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Lightning Hall of Fame: Phil Esposito’s dedication to a dream gave Tampa Bay hockey

TAMPA — Phil Esposito still employs the same mantra he did as a Hall of Fame player. Whether it’s yelling into his headset as the team’s color commentator telling Lightning players to shoot, or it’s reminiscing about his improbable push to get Tampa Bay an NHL franchise more than three decades ago, there’s not a second to waste.

“That’s what the game is all about; it’s a split second,” said Esposito, the Lightning’s founder. “It’s the hesitation. When a guy gets the puck and he’s right there in the slot and he hesitates, that split second, it gets blocked, or the goalie makes a save. You don’t hesitate.

“He who hesitates loses.”

Esposito’s hard-charging mentality brought hockey to Tampa Bay, and now, in a relatively short lifespan, the Lightning have become one of the league’s model franchises. He fought relentlessly to make others believe that the sport could be successful in Florida.

“A pipe dream? It was worse than that,” said Tampa lawyer Henry Paul, who partnered with Esposito to land the franchise. “Make no mistake about it, it was Phil who got this franchise 100 percent. And look at what has happened to this community as a direct result of getting this team 30 years ago. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen the extent that it has transformed this community.”

This weekend, Esposito, 81, will be honored as the first member of the Lightning Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, going in with Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, who join automatically as the two players who have had their jersey numbers retired. An induction ceremony will be held Friday at Amalie Arena, and the celebration will continue during Saturday’s home game against St. Louis’ Canadiens.

When Esposito landed in Florida in 1990, he was looking for a new beginning. A few months earlier, he had been fired as general manager of the Rangers.

“I had to create a job for myself,” Esposito said. “I knew I wasn’t getting a job in New York again. So how do I survive? And I’ve always been a survivor.”

A golfing trip with a few of his buddies led to a meeting with Paul at Malio’s Prime Steakhouse in Tampa, where Paul introduced Esposito to several of the area’s movers and shakers. Esposito landed the Lightning franchise nine months later.

“I was hell bent on creating a job for myself in Florida,” Esposito said. “And quite frankly, if I hadn’t gotten a team, I’d be selling cars on Florida Avenue, because I would still be here. I’d be doing something because this is where I wanted to live. This is the place I wanted to be.

“I chose this town. It was my idea and my choice.”

The NHL wanted to venture south, which was uncharted territory at the time after the Flames left Atlanta for Calgary. The dividing line was from Los Angeles to St. Louis to Washington, D.C.

Esposito had several obstacles. Funding for a new arena fell through. Just before Paul went to New York to present the proposal, one of Esposito’s key financial backers pulled out, leaving him scrambling to pay the $100,000 application fee.

Esposito used his connections to pull off an exhibition game between the Kings and Penguins at the Florida Suncoast Dome, now known at Tropicana Field, that drew an NHL-record crowd of 25,581 fans. Paul said the game had a gate revenue of $500,000.

And Kings star Wayne Gretzky, whose move to Los Angeles opened hockey to the West, gave his seal of approval. “It wouldn’t be hard to recruit players to come here,” Gretzky said. “It would be good exposure for the league to play in Florida.”

The success of that game also caught the eye of Japanese investors who would eventually bankroll the franchise.

“We spent that whole summer promoting,” Paul said. “Phil would go to every little bar, every little place, meet people, promote the exhibition game. He saw the community and he had faith in it. I think the bottom line was, he had faith and his faith was rewarded. He put this on his back.”

Esposito had competition from a group that wanted to put a team in St. Petersburg, but that group wanted to negotiate a partial payment of the league’s $50 million expansion fee. Esposito was asked by the league’s board of governors if he thought the fee was worth it. His response: “I don’t know if it’s worth it, but we’re gonna pay it. And as soon as we pay it, every one of your franchises is going to be worth at least $50 million.”

On Dec. 6, 1990, Esposito was led to a back room at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. As he walked through the double doors into a room with all of the league’s governors, they started chanting, “Es-po, Es-po, Es-po.”

“When I think about it now, it gives me goosebumps,” Esposito said.

“He had tears in his eyes,” Paul said. “(NHL president John Ziegler) told him, ‘Phil, we did this because we have faith in you, we know you can make it work.’ And that’s the truth. They did have faith in Phil, they knew he could market it.”

Hockey has become popular throughout the Sun Belt. From Dallas to Sunrise to Nashville to Carolina, teams have built on-ice success and strong fan bases.

“He’s obviously a legend in the game,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “Not that he wasn’t a legend in Lightning history, but to have something to signify that, too, it just shows the growth of our franchise and how we can start to have pretty cool things like this.”

A statue of Esposito stands in Thunder Alley outside Amalie Arena. A permanent tribute to Esposito will be unveiled during Friday’s ceremony somewhere near the Lightning’s three Stanley Cup banners. Esposito takes pride in being able to set the stage for the team’s future triumphs.

“Think about it, we’ve won three Stanley Cups,” Esposito said. “We’ve been to the finals five times. How many conference finals have we been to? That’s amazing. Amazing. Ottawa hasn’t done that and they came in at the same time. So I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of the foundation that was laid.”

Lightning Hall of Fame ceremony

Friday, 7:30 p.m., Amalie Arena

Tickets: $30 ($20 for season ticket holders) can be purchased on Ticketmaster

More information: Lightning founder Phil Esposito, as well as jersey number retirees Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, will be inducted into the franchise’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in a ceremony held on the covered ice. Fans will be seated on the west side of the promenade level to view the induction stage. Select concession stands will be open. Guests will be able to enter the arena via Gates A and B off Thunder Alley.

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