WESLEY CHAPEL — There will be 30 players selected by Vegas in Wednesday's NHL expansion draft, including one from the Lightning.
It's a moment that could dramatically alter their careers. It may change their lives.
Just ask Brian Bradley.
Twenty five years ago, Bradley, 52, was picked by the Lightning in its expansion draft. And he's never left.
Bradley racked up 42 goals in that inaugural season, becoming the franchise's first All-Star. He scored the team's first playoff goal. Before Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, Lightning fans wanted to be Brian Bradley. Bradley has been around for nearly every major moment since; he did TV work for Sun Sports during the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup run. He was the director of youth hockey, his two boys, Cody, 22, and Trey, 20, growing up in the Lightning's grassroots effort. Now Bradley connects with corporate sponsors and season ticket holders.
Bradley is one of the few links from the franchise's humble beginnings to its ascent into a legitimate hockey market, set to host January's All-Star Game. It never would have happened had he not been the 36th pick in the 1992 expansion draft.
"I never expected this," Bradley said. "I thought I'd come down here, maybe play a few years and probably drift back to Canada because I was born and raised outside of Toronto. I don't know why it happened, or for what reason. But I'm very thankful."
In many ways, Bradley's move to Tampa resurrected his career.
He had struggled to find ice time with his hometown Maple Leafs, who left him unprotected in the expansion draft, held June 18, 1992 in Montreal. Toronto told Bradley if he wasn't picked, they'd offer him a two-year deal to stay.
Bradley went golfing in Calgary with former teammates Gary Roberts and Al MacInnis that day not knowing where his next home would be. Would he play for his fourth Canadian team, Ottawa, or head to Florida? Lightning founder Phil Esposito said Bradley wasn't originally part of their draft plans. They didn't know who to take from Toronto. But that's when Esposito's brother, Tony, stepped in.
"Tony said, 'Bradley's not playing, and I'm going to tell you, he can skate,'" Esposito recalled.
With the Lightning heading into a Western Conference known for speed, that was an important asset. So Bradley became the sixth-to-last pick in the draft, making for a roller-coaster of emotions.
"You'd be lying if you said you're not hurt to be unprotected," Bradley said. "You have pride, ego. You're definitely disappointed that you're left off. But I knew the best thing for my career was probably a change. It was a second chance, a new lease on life. And it changed my career dramatically."
Take a spin around Bradley's 3,400-square-foot home in Wesley Chapel and it's like a trip through Lightning lore.
There are mementos from the first game in franchise history, played at Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Bradley quickly found out it was quite a contrast from Maple Leaf Gardens and the hockey hotbed of Toronto. When Tampa Bay Lightning forward Chris Kontos scored four goals, it tested some of the new market's hockey knowledge. Fans threw hats on the ice, tradition for hat tricks. "Ushers were trying to throw people out because they didn't know what was going on," Bradley said. "It was crazy."
There are photos of Bradley at the groundbreaking for the now Amalie Arena, Bradley one of only a few Tampa Bay players to appear in a game in Expo Hall, the Thunderdome (Tropicana Field) and Amalie. There's a photo of Bradley with Wayne Gretzky at the 1993 All-Star Game, the Lightning's first representative. On the wall behind Bradley's desk in his office hang two signed sticks, one from Lecavalier and St. Louis, the franchise's next two stars. Next to them is a plaque commemorating Bradley's recent induction into the Tampa Sports Hall of Fame.
Bradley was touched recently at a golf outing when a long-time Lightning fan said he grew up wanting to be Bradley.
That type of connection is a reason why the Lightning decided to bring Bradley back to the organization a couple years after he retired in 1998 due to concussions. Bradley started doing radio and TV, including the 2004 Stanley Cup season before transitioning to youth hockey director. He was a board member on the Lightning High School Hockey League. Now, Bradley builds relationships with corporate sponsors and season ticket holders, serving as an ambassador along with former captain Dave Andreychuk.
"Brian has been very valuable for us, because he provides a great link to our fans to the past," said Lightning VP Bill Wickett. "He's symbolic and brings back some great memories for fans who cherish the early years of the Lightning."
Bradley's post-career gigs allowed he and his wife, Carrie, to raise their three children -— Cody, Trey and Brianne, 24 — in Tampa. It also gave Bradley a front-row seat to the transformation of Tampa Bay as a hockey market. Bradley coached Cody and Trey, both of whom played hockey at Colorado College, back when there weren't many places in the area to play. Now, just five minutes from Bradley's home is the state-of-the-art, 150,000-square-foot Florida Sports Ice, which will host the U.S. Women's National Team this fall. Next month, the arena will host the V-Red Prospects Advanced Camp, the first time in its 16 years it will be held in the U,S.
"It's been interesting to be here from the beginning," Bradley said. "And see how it grew."
Another new — "non traditional" — hockey market is starting up in Las Vegas. And Bradley has some advice for those players who will get picked on Wednesday.
"I'd use it as a positive," Bradley said. "It's a great opportunity. You're going to be disappointed because you got left unprotected, but use that to your advantage, use that fire and get (ticked off) and go show everyone in the league that you can be a good player.
"There could be another Brian Bradley."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.