Daren Puppa’s circuitous route to becoming a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning ahead of the 1993-94 season came as a surprise to onlookers. A mere three years after a runner-up finish for the Vezina Trophy and a spot on the NHL’s second all-star team, Puppa was exposed by the Toronto Maple Leafs only to be selected by the Florida Panthers and plucked away by the second-year Lightning 24 hours later in the most convoluted expansion draft in NHL history.
To Puppa, though, the two-day, three-team journey didn’t cause him to raise so much as an eyebrow. “I knew about it, knew it was going to happen before it happened,” Puppa said. “I don’t remember exactly why or how, but I knew Tampa and Phil Esposito were interested in me, so I knew something was going on. There were some dealings behind the scenes going back and forth with Toronto trying to keep me, but Tampa won out.”
And was Tampa Bay ever glad it did. The Lightning crease the season prior was an unmitigated disaster, with four netminders combining for a wretched .872 save percentage. However, Tampa Bay found a surefire No. 1 goalie in 28-year-old Puppa, one with enough experience and talent to give the organization stability between the pipes.
In his first season with the Bolts, he played a career-high 63 games and posted a solid .899 SP and 2.71 goals-against average. Puppa improved on those totals in his second season (.905 SP, 2.68 GAA), but the best was still to come. In 1995-96, Puppa turned heads and garnered league-wide attention with a brilliant .918 SP, 2.46 GAA, four shutouts and a third-place finish in Vezina Trophy voting as the Lightning rode his performance to the franchise’s first playoff berth.
Unfortunately, Puppa’s career hit a huge bump in the road just as it was climbing towards its zenith. In October 1996, Puppa, at 31, sustained a groin injury, tweaked it during Tampa Bay’s season opener and then fell victim to a debilitating back injury during his recovery from the initial ailment. Never the same after the injury, he played only 50 games over the next four seasons. “I could have played a lot more years if my back was good,” Puppa said. “I was in the peak of my career, and when you blow your back out, it’s really tough. The back has downed a lot of athletes over the years.”
When Puppa retired at age 35 following the 1999-2000 season, he held the Lightning team records for wins, shutouts and games, and backstopped the Bolts in their first playoff game and first playoff victory. While most of his records have since been broken by Nikolai Khabibulin, Ben Bishop or Andrei Vasilevskiy, Puppa remains second in games, fourth in wins and tied for third in shutouts.
Tampa Bay left its mark on Puppa, too. He has remained in the area and while he’s dabbled in coaching and has been a presence at Lightning alumni events, Puppa finds himself working in real estate alongside his wife, Meg. And reflecting nearly two decades later on his career, among Puppa’s only regrets are his failure to hoist the Stanley Cup – “I’m in the majority for that,” he quipped – and that he couldn’t extend his career long enough for his kids to remember their father suiting up in the NHL. “When you’re growing up as a kid, your dream is to get into the NHL,” Puppa said. “I was fortunate enough to have 15 years of professional hockey, which was great and went by quick. But you have to enjoy those years, because once they’re over, there’s no going back.”
Born: March 23, 1965, Kirkland Lake, Ont.
NHL Career: 1985-2000
Teams: Buf, Tor, TB
Stats: 179-161-54, 3.04 GAA, .897 SP, 19 SO
All-Star: 1 (Second-1)
DID YOU KNOW?
Puppa can thank former Montreal star and six-time Cup champion Ralph Backstrom, who happens to be his first cousin once removed, with opening the NHL door. A chat between Backstrom and Sabres GM Scotty Bowman led to Buffalo scouts taking a look at an 18-year-old Puppa backstopping his hometown Kirkland Lake Legion 87s. After positive reviews, Bowman took a flyer on Puppa with a fourth-round pick in 1983.