Monday, March 3, 2008

Catching Up With Tony Esposito

The Esposito name will forever by synonymous with Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. Legendary brothers Phil and Tony founded the team in the early 1990s, bringing the NHL to Tampa. Tony Esposito, a former goaltender who earned induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988 after a remarkable career with the Chicago Blackhawks, helmed the scouting and player development side of the Lightning from 1991-98. Working side-by-side with his brother, the two quickly established the Lightning as one of the hardest-working clubs in the NHL, and in only their fourth season had built a playoff team. Although his official ties with the Lightning ended in 1998, he attends almost every home game, and judging from well-wishers who stop by to say hello or request an autograph, his contributions to Lightning and the NHL are still appreciated. Sharp and insightful, Esposito holds nothing back while reminiscing about his time with the Lightning.

Q. So Tony, what have you been up to since leaving the Lightning in 1998?

A. Basically, I've done a lot of appearances, memorabilia stuff. It's quite lucrative and you do well. Now I'm back with the Chicago Blackhawks full-time as an ambassador. I'm an employee of theirs when they need me, but I can still live here. They're having a convention this summer for fans, so I'll do things like that.

Q. What is your most lasting memory from the inaugural 1992-93 season?

A. I really enjoyed that we came so far, so fast. We had a veteran team, but we had one weakness and that was in goal. In the expansion draft, the NHL changed the rule on us. Teams were able to protect two goalies, and they could protect any goalie who had three years of service time or less. So we had to choose from their fourth or fifth guy. That was the only bad thing. They didn't give us a break.

Q. What kind of working relationship did you have with Phil?

A. What you've got to understand is that Phil and I worked hand-in-hand. We're very close, my brother and I. He listened to my thoughts on players, depending on what player we were after. We had a good thing going until we got into a financial crunch. Our ownership started to cut, cut, cut. Every day, we'd go in and we'd argue with them. We know hockey, we're experts. But we were arguing with Japanese guys, who when they first got here, didn't know what a hockey puck was. Then all of a sudden, they became the experts! We had to get rid of players. We didn't want to get rid of Roman Hamrlik, for example, but they wouldn't pay him. Do you think we wanted to trade Hamrlik for Jason Bonsignore? People said we were idiots and don't know what we're doing, but it wasn't us. If we'd had the money and resources, we could have built this team up in a hurry. Our hands were tied that way, but that's okay. That's how it works. One thing we never did is go and cry to the newspapers about how our owner's won't give us money. They're your owners, you can't do that. You can say it now though, because they're long gone.

Q. How good was the team that reached the playoffs in the 1995-96 season?

A. We were a very good team. Our problem was when our goaltender, Darren Puppa, got hurt. He was playing really well but hurt his back. Then Brian Bradley got hurt, had some problems with his knee. He was a smaller guy and that was the beginning of the end for him physically. So you had your top goaltender by a mile and your best scorer hurt. That was the end of it.

Q. What do you think was the reason for the team's decline after reaching the playoffs?

A. Money, with a capital M! You know, we'd defy the ownership sometimes and they'd back off. Otherwise we'd have had nothing. You have to draw the line somewhere. Phil and I sat down and we said that we can't keep doing this. We were trying to build a team. Then when the team got sold to Art Williams, he had his own agenda. That's okay though, you gotta understand that. But he would compare us to when he was coaching high school football in some small town in Georgia. Like it's the same thing. So we had to sit and listen, but he just went on and on. The night before the 1998 season opener in South Florida, we were all sitting down for a meal together as a team. Then all of a sudden, Art gets up and starts talking. Went on for over an hour. The guys just wanted to eat so they can go get some rest. Then he brought up all this high school stuff again. I couldn't believe it. The next night we lost to the Panthers, 4-1.

Q. Three of the Lightning's first four number-one picks -- Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton and Daymond Langkow -- are all still playing in the NHL. When you scouted and drafted them, did you imagine they would have such lengthy careers?

A. Yeah, I did think so. As far as Hamrlik, I think if he had stayed with us he would have been a better player than he is today. He's a good player, and you've got to be to last 15 years, but I think he would have been better. The guy we made a mistake with was Jason Weimer (in 1994). I had a bad feeling about him. He never had to work for anything. Everything in his life came too easy. I don't know if it was the heart, but he just didn't have the desire. I don't think he was willing to sacrifice.

Q. Your final draft with the Lightning featured the selections of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, who are now cornerstones of the organization. What do you remember about that draft?

A. Taking Vinny was a no-brainer. He was the best junior player I've ever seen. Ever. Probably the best because of his size, strength, speed, and mean streak. Whereas there are a lot of other great players now like Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, I don't think they're going to have the longevity like Vinny. I think at 35 and 36 years old he'll still be one of the top players in the league, because of his attributes. We thought Brad Richards was going to be a real good player, but we didn't know how good. The reason we got him in the third round was because at the time, his skating was suspect. Otherwise, he probably would have gone a little sooner, because he had such great hand skills and smarts on the ice.

Q. Before there was even a Lightning team to put on the ice, did you have faith that hockey could succeed in a non-traditional market like Tampa Bay?

A. Everyone was skeptical when we first came here to get organized. But in the first few years, Phil and I used to go out on appearances twice a week to different bars. These appearances were jammed. Hundreds of people would come out. Since we didn't have any players yet, we had to promote something. So we promoted ourselves. That's when we picked up on it and knew we had something here. Look at it now.

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