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October 06, 2010

No Respect: Phil Esposito

There's a new book hitting store shelves today. Hockey Night In Canada's panel of experts decide who really is the Best Of The Best.

Well, sort of. Firstly they separate players pre and post 1967, which is fair enough. It is awfully tough to compare modern players with those of the Original Six or even earlier than that.

They also rank the players only by position, stopping shy of truly proclaiming who is the Best of the Best. Gretzky vs Orr? This book doesn't go quite that far..

Regardless, it's a neat book, wonderfully presented and full of great photography and good reading. Check it out on Hockey Book Reviews.com.

But I wanted to make special mention of Phil Esposito, who only ranked 7th in the Modern Era: Center category. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux hold down the top two spots, to no one's surprise. More contemporary players Steve Yzerman, Mark Messier, Joe Sakic and Bryan Trottier also outrank Espo.

I always felt Phil Esposito was greatly underrated, both when he played and in history's eyes. He obliterated the NHL record book not unlike what Gretzky would do again a decade later. Not only was he the first player to reach the magical 100 point mark, but he did so with an exclamation point, tallying 126 points in 1968-69. He would regularly challenge the 130 point mark, setting the NHL standard with 152 points in 1970-71. That year he also scored an unthinkable 76 goals. Remember, at that time only Rocket Richard and Bobby Hull had ever cracked the 50 goal barrier.

Yet Espo always fell in the shadows of teammate Bobby Orr. It is as if all of Esposito's accomplishments with the Boston Bruins - all the NHL records, 2 Stanley Cups, 2 Hart trophies, 5 Art Ross trophies - are all asterisked because Esposito played with Orr.

Time undoubtedly has played a role in the diminishing of Esposito's greatness. Nowadays he is best remembered for his passionate play at the 1972 Summit Series, perhaps the only time he escaped Orr's shadow. Younger fans may only know him as an outspoken personality.

Does Phil Esposito deserve a higher standing amongst the best centers since 1967? It would be hard to displace Yzerman, Messier, Sakic or Trottier, even though they combined for only one Art Ross Trophy compared to Espo's five. It is certainly no slight to be in the same grouping.

That being said, I firmly believe that Phil Esposito's accomplishments deserve to be better remembered by the eyes of history.

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