Stamkos got encouragement from Esposito on way to 500 goals

Phil Esposito had a few words of advice a month ago for Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain parked at 497 goals and in the middle of a six-game scoring drought.

“I texted Steven and told him, ‘Don’t worry about whether you’ll get to 500, you will. It’s just a matter of time,'” Esposito said Thursday from Tampa.

That time came Wednesday, Stamkos scoring Nos. 500, 501 and 502 in a 5-2 victory at the Vancouver Canucks. 

Stamkos became the 47th player in NHL history to score 500 goals. He joined Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin (810) and Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby (528) as the third active player to reach the milestone, the 23rd in history to do it with one NHL team. 

“I told Steven, ‘Just keep trying to play as well as you can. The better you play, the more chances you’ll get. And just keep shooting the puck,'” Esposito said of his messages of encouragement.

Steven Stamkos with teammate Victor Hedman in the Tampa Bay Lightning dressing room Wednesday, Stamkos having scored goals No. 500, 501 and 502 against the Vancouver Canucks. Courtesy Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos’ three-goal flurry against the Canucks was his 11th career hat trick in 965 regular-season games.

Esposito, co-founder of the Lightning franchise who today is a radio analyst for their home games, had 32 hat tricks between 1967-79 for the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, 36 counting the postseason. He played 1,282 games for the Chicago Black Hawks, Bruins and Rangers from 1963-81, on his way to 1984 Hall of Fame induction.

It took Esposito six games to get from 490 to 500 in his career, scoring his 500th on Dec. 22, 1974, in his 803rd game. He would retire in 1981 with 717 goals and 873 assists; when he hung up his skates, only Gordie Howe had more goals and points. 

Stamkos reaching 500 goals “was inevitable,” Esposito said of the explosive center, who has played his entire career with Tampa Bay.

Steven Stamkos and Phil Esposito at Amalie Arena following a ceremonial face-off on Oct. 6, 2017. Scott Audette/Getty Images

“He replied to my message about shooting the puck by saying, ‘Thanks a lot, Phil, I understand that. Sometimes I get carried away trying to be a good teammate,'” Esposito said.

“I texted him back and said, ‘Goal-scorers are selfish. If you’re going to be a good goal-scorer, sometimes you have to be. You don’t mean to be selfish, but you’re a shooter.’

“I told him, ‘You’ve always been a shooter, that’s your modus operandi. Think of yourself in junior, the year you came into the League (2008-09), the year you scored 60 goals (2011-12). Look how many shots on net you had then (an NHL career-high 303).'”

As a man who helped bring the Lightning to life, Esposito takes great pride in the fact that Stamkos has been with the team since he was the No. 1 selection in the 2008 NHL Draft. There was enormous speculation that he would test unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2016, but he signed an eight-year contract with the Lightning two days earlier to stay put.

Steven Stamkos in a 2008 NHL Draft portrait. Getty Images

“I am excited to move forward with the Lightning today for the next eight years,” Stamkos said at the time. “It’s not often that a player gets the chance to spend his career in one organization and I am hopeful that this agreement sets me on that path with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Most importantly, I look forward to working with my teammates, coaches and our management in our goal of winning a Stanley Cup.”

Sure enough came back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021.

“Steven is the face of the Lightning, there’s no doubt about it,” Esposito said. “People make a big deal that he stayed here instead of signing elsewhere when he had the chance to move.

“My take is, why would you want to go anywhere else when you can make just as much money through the tax system here (in Florida) as you would anywhere else, and you’re the king?

Phil Esposito scores career goal No. 273, beating Toronto goalie Bernie Parent on April 3, 1971, his first of two goals that night. Graphic Artists/Hockey Hall of Fame

“Your family can go to the grocery story after you’ve had a bad game and they’re not bothered. Tampa is a tremendous hockey market, but I feel for the guys who play up in Toronto and Montreal. They’re recognized constantly, everywhere they go, especially now in Toronto. The Maple Leafs are a very good team that I think absolutely should be considered one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.”

The Lightning left Vancouver immediately after the game Wednesday game, flying to Edmonton for their game Thursday against the Oilers (9 p.m. ET; ESPN, SNW, SN NOW). 

Esposito was back on his phone before noon on Thursday to text his congratulations to Stamkos, who might have been sleeping at 9 a.m. MT.

“I texted Steven because I’m very happy for him,” Esposito said.

Then, with a laugh:

“I know it was early, but Steven’s a good guy. If he were a (jerk), I wouldn’t have bothered.”

Top photo: Tampa Bay Lightning players and staff gather around Steven Stamkos in their dressing room in Vancouver on Wednesday night to celebrate their captain’s 500th career goal. Courtesy Tampa Bay Lightning

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