TAMPA — Lightning founder Phil Esposito wore a new jacket Friday night, Lightning blue with white buttons, his name engraved on the inside, a distinctive patch with a bolt on it over his heart.
Esposito has never had a problem drawing a crowd. But on this night, everyone wanted a photo or a handshake with Esposito, who was spinning about to oblige everyone. Many were friends Esposito hadn’t seen in a while. Others were former players, like Chris Kontos, who christened Expo Hall with a four-goal performance in the Lightning’s inaugural game in 1992.
But some were strangers who just wanted to thank him for bringing hockey to Tampa Bay.
The Lightning’s founding father became the franchise’s first member of its new Hall of Fame, joined by jersey number retirees Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier.
Still a young franchise, comparatively, in a sport steeped in its tradition, the Lightning thought their 30-anniversary season would be the proper launching point to begin recognizing their history. And Esposito, who made a dream to bring an expansion franchise to Tampa Bay a reality in a nine-month span in 1990, was the only choice to be the Hall’s voted-in first member.
The night was a celebration of the franchise’s evolution, from the club’s growing pains leading into the first playoff series in 1996, to the emergence of the first Stanley Cup team in 2004 led by St. Louis and Lecavalier, to the Cup success under current owner Jeff Vinik.
Esposito received a standing ovation from a formal gathering on the ice that included 35 Lightning alumni and current players Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn, as well as 1,500 fans watching from the stands.
“When I got here and I saw the whole thing, I didn’t know what to expect,” Esposito said. “But I was so impressed with everything that was here. I especially liked all of (the fans) coming out. Seeing all that was cool. It was hard to see them because of the lights, but I could hear them.”
Esposito said that he didn’t think the Lightning could start a Hall of Fame five years ago. Since then, they have been to three straight Stanley Cup finals, winning twice.
“That has created the tradition,” Esposito said after the ceremony. “I think we needed it to do this sort of thing. Look, we’re only 30 years old. We’ve already won three Stanley Cups. We’ve been to the final five times. There’s not a lot of franchises who have done that.
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“You think about it. Vancouver’s never won. Buffalo has never won. Toronto hasn’t won since (1967). Here we are, relatively new. I mean, it’s been a whirlwind, there’s no doubt about it. And the way things have gone and what’s happened in this area, there’s no doubt about it. I just think that tradition is now there.”
St. Louis, who will be on the opposing bench Saturday night at Amalie as the coach of the Canadiens, and Lecavalier, who works in Montreal’s hockey operations department, were the stars of the Lightning’s first Stanley Cup team in 2003-04. But they both had reverence for the man who made it all possible.
“It means everything,” Lecavalier said of Esposito’s induction. “He brought the team here. It’s not easy. You’re thinking back in the early ’90s, it’s a market that probably won’t work. But Phil had that vision that it could work. And to see how it is today, it’s pretty amazing because without Phil, there’s no hockey team here.”
Said St. Louis: “For me, I’m flattered going into this club, but the fact that I’m going in with Phil, who probably had the most impact on why we’re here, is pretty special.”
All three were presented with custom-made Lightning blue sportscoats and awards made by local glass sculptor Marlene Rose. A pregame ceremony before Saturday’s game will unveil a Hall of Fame area at Amalie where more individuals will be honored annually.
“The thing about history, it doesn’t matter when it starts,” St. Louis said. “Now to be able to recognize players from the Lightning that maybe don’t get the recognition league-wide, I think it’s warranted, it’s deserved. And I think it’s important for the current players to see and I think for the past players to enjoy.”
The video tribute to Lecavalier and St. Louis was narrated by Stamkos, who described how the two players taught today’s group how to be leaders and winners.
“People are so focused on our team, but there were people that stepped in before us and people that will come after us,” coach Jon Cooper said going into the night. “So I think it’s important. I think it’s important when you go into the arenas and we look up and see the history. And I think it’s going to be important for young kids, when they see the players on our roster whose names are up there.”
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