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THE VERDICT: Esposito Brothers Know a Thing or Two About NHL Expansion

Nearly 30 years ago, former Blackhawks Phil and Tony Esposito were at the helm of building the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning

by Bob Verdi / Blackhawks.com

Everybody knows what Tony Esposito meant as a goalie and teammate. Hall of Famer with the Blackhawks, for whom he authored 15 shutouts as a rookie, still a modern record. Played hurt, played a lot, played with passion.

But what was "Tony O" like as a boss?  

"Great," recalled Denis Savard. "Same guy I knew from Chicago. Intense, but also knew how to laugh. And smart. Like his brother Phil. They knew the game. The Tampa Bay Lightning just won a second straight Stanley Cup. But if it wasn't for Tony and Phil, who knows?"

Back in 1993, having just won a Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, Savard joined the Lightning in its second year of existence. On the ground floor of this expansion franchise were the Esposito brothers. Phil was president and general manager. Tony was director of player personnel. They were credentialed. Phil had served as general manager and coach with the New York Rangers; Tony as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But that ground floor in Tampa was shaky at times.

"It was fun, to a degree," Tony recalled the other day. "We had no building, and no money. Some people thought we were crazy. Hockey in Florida? But there were a lot of transplants there, and a lot of leisure time. Phil and I went to local establishments, at least twice a week, promoting the team. Had to. It was a completely new idea."

Understand that the National Hockey League beat Major League Baseball to the Sunshine State. There were multiple aspiring and actual bidders for the franchise, and Phil was the lead man for the group that prevailed. His first hire was someone he could trust, Tony. The rest wasn't so easy.

"Let me put it this way," said Phil, who began his Hall of Fame career with the 1963 Blackhawks. "The Lightning, for the last decade or so, has had a fabulous owner, Jeff Vinik. What he's done, for the organization and the community, is unbelievable. Owners aren't supposed to be popular, but he's beloved. Just like Rocky Wirtz, for what he's done with the Blackhawks, the organization and the neighborhood. And what he did for legends like Tony, naming him an ambassador. Fantastic. Anyway, I recently had lunch with Jeff, and I said to him, 'Jeff, where were you when we needed you?' He said, 'Phil, I was still in school.' You get what I'm saying?"

Besides wading through a sea of red ink and uncertainty at the very top, the Lightning didn't get much help from the NHL for its $50 million entry fee -- certainly not the caliber of talent acquired by the Vegas Golden Knights, or the pool that awaits the Seattle Kraken for $650 million. Also, the nearest suitable facility was in Orlando, many miles away. Where would all these discarded Lightning players play?

"We wound up starting at the Fairgrounds," Tony said. "On the outskirts of downtown Tampa. The Expo Hall. A place for concerts and such. We were able to squeeze a rink in there, 185 feet by 85. And we could seat about 11,000 fans. We built a nice club next to it for fans. Porta potties, but otherwise a nice place to have a meal." 

The Lightning debuted there on Oct. 7, 1992, against the Blackhawks, whose traveling contingent included President Bill Wirtz. Tampa Bay scored early and often -- four goals by Chris Kontos -- against Ed Belfour, a Hall of Famer in the making. The Lightning romped, 7-3.

"I had planned to meet Bill after the game for a drink," Tony reminisced. "Always liked Bill. Well, Bill never made it. He was disgusted and left in the middle of the third period. It was an interesting night. The fans understood that when a guy like Kontos got a hat trick, the tradition was to throw hats onto the ice. But our security people didn't understand. When they saw people throwing hats onto the ice, they wanted to throw the fans out of the building. We had to step in to straighten things out."

After one season at the Fairgrounds, the Lightning moved to the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, later named the "Thunder Dome," for the hockey team. It is a cavernous structure intended to be home to the White Sox, who came perilously close to leaving Chicago in 1988. "Florida White Sox" T-shirts are a collectors' item. Support for hockey was encouraging. For the Lightning's playoff game against Philadelphia in 1996, 28,183 showed up, still an indoor NHL record. The Tampa Bay Rays have played there since they joined MLB.

"We were there for three years," said Tony. "We sort of cut it in half, with the rink going from first to third base. There was a curtain and in center field was a play area for kids. Then, we moved back to Tampa, where the Lightning are now. Amalie Arena. Building is full every night. The support for hockey has been amazing."

Phil, currently the radio analyst for Lightning home games, was recently invited by Vinik to partake of the team's boat parade Stanley Cup celebration. When the Blackhawks visited Tampa Bay for the 2015 Final, the brothers marketed the occasion, Tony in a Blackhawk sweater and Phil in Lightning apparel. All in good fun.

"When we were running things," Phil allowed, "Tony had to calm me down every once in a while. 'Take it easy, Phil.' He was the detail guy; I was more emotional. Was Tony the voice of reason? Let's not get carried away."  

Tony and wife Marilyn, who reside nearby, are treated like royalty when they attend games at Amalie. That's fine by Tony. He doesn't need a statue like the one of his brother just outside the arena, honoring the man who envisioned Tampa Bay, of all places, as a hockey mecca and was right on.

"Yeah, my statue," mused Phil. "It's a good place for the pigeons and seagulls to land and do their thing."  

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