado. That’s 2000. They were good. I scored in overtime, and I said after the game, “Do you believe in miracles?” And I got a phone message from Al Michaels. He was a season-ticket holder in LA. I kept that message for a long time, because it’s Al Michaels, right?

BRUNETTE: George King, our assistant coach, was an ultra-positive, great guy. He always said if we got 30 shots he'd bring in ice cream. So we're in Pittsburgh getting shellacked. We had 29 shots, and we got our 30th shot. The game was about 7-1 for them, and George is yelling, “Ice cream, ice cream, we're all getting ice cream!” And you'd be staring, you're embarrassed, and of course George would be yelling at the ref to check the shot clock. “They're not crediting us with enough shots.” Then you laugh about it after. He was probably trying to keep us sane.

FERRARO: We were not very good at all but, man, we had fun on that team with guys like Chris Tamer, Jeff Odgers, Shean Donovan, and'Bruno' (Brunette). Bruno ran this 3-on-3 league after practice. He was the commissioner. He would write fictitious newspaper headlines from your local paper, like, “Trail Daily Times, Ferraro sucks in 5-3 loss.” He had a waiver wire. If someone played bad, he put them on waivers that day. It was brilliant. You had to make your own fun, because you weren’t gonna go on a 10-game winning streak.

BRUNETTE: We might have four or five different groups of 3-on-3. Our team was called Team North. It was all Northern Ontario guys. We had a Western team, and we had a college team. The Swedes might be playing together and our Euros. It was a lot of fun.

FERRARO: You’ve got to get Bruno to tell the story of ‘Odgie’ backing onto his car.

BRUNETTE: Odgie had this monster truck, and he had a neck issue where he had trouble turning. I thought he’d just take the parking spot right in front of him. I was sitting there thinking “Odgie, he’s got to see me,” but he can’t turn his neck. He puts it in reverse, and I can’t go anywhere in my little Volvo. All these cars are backed up behind me.

FERRARO: He ripped a hole in the hood of his car that you could have dropped a bowling ball through. It was just phenomenal.

BRUNETTE: It was like he thought it was a speed bump. He slid back down, then went back again, and the hitch went right through my windshield. I'm sitting beside Ray on the plane later. I just kept saying “I can't believe Odgie just ran over my fricking car.” My hood was just ripped to crap, like a can opener.

FERRARO: We took Odgie’s sticks. He had this Mission stick that he kept trying out, and he would never use it in a game. So we were in Anaheim, and Bruno and I took his sticks and left his Mission stick, it was the only one. He had to use it. The first shift they dump it into his off-wing corner. He goes in and roofs it under the bar. ‘Odgie’ turns to the bench and he makes a letter ‘M’ with his hands. Oh my God, we just about died.
 

HOW DOES THE EXPANSION TEAM EXPERIENCE RANK ALONGSIDE THE OTHER CHAPTERS OF YOUR CAREER?

MELLANBY: It was a special time in my life. I had just gotten married, I had started having a family there right away. I had the whole rat thing, the team's success. I had just turned 27. The game is different now, there are more kids ready at 20, 21, 22 to be leaders of teams, but I was really at a time where I was ready to be a leader, and in that opportunity I really flourished with Florida. So I have nothing but great memories of it. We were the most successful expansion franchise in sports, winning percentage wise.

BRADLEY: I have no regrets. I played in a couple All-Star Games. Was I a No. 1 centerman in the NHL? No, but I was a solid second- or third-line center for any team. I realize that. But I had the opportunity to play in Tampa as a No. 1 center for five or six years. I’m thankful for the Lightning for giving me the opportunity. I did the best I could, and I think it worked out well.

FERRARO: I’ve been going to speak at a banquet, and the stuff I talk the most about are the ’93 playoffs with the Islanders and my time with the Thrashers. Because it was just one hilarious thing after another you could only shake your head at.

FITZGERALD:  The experience I had in the Florida for five years and being able to start something as part of a culture, bringing hockey to an area like South Florida and watching youth hockey grow, and really being part of the grass roots of hockey there… I basically felt “Why wouldn’t I want to do that again?” I could play a bigger role, and it hit me at the time that I knew I’d be one of Predators’ leaders. It really was my experience in Florida that brought me to Nashville.

WILSON: I talk about that outdoor game at Levi Stadium, I wish (former Sharks owner George) Gund was still alive to see it. To think that we would have 70,000 fans at an outdoor hockey game in Northern California was almost an unheard of dream. To see a player like Matt Tennyson come up through the Junior Sharks program and be the first youth player to come through our youth organization and score a goal for the Sharks…things like that mean a lot to a lot of us who were there from Day 1. We really appreciate all the people who participated in that journey. The fans have been just so passionate and supportive of this organization and franchise.

BRUNETTE: They gave me a really good opportunity to play, and I played with some really good players, and I was able to establish myself by being fairly productive during that time. So it was good. Would I have loved to have been traded to Colorado and play 10 years there? Absolutely. Who wouldn't? But you don't get to pick those things. Every experience is always worthwhile. I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't trade it for anything, really. 

FERRARO: The year from a playing standpoint was just a debacle, but the guys that ended up coming there and staying for a couple of years were among the best guys I got a chance to play with. I played for 18 years, and those guys are among my favorite teammates. There are times I’ll be telling somebody a story and I start to giggle as I’m telling it, because you can’t believe that was in the NHL.

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Roundtable: NHLers from 1990s Sun Belt expansion share their weird and wacky memories