TAMPA — Lightning founder Phil Esposito has been selected for the franchise’s inaugural Hall of Fame class, the team announced Wednesday.
Esposito will be honored during Alumni Weekend March 16-18, along with former players Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. St. Louis and Lecavalier were automatic selections after previously having their numbers retired by the team.
An induction ceremony will be held March 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena and is open to the public. All three honorees will be in attendance, including St. Louis, who currently coaches Montreal. The Canadiens will be in town to play the Lightning on March 18. Tickets for the ceremony will be available through Ticketmaster for $20 for season ticket members and $30 for all others.
The Lightning announced the creation of the Hall before this season as part of their 30th season celebration. Esposito was selected by a 10-member committee, combined with an online fan vote. The list of 12 nominees included former players Dave Andreychuk, Brian Bradley, Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko; Terry Crisp, the team’s first coach; former Cup-winning general manager Jay Feaster; and longtime broadcaster Rick Peckham; among others.
Esposito, who turns 81 next week, is credited with bringing professional hockey to Tampa Bay, campaigning with the NHL that the sport could be successful in Florida. He was awarded the franchise in 1990 after the ownership group he organized put up a $50 million franchise fee.
From the Lightning’s first days playing in Expo Hall, a converted livestock pavilion at the Florida State Fairgrounds, during their inaugural season; to a move across the bay to the Thunderdome (now Tropicana Field); to the cash-strapped finances of the first few years that forced the team to fly commercially; Esposito, a Hockey Hall of Famer who still ranks seventh on the NHL’s all-time goals list (717), pounded the pavement to sell the game to an area that was largely unfamiliar with it.
Though the Lightning made the playoffs just once (1995-96) during Esposito’s seven-season tenure as president and general manager, he did see the team move into the brand-new Ice Palace (now Amalie Arena) in downtown Tampa, where a bronze statue honors him in front of the main entrance on Thunder Alley.
Since 1999-2000, Esposito has been the team’s radio color analyst and remained a visible piece of the organization as it won three Stanley Cups. Many credit Esposito’s determination during the early days of the franchise for setting the building blocks for its on-ice success and off-ice reputation under current owner Jeff Vinik.
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St. Louis and Lecavalier, members of the Lightning’s first Stanley Cup team in 2003-04, are the only two players to have their numbers retired and hung from the rafters inside Amalie Arena. St. Louis, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, was the Lightning’s career scoring leader (953 points) before he was surpassed by Steven Stamkos last April. Lecavalier was the team’s all-time goals leader (383) until he was passed by Stamkos in 2019.
The day after the induction ceremony, Esposito, St. Louis and Lecavalier will be honored before the game against the Canadiens, when permanent artwork of Esposito will be unveiled inside Amalie Arena to recognize him as an inaugural Hall of Fame member. A pregame blue carpet event will start at 5 p.m. Fans can get autographs from the more than 30 alumni members spanning the organization’s 30 seasons who are expected to attend the game.
The Alumni Weekend festivities will begin on March 16 with the Reunion Classic golf event at Topgolf in Brandon. Corporate bays for the event begin at $1,500, and individual tickets are currently on sale for $200 at reunionclassic.givesmart.com. Proceeds from the event will go to the Lightning Alumni Association.
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