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Bowman: Esposito deserving of honor

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

An NHL legend in his own right, it is safe to say that Scotty Bowman knows a good player when he sees one. Of course, Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito is no exception. Here’s what the 10-time Stanley Cup champion and long-time visitor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum pressbox had to say about the Lightning founder:

On what he remembers about the way Esposito played the game:

“He had a tremendous scoring touch. Honestly, I didn’t know how good he would be when I saw him the junior ranks and minor leagues, but when he was with Boston, that’s when I really saw that he was a special player. He played with Bobby Orr and one thing about Phil, he had a knack for going to the slot. He was a big guy in his day and he had a quick release, but he used his size to score a lot of tough goals by being in an area where, in those days, they would rough you up. Orr and Phil provided for a great combination. Orr could rush the puck up like no one I had ever seen and Phil would patrol the front of the net. There weren’t too many players like him, but one player specifically who came about later on that somewhat resembled his style was Dave Andreychuk. I think in both cases, they liked to score goals more so than make plays.”

On if there is one current NHL player who reminds him of Esposito in terms of style of play:

“It’s hard to think of one. As a testament to Phil, he was really one of a kind. I mean, there was one about 20 years ago, and that was Tim Kerr of the Flyers. You know, nowadays, if I had to pick one, I’d say the closest might be Anze Kopitar from the Los Angeles Kings. But even at that, he doesn’t really have the presence in front of the net like Phil did. Phil had everything. He had size, strength and the ability to get his shot away very quickly. He scored lots and lots of goals.”

On what he will remember about Esposito’s legacy:

“Well he brought hockey here to Tampa Bay, and not just that, but to all of Florida and the south. You know, the Lightning were here before there was the Panthers, or the Dallas Stars, or a franchise in Atlanta. I think it all started with Phil. He started with an idea and it was great that it stayed here. It’s become a very strong franchise. He’s also been active in the community, which has made him an icon here and I think the people really look up to that. I think all the fans should be appreciative that he tried to bring hockey here to Tampa Bay, and succeeded, at a time when a lot of people thought the idea of hockey here would never work.”

On what else has contributed to the Bay Area other than bringing hockey here:

“He really grew the fan base here. A lot of northerners loved him as a player and I think they followed him when he started the Lightning franchise up down here. Certainly a lot of folks up there around Boston and New York relate to him, they love hockey, and they came down here. Even their offspring came down here. So, in his day, he was a popular figure and I think he carried that presence with him when he came down to Tampa.”

On what he thinks about the statue erected in Esposito’s honor:

“It’s fantastic. I think a lot of fans, especially the newer ones, will look at the statue and get a great sense of what a man Phil is and how important he was to getting a franchise here. It’s a great way to see him be honored.”

On how Esposito was viewed around the NHL by his peers during the 1970s:

“I would say he was probably the biggest part of the 1972 Summit Series. That was the first time the Europeans and the NHL players faced off and there was a lot of pressure on the NHL at that time. People didn’t really know a lot about the Soviets. Phil, though, made an emotional speech after one of the games in Canada that got the Canadian people going again. They were kind of tough on their home team, but that was a tremendous series and Phil played an integral role in creating a lot of buzz for the event. So, having that said, I think he was viewed not only as a great player, but a terrific ambassador for the game and for hockey in Canada.

On how Esposito’s impact in Tampa Bay compares to that of other figures’ in other cities:

“I don’t think Chicago really understood what they were giving up when they traded Phil to Boston. They had great players there at the time with Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, so they shipped him off and instead of creating something special there, he became one of the greatest players ever to play, making a name for himself with the Bruins and then of course did the same thing down here in Tampa. I think Phil’s presence though, here and the significance he has had on the city and the people, are similar to what Gretzky was able to do in Edmonton and what Stevie Yzerman did during his 20-plus years in Detroit.”

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