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. . . but you can't take the Lightning out of Esposito

Published Sep. 30, 2005

Esposito on Steve Oto: "I should have known I was in trouble when we moved to the Ice Palace and there was no place for me to sit."

He picks up the newspaper, any newspaper, every morning. He pulls the sports section out and begins to turn the pages.

Eventually, he finds the hockey summaries. He picks out the right one and runs his finger across the type. He sees who scored the goals, who had the assists, who drew the penalties. He checks the attendance. He checks the standings. On those occasions the numbers read the way he wants, he leans back and smiles.

Those are the times Phil Esposito feels like a father.

It is still inside of him, this franchise known as the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ask him how much it means to him, and he calls out three names. Lori. Carrie. Cherise. Those are his children. So is this. "My baby," he calls it. "This team is with me till the day I die. It's my child."

These days, however, parent and child are estranged. For the first time in its eight-year history, the Lightning has entered a season without Esposito. Oct. 2, when Tampa Bay opened its season with a victory over the Islanders, he was playing in a golf tournament in Las Vegas.

But he still lives in Tampa, and he still pays attention. Why not? It was Esposito who carved the bolt across the chest of the uniform. It was Esposito who became the symbol of everything good, and of everything bad, and of everything that was absolutely loony over the course of this franchise.

Perhaps, then, you would expect him to be bitter. He was driven to near-insanity by former team president Steve Oto, and he was driven from the building by former owner Art Williams. But Esposito remains his affable self. It might interest you to know that he also remains a fan of the Lightning.

"I think these new owners are terrific," Esposito said. "I wish I had had the opportunity to work for people like that. I think Ron Campbell is a terrific guy. Rick Dudley is a great hockey man. I'm impressed by what they've done, and I'm impressed at how the team has progressed. I think it's terrific. I wish them nothing but the best. I hope this year, or next year, or the year after, they turn this league upside down. I mean that."

Once, a long time ago, Esposito believed that of his ownership group, too. In the early days of the Lightning, Espo hit every restaurant, every bar, and he shook every hand he could see in the selling of his team. Five years to the Stanley Cup, he told people. To this day, he swears he believed it could have been done.

"Absolutely," he said. "If we had stuck to our initial game plan. I knew, because the Bucs had been unsuccessful for so long, that we were going to have to win after three or four years."

For three years, things went well. The team was in the playoffs its third season. It barely missed its fourth.

Then Oto came to town, and Esposito's days of frustration began.

"It was very, very, very, very frustrating," Esposito said. "I came close to resigning more than once. I should have known I was in trouble when we moved to the Ice Palace and there was no place for me to sit. I remember (NHL commissioner Gary) Bettman telling Oto it was a shame the general manager didn't have a place.

"It was very difficult (under Oto). I don't know why he was there. All he did was bitch at me about money, telling me which players had to go because of how much money they were making. I laugh at people who still ask me, "How could you let (Chris) Gratton go?' Well, we didn't have the money to pay him. That's the damn truth. I even tried going behind Oto's back, to Sunshine, to the concessionaires, to get money to pay him. I was told to mind my own business."

Still, it was Esposito who had to explain the blurry fax (as the team received the offer sheets from the Flyers in the Gratton signing). "Hey, it was blurry," he said. Then he laughs. "But I knew what it was. I'm not stupid. I was trying everything. I was like a defense lawyer trying to keep his man out of the electric chair."

And so it went. Keep in mind this is Esposito's view of what happened. Still, it shows just how ridiculous things could get behind the scenes.

"There was the Puppa thing," Esposito said. "He was going into arbitration, but we had a tentative deal set with St. Louis to trade him for Curtis Joseph. There were a couple of other players, but they weren't big names. I got a call from Oto that night, frantically looking for Tony, telling me they had signed Daren for $2-million a year. I asked why. We were going to win in arbitration and get him for $1.3 or $1.4. And we could walk if we wanted. Oto said, well, we did it. I lost it then. It's a wonder I didn't get fired then and there."

Esposito said the original deal for Gratton was not for Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis, but for Renberg and John Cordick. He said Flyers GM Bobby Clarke substituted Dykhuis only because of him.

He said Oto once insisted the team trade Roman Hamrlik to Carolina for Jeff Sanderson. When Espo refused, he said Oto came storming into his hotel room and threatened him.

He said he used to be called to Oto's office where Oto, a virtual stranger to the game, would diagram plays for him.

There were other players he could have had, Esposito said. He won't say whom. He says there are restrictions in his contract that prevent it. He says he plans to write a book.

If so, it won't take many pages to get to the rift between him and ex-coach Terry Crisp. Espo said his plan was for Crisp to move into the front office after three years so Wayne Cashman could coach.

"Oto wouldn't let me do it," Esposito said. "We had made the playoffs, and Terry wanted to coach. I got rid of some of the players because the coach wanted me to. I would never do that again."

Esposito said it was Crisp who wanted to be rid of Petr Klima, of Hamrlik, of Joe Reekie, of Cashman. Espo talks, and the edge grows in his voice. Then he surrenders it. "It's water under the bridge," he said.

Big bridge, troubled water. For the record, Esposito says he still has never met Takashi Okobu, who used to own the team, and he still isn't 100 percent certain Okobu even existed. He said, yes, the Duke of Manchester did. "I think he's still in jail. And, yes, Art Williams existed, too.

The final straw was Williams, the bully-pulpit owner who came and went in a hurry. In those few months he was here, he fired Esposito.

"Art was completely out of his element," Esposito said. "He had no idea what he was getting into. He asked me what I thought about this team when he first got here, and I told him it wasn't going anywhere. He got mad at me. He said, "That's a bad attitude.' I was just telling him the truth."

Esposito used to get reams of faxes for Williams. He kept one of them. It read, simply, "The gazelle gets up in the morning and starts running and running. The lion gets up and starts chasing the gazelle. If the gazelle stops, it dies. Go Go Art."

Esposito laughs. "I have no idea what that was supposed to mean to a hockey team."

Looking back, Esposito would have preferred Williams had fired him right away. He knows William Davidson would have. But that would have been neater, cleaner. Instead, Williams waited until all the contracts were signed. Then, two games into the season, Espo was fired. When the All-Star Game was held in Tampa a couple of months later, Espo's name wasn't even mentioned.

He is happy now. He has lost 30 pounds, and he feels better, and the advanced aging process that came with the Lightning has slowed to real time. He plans to start a mortgage-banking business in Tampa, and he works for Fox. He is scheduled to help broadcast 20 Boston Bruin games.

Still, he is a part of this franchise. As part victim, part manufacturer of all the silliness of a cartoonish franchise. It would be nice, as this team reaches a calmer, more organized part of its history, if it could reach out and make its peace with the man who was its first face.

As for the rest of us?

We're waiting for the book.