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Lightning to honor Esposito with statue

by Lonnie Herman
It took 20 years to happen, but Phil Esposito will finally get his due as the founder of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

On New Year's Eve, prior to the game between the Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes, the team will unveil a life-size bronze statue of Esposito -- in time to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the franchise being awarded to Tampa Bay.

"That happened Dec. 6, 1991," Esposito told "So as long as we do it in 2011, it's still the 20th anniversary."

The sculpture came about because of the efforts of Tampa attorney Steve Stuart, an original season-ticket holder who raised the funds for the statue and got the project under way.

The bronze statue, which reportedly cost $60,000, portrays Esposito in a suit and tie while holding a hockey stick. He's wearing a Lightning Stanley Cup ring on one hand and a ring from Boston's 1969-70 Stanley Cup team on the other.

"I think it's the fourth-greatest thing I've ever achieved in hockey," Esposito told "First is my first Stanley Cup, then having my number retired in Boston Garden, which was unbelievable, and third was hearing (then commissioner) John Ziegler say, 'The Tampa Bay franchise is awarded to Phil Esposito and the Tampa Bay Hockey Group.' I'll never forget that, and now this. It's like it's come full circle."

When current owner Jeff Vinik and chief executive officer Tod Leiweke were approached about the statue, they reacted enthusiastically.

"The question to us was, would the Lightning want a statue of Phil?" Leiweke said. "Our reaction was totally thumbs up. We loved it."

The Lightning have just completed a $40 million dollar facelift on their building, which they will rename the Tampa Bay Times Forum on the same night.

"This is the guy, if not for Phil, I'm not sure there is a building," Leiweke told "It was the right thing to do, and it's the right time to do it."

Esposito remains affiliated with the team he founded, serving currently as a radio analyst and vice president of corporate relations.

"This way this new organization treats me here is unbelievable," Esposito said. "They treat me with respect and they include me in a lot of things. I'm so pleased.

"I told the sculptor, 'Make this as solid as you can, so in case of a hurricane, the building may go, but the statue will still be there.'"

A number of hockey notables will be on hand for the ceremony.

"I think a lot of people important to Phil will be there," Leiweke said, "and I think Phil will realize that he's touched a lot of people's lives through his efforts to bring hockey to Florida."

As to the statue itself, the early reviews are enthusiastic.

"The artist did a perfect job," Leiweke said. "It'll be a great attraction for the building."

 Said Esposito: "I've seen it and it really looks good, except my ears look huge."
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