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Phil Esposito celebrates 25 years of Lightning

Lightning founder Phil Esposito was eating breakfast last Sunday with family when he reflected on the 25th anniversary of the franchise.

And the only silver that came to mind was on the top of his head.

"I said, 'My hair was really black then, too,' " Esposito said with a chuckle.

Esposito, 73, said he can't believe how fast time has passed since Dec. 6, 1990, when he stood in a conference room at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach and heard then-National Hockey League president John Ziegler announce Tampa had been awarded a conditional franchise (along with Ottawa). Esposito noted how much he sacrificed to make it happen — a marriage, a family and "every penny that I had." That's partly why, a quarter century later, Esposito, currently a Lightning radio analyst, said building the Lightning is even more gratifying than hoisting the Stanley Cup, being selected into the NHL Hall of Fame or leading Canada past Russia in the legendary 1972 Summit Series.

"I did a lot of things as a player in this game, I broke a lot of records during my time that I'm very proud of," Esposito said. "But nothing, nothing was as good as getting this franchise. I think it's my greatest achievement ever in the world of hockey. I'd rather be in the Hall of Fame as a builder than a player."

Now that is saying something, considering Esposito is one of the greatest players of all time, with 717 goals and nearly 1,600 points. Why does the former Bruin, Blackhawk and Ranger consider the Lightning his finest work?

"Because I was out of my element," Esposito said. "As a player, God gave me talent. He sure didn't give me talent in the business world. I learned it. I did it on instinct and surrounding myself with good people."

Esposito said the hardest part was coming up with financing, his group having raised $23 million but still needing $32 million more. Once Tampa Bay got a team, Esposito went to work, doing everything from selling tickets to securing sponsorships.

Esposito said watching the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004 was like having a child graduate from college. "Guys, you're on your own," Esposito quipped. There's a statue of Esposito in front of Amalie Arena, but he points out there were countless people who helped this franchise succeed, no one more than owner Jeff Vinik, who took over the team in 2010.

"Jeff Vinik has been the best thing that's ever happened to this franchise," Esposito said. "I'm very pleased by the fact he bought this team. Let's put it this way, he brought it to my fantasy. This is the way I thought the team should be, and he brought it there. And he made my dream come true, finally."

(For more from Esposito, check out our latest Lightning Strikes podcast at tampabay.com/lightning).

SLAP SHOTS: Though the NHL announced a projection of a $3 million increase in the salary cap for next season, which would certainly help Tampa Bay, remember it's a soft estimate, not final. … RW J.T. Brown might be the most improved player, C Vladislav Namestnikov a close second. … The team has been using a sports psychologist, Ryan Hamilton, who splits his time with Tampa Bay and AHL Syracuse.

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

Phil Esposito celebrates 25 years of Lightning 12/11/15 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2015 9:56pm]
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