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Lightning founder Esposito honored with statue

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

The most impressive aspect of the bronze statue depicting Tampa Bay Lightning founder Phil Esposito is not the great detail that is precisely handcrafted into each and every contour, but rather the fact that its sculptor, Steven Dickey, was able to scale the piece to actual size.

After all, how does one limit the dimensions of a man who is larger than life?

Lightning fans throughout the Bay Area can now see for themselves, as the organization will unveil a life-sized likeness of the most essential figurehead in franchise history out on the west plaza prior to tonight’s game against the division-rival Hurricanes.

“Oh, I think it’s fantastic,” Esposito said of having the replica made in his honor. “I feel very humbled and appreciative. There is no doubt this statue is among my greatest accomplishments in hockey and will be something I cherish and remember forever.”

For starters, Dickey took Esposito out of his hockey gear and dressed him in a business suit to illustrate the Hockey Hall-of-Famer’s transparency as a significant community contributor among local residents and civic leaders. He placed a hockey stick in one hand to remind those just exactly what it was that Esposito brought to the region at a time when the most cynical of critics considered the notion of hockey in Florida as nothing more than a foolish afterthought.

As a result of Dickey’s diligent work, equal to that of Esposito’s more than 20 years earlier in granting the Bay Area its first-ever professional hockey franchise, the Lightning founder no longer appears just once in the A to Z guide of NHL legends who have a reserved seat up inside the Times Forum press box for each and every home game. Rather, Esposito now maintains a presence outside the arena, too.

Talk about respect.

As a matter of fact, that’s just what sparked the idea of the statue’s inception in the first place.

Steve Stuart, an original season ticket member since the inaugural 1992-93 season, came up with the idea of honoring Esposito after taking a tour through historic Ybor City and marveling at the statues that adorned park benches and walkways around the area.

“I saw that and thought, ‘man, whoever that sculptor is who did this is pretty good,’ Stuart recalled. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a statue like that to honor Phil for bringing the Lightning here? It was one of those things that just kind of hit me out of nowhere.”

Kind of like the time Esposito was sitting on his back porch during a thunderstorm at his home on Davis Islands, to which he credits the origin of the name of the team after seeing lightning strike repeatedly to illuminate the night sky. Then, also in similar fashion to when Esposito presented his case to Japanese investors in an attempt to acquire an NHL expansion franchise, Stuart brought his own idea to Esposito himself, laid out the terms, received a blessing to have the statue made, gathered up $50,000, and just like that, the two men were off to work.

Enter Dickey, and you get real life’s version of a natural hat trick.

“When Steve first approached me about it, I liked the idea of creating a statue of a sports figure,” Dickey said. “Of course, I was excited to meet Phil too. The three of us went to lunch and sat down and thought about how we were going to do this. And I’ll tell you what, Phil was such a great guy, that even though he’s from Canada, it felt like I was having lunch with a member of my wife’s family who grew up in West Tampa. He just fit in so well, so I thought, ‘man, this is great that the three of us got together and we’re about to do something that has never been done before.”

That was true.

As far as the Lightning go, lots of this had never been done before.

Certainly not like Esposito, Dickey and Stuart were about to do it.

Consider for a moment, that the project took well over a year in the making, and mind you, with good reason.

Due to each individual’s body type, Dickey was required to “start from scratch,” creating the mold out of clay for each prospective piece. From there, the clay mold is then made into a wax duplicate, which is then immersed into a shell in which the wax is burned out, the bronze is poured in, and the individual pieces get welded together.

It was then then Dickey’s job to chisel away at the solid structure, making for an overall complex procedure that falls nothing short of dissecting the nuances of Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1. But finally, through perseverance, one man’s diligence paid off to create something all fans can enjoy.

Sound familiar again?

Esposito defied all logical odds in bringing hockey to the Sunshine State.

Dickey defied just about everything from description to geometry to Pythagoras’ theory of proportions to produce a grand and lauded figure confined by just over six feet of metal alloy.

Yeah, technically speaking, it’s life-size.

But if it could only accurately depict the size of life Esposito has within for the Lightning, the community and the fans who live in it.

“It really makes me feel good when fans thank me for bringing the Lightning to Tampa Bay,” Esposito said. “I did not do it alone, that’s for sure. But there is not a doubt that this was my idea and my dream. When fans thank me, I get goose bumps. It means more to me when I hear how grateful someone is for the Lightning, then when someone compliments my hockey career. I feel so proud of what I accomplished.”

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