May 12, 2006

Phil Esposito

One of the game's greatest forwards and one of the game's greatest goalies grew up in the same family home. Phil practiced shooting against brother Tony for hours on end, and by 1970 both had reached the top of the hockey world and we're both named to the First All Star Team.

Tony is best known as a Chicago Blackhawk. It is often forgotten that Phil got his start in the NHL in the Windy City (in 1963-64), though it was a few years before Tony arrived. Phil of course is best known as a Boston Bruin and to a lesser degree as a New York Rangers.

Phil played three seasons as a Blackhawk, and was once touted as Bobby Hull's center of the future. However 3 and 1/2 seasons of averaging around 20 goals and 55 points, Chicago changed their mind on him. They felt he wasn't living up to his potential, and that his skating wasn't quick enough.

Phil joined the Bruins in a six player trade in 1967 from Chicago. Hindsight is always 20/20, but history tells us that this trade was one of the most lopsided in NHL history. Espo, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield were all sent to Boston and would all become key players of one of hockey's most explosive teams in the 1970s. Going to Chicago was Pit Martin, Jack Norris and Gilles Marotte.

Esposito was teamed up with Bobby Orr in Boston, forming one of the most dynamic scoring duos in hockey history. Orr would dance around from his point position with no one knowing how to defend against hockey's first offensively dominant defenseman. Esposito would park himself in the slot, readying himself for a pass, a deflection or a rebound. He was such a master of scoring garbage goals that a common saying in Boston in these days was "Jesus saves, but Espo scores on the rebound." Stan Fischler once dubbed Espo as the "highest paid garbage collector in the United States."

In his very first year in Boston Espo led the entire league in assists. By year two He became the first player to break the 100 point plateau. In fact, he smashed the old record held by Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. Both of those magnificent Chicago players shared the record with 97 points in a single season. In 1968-69, Phil scored 126 points!! Two years later he would again post mind boggling totals of 76 goals and 76 assists for 152 points, unheard of stats then especially, and even by today's standards absolutely amazing!

Three years after the trade Espo led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup, ending a 29 year drought for the B's. Although Bobby Orr's flying-through-the-air Cup clinching goal against the Blues is best remembered, Esposito had an incredible playoff, scoring 13 goals and 27 points in just 14 games, leading all post season scorers in each category Two years later, the Bruins won another Stanley Cup with Esposito scoring 24 points in 15 games.

During his 8 1/2 years in Boston, Phil won 5 scoring titles and finished second twice. He led the NHL in goal scoring 6 straight seasons from 1969-70 to 1974-75. He was named to either the first or second All Star team each year he wore the black and gold. He was also a two time winner of the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Pearson Trophy (MVP as chosen by the players), as well as the recipient of the Lester Patrick Trophy for contribution to hockey in the U.S.

Espo should be known as the greatest offensive force prior to Gretzky and Lemieux, but he was overshadowed by his even more amazing teammate Bobby Orr. And despite all the accolades and awards, Phil somehow never quite got the recognition he deserved. All of his success was credited to the presence of Orr. Despite the fact he was smashing the records of Gordie Howe or Maurice Richard, no one has ever placed him in their stratosphere. This could be because of his lack of graceful style as a hockeyist.

One of Espo's greatest hockey moments occurred in Europe. When Orr missed the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets with a bad knee, Esposito took charge of the team and was the inspirational leader. He played a level never reached before. While everyone remembers Paul Henderson's game ending heroics, it was Phil's heroic effort was a key factor in the victory and finally won him the accolades he deserved.

Phil had a great charisma, much like a Hollywood actor. He was a fan favorite throughout North America, but also in Russia. While Vladislav Tretiak became adopted by Canadian fans as the hero from the enemy team, Russian people grew to love Espo, even though his style of hockey was not seen in Russia. It largely has to do with the pre-game introductions in the first game in Moscow where Espo tripped over a loose flower and fell on his butt when he was introduced. Ever the showman, Espo got up and did a curtsy much to the delight of the Soviet fans. They rarely had seen a hockey player with such personality.

While Paul Henderson gets much of the heroic credit for his game winning goals, it is well recognized that Phil Esposito was the best player for Canada. Without him, there was no way Canada would have conquered.

Phil Esposito was traded to the New York Rangers during the 1975-76 season and would finish his career on Broadway. The reason behind the trade was that Orr's knees had finally all but given up on him, and the Bruins were looking to regroup by trading a few of their top assets.

The adjustment was at first very difficult for Phil, but he soon learned to like New York and next thing you know it could have been named Espoville - it was his kind of town! He average 30 plus goals and a point a game in his 6 seasons in New York. His Ranger highlite was during the 1978-79 playoffs when he was a great leader in the Rangers spectacular playoff drive that finished just shy of the Stanley Cup.

Phil Esposito retired in 1980-81. Phil Esposito's final statistics are absolutely mind boggling. 1282 games played, 717 goals, 873 assists for 1590 points! At the time of his retirement only Gordie Howe had amassed more points! He added 61 goals and 137 points in 130 playoff games and 30 points in 25 international games. Not bad for a guy who didn't learn to skate until he was a teenager.

Espo's career highlight came after retirement. On Dec. 3, 1987 the Bruins retired their great leader's jersey. Ray Bourque, whose stature is such that he need not defer to anyone, relinquished his No. 7 and from then on wore 77, so that Esposito's jersey could be retired and elevated to the rafters of the Garden.

"I don't care (about being inducted into) the Hall of Fame, to tell you the truth," he said. "My biggest thrill was having my number retired at Boston Garden. That to me is where it's at."

In retirement Phil became a pitchman and a broadcaster, but he also was a successful hockey executive. He became general manager and for a short time head coach of the New York Rangers. Later he was one of the founders of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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