TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Phil Esposito has been inducted to several hall of fames over the years, but his inaugural induction into the Lightning Hall of Fame—holds a very special meaning for the man who founded the team three decades ago. 

“Without a doubt, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in hockey, and I did a lot of things as a player,” Esposito said.

What sets this honor apart for Esposito is the uphill battle he faced in seeing his idea of bringing professional hockey to the Tampa Bay area, come to life. 

“It was very, very difficult the first seven, eight to 10 years. Very,” Esposito said. “We didn’t have any money. They didn’t want to put any more money in, couldn’t get players, couldn’t pay bills. It was very difficult.” 

“I think (Esposito) tapped-in to every resource possible to make this happen,” said Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper. “When you look back and listen to the stories, it’s amazing that it got pulled off. But it’s a credit to Phil.” 

Meanwhile, Esposito is quick to credit others, saying he’s had great people around him that supported his vision— his “baby,” as he calls this team, which has grown into a thriving franchise, winning three Stanley Cups. He lights up when he talks about the Bolts’ success, knowing the arduous journey it was, to becoming a championship-caliber organization. 

“It’s incredible,” Esposito said. “Incredible. And when I talk about it, I get little goose bumps because for me, the 2004, when they won that Stanley Cup, it was like ‘My kid has graduated and they’ve moved on. Thank God!’ But this is special for me. It really is. I make small of things. It’s just my way. But it’s special.” 

Esposito will go into the 2023 class with former Lightning greats Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. On the team’s 30th anniversary, and with their growing list of franchise accolades, now seemed like the perfect time to start it. 

“You have to set some sort of tradition first before you can go on and do the things that you really think are the right things to do,” Esposito said. “This is the right thing to do – to start a Hall of Fame here—without a doubt. After 30 years I think through tradition and Stanley Cups—three Stanley Cups—and going to the finals two or three more times. It’s incredible.” 

“There’s a lot of history here,” Cooper said. “There’s people in this organization that are in the (Hockey) Hall of Fame so to be recognized on a nightly basis when people come to this arena, I think it’s– it’s not really overdue. I think the timing’s right. There has to be a history built before you can do anything like this.” 

The Lightning Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the trio of inaugural members will be Friday, March 17th as a part of the Bolts’ Alumni Weekend at AMALIE Arena.