TAMPA, Fla. – From an office on East Kennedy Boulevard to playing on the fairgrounds, to Amalie Arena and three Stanley Cups, Phil Esposito has seen it all with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The team’s founder and first general manager will join Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, the only Lightning players to have their jersey numbers retired, as inaugural members of the Lightning Hall of Fame. Given their numbers are in the rafters, the former players are automatic inductees. Esposito is the first elected member.
The induction ceremony will be on March 17 at Amalie Arena. The event is part of Lightning Alumni Weekend.
“For me to be the first is very, very special,” said Esposito during a press conference Thursday morning at the arena. “Vinny and Marty got their numbers retired, and that is terrific. I love seeing players’ numbers retired. I had my number retired in Boston, which was a very special time. But this is something, to start this hall of fame.”
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Esposito, who turned 81 Monday, recalled how the team initially set up shop at the East Kennedy office ahead of the maiden season of 1992-93, struggled financially during the first decade of operation, and then won the first Cup in 2004 in the franchise’s 12th season.
“You have to set some sort of tradition before you can go on and do the things that you really think are the right things to do,” he said. “This is the right thing to do, to start a hall of fame here. After 30 years, I think the tradition with three Stanley Cups and going to the finals two more times, it’s incredible.”
Esposito, always the great storyteller, had the media gathering laughing more than once during his 25-minute conference. He recalled a story of a player who said he could not play in Tampa because it’s too hot.
“Eventually, we traded him to Edmonton so he could freeze his ass off,” he said. “That was biggest thing for me in the beginning, trying to explain to people up north, in Canada, New York and all these places, that we play indoors. Wouldn’t you rather leave a game when it’s 65 or 70 outside, or 10 below?”
It is hot in Vegas, too. There were rumors the Lightning were headed west until Jeff Vinik bought the team in February 2010. That put an end to the financial mess the team had become at times under previous ownership groups.
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“Had (the league) not gone into revenue sharing and the (salary) cap, I am not sure we could have survived,” said Esposito, who has been a part Lightning radio broadcasts since the 1999-00 season. “I do know this, before Jeff bought it, they were talking about moving this team to Vegas.”
The team remained in Tampa and has achieved much success, including its current run of three straight Cup final appearances and hoisting the chalice in 2020 and 2021.
“Here we are, with the Tampa Bay Lightning Hall of Fame,” he said. “Long after I am gone, and I hope it goes on forever. Without a doubt, (founding the Lightning) was the greatest thing I have ever done in hockey.”
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