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Lightning honor Esposito with statue

by Lonnie Herman
TAMPA, Fla. -- Hockey legend Phil Esposito has been the recipient of many honors, both large and small. He's been the NHL MVP, won Stanley Cups and scoring honors, been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and watched his sweater rise into the rafters of Boston Garden, retired forever.

But Saturday, Esposito received an honor that was long overdue and recognized his contribution to hockey in Florida, as a bronze statue of his likeness was dedicated on the plaza of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the hockey team that Phil Esposito founded in 1991.


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The dedication ceremony took place just prior to Saturday's game between the Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes, and the plaza was jammed with fans and admirers. They heard current Lightning owner Jeff Vinik praise Esposito as, "The man who made all this possible."

His response was vintage Esposito -- part gratitude and part rant, as he briefly recounted his long battle to bring hockey to Tampa.

"I've been a lucky guy," Esposito told the crowd. "I love Tampa Bay. It was a tough journey but a good journey and when I think back on all the perils and the ups and downs, well, there were more ups than downs. Even when this franchise wasn't very good, you, the fans, never quit on us."

Esposito then took care of a few old scores.

"We've had some good owners and some bad owners," Esposito said.

Then, referring to the owner that severed his ties with the team at one point, he asked, "Could any owner be worse than Art Williams?"

He went on to praise current owner Jeff Vinik and CEO Tod Leiweke, and recall how much he enjoyed working alongside his brother, fellow Hall of Famer Tony Esposito, who served as Director of Hockey Operations at the inception of the franchise and was in attendance, along with many of Esposito's former partners, players and family.

"Finally, finally, my brother and I had a chance to work together," Esposito said.

He summed up the difficult formative years of the Lightning this way: "With all due respect to my ex-wife, founding this franchise cost me my marriage, but it was worth it!"

The Lightning didn't let Esposito and the sell-out crowd down Saturday night, coming from behind with four unanswered goals to defeat the Hurricanes, 5-2.
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