TAMPA, Fla. He has witnessed many firsts, so memories of a Tampa Bay original brought a smile to his face once more.
On Thursday night, Terry Crisp stood deep inside Tampa Bay Times Forum and marked a vision's growth. Twenty years ago, in the 1992-93 season, the Parry Sound, Ontario, native coached the Tampa Bay Lightning during their inaugural campaign.
There were a number of unknowns then: Could hockey survive in Florida? How long would a game of ice last in a state of beach sand and sun? But watching an uncertainty become sustainable, then a contender over time, then a Stanley Cup champion made those early doubts disappear.
"When you first started thinking, 'Oh, Florida, nice. We're a part of it,' you got the feeling, 'Let's enjoy it while we can,'" said Crisp, who coached the Lightning in parts of six seasons from 1992-97.
"It kept dodging the bullet and getting better. Suddenly, you reach the top of the mountain in (the 2003-04 season), and you win a Stanley Cup. I mean, how many franchises in the NHL would love to say they won the Stanley Cup in that short of span, in that given time?"
Crisp returned to watch that success story on Thursday, during Tampa Bay's 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He recalled a simpler time for the NHL's Florida experiment, one that's celebrating its 20th anniversary.
There was the initial season at Expo Hall capacity 11,000 on the Florida State Fairgrounds. The Lightning's first victory happened at the humble building, on Oct. 7, 1992, when Chris Kontos scored four goals in a 7-3 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks that stands as one of the region's signature hockey moments.
Then there were the years at Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, Fla., nicknamed the "Thunderdome," before the franchise found a home across the bay. All are memories that formed a foundation.
Time changes, though. So do perspectives. As Crisp received a glimpse of the 50-foot, 5 million high-definition video board at Tampa Bay Times Forum, the passing of years was evident. The NHL's Florida experiment had grown up.
"The scoreboard is probably worth more than most of our whole team's salary that first year here," Crisp said with a laugh.
The Lightning developed an identity in time, of course, with help from a man who knew about beginnings. Before joining Tampa Bay, Crisp played as a center for the inaugural St. Louis Blues team in the 1967-68 season. Later, he became a center for the inaugural New York Islanders team in the 1972-73 season.
After leaving Tampa Bay with a 142-204-45 record, he was fired 11 games into the 1997-98 season, Crisp became an analyst for the Nashville Predators marking another franchise he saw rise from its start. He's in his 15th season calling hockey in the Music City.
"I was fortunate enough that when I was out of coaching, I went right into TV," said Crisp, who also coached the Calgary Flames from 1987 to 1990. "And you've got to admit, there's nothing better than being an athlete. The athlete is the greatest you can possibly be for participation. The next-best is a coach for the action, for being part of it. And then the third, to me, is being a TV or a radio announcer.
"When training camp rolled around, the juices started to flow again. You want to get back. You want to do it. When the playoffs rolled around, you really wanted back in."
For a moment Thursday, he was back with a beginning, back with hockey's start in the Tampa Bay region. Before the national anthem, a spotlight focused on him as he stood near the glass in a corner of the darkened rink. His name was announced over the public-address system. A crowd of more than 19,200 roared. He raised his right palm in thanks.
Twenty years later, the NHL's Florida experiment has become more than a vision. Twenty years later, after all the memories, its first leader holds close an original.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.