Phil Esposito:
Espo Unfiltered

Hall of Fame hockey center Phil Esposito built a lasting hockey-centric career that still shines well beyond his playing days. And he did it entirely his own way.

Story by Erik Erlendsson
Portraits by Scott Audette

With emotion worn on his sleeve, passion that brims to the top, an unmatched zest for life, and undying love for the sport he made his life, Phil Esposito is a true hockey icon.

Whether it was during his early playing days in the Chicago Black Hawks organization, while he was forging a Hall of Fame career with the Boston Bruins, as an executive with the New York Rangers, or while helping land an expansion franchise in Tampa, Esposito forged his own path and never let anybody tell him any other way was better.

So, on those rare quiet nights when Esposito, 72, kicks back in his favorite spot in his living room, highball glass condensing droplets of cool water by his side and lit cigar adding aroma to the room, he can reflect on the places from where it all started, the paths traveled, the forks in those roads he encountered, and the choices made, leading eventually to his destiny as one of the most beloved personalities in the history of hockey.

Esposito accomplished it all across every conceivable platform during his long-tenured career in the game he loves - from player to coach, general manager, team founder, and broadcaster.

"I've never been one not to say what I believe," Esposito said. "And if I'm wrong, I'll say I'm sorry, and a lot of people have a problem saying they are wrong. I don't. I learned it all through hockey."

Hailing from the steel plant town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Esposito was never much of a fan of attending school. Sure, he'd sit in class and listen to the lessons, but more than anything else, those days in the classroom were clock-watching moments, waiting as the minutes and seconds were counted down until the end of the school day finally arrived.

"My dad would tell me, 'You better make it in hockey, kid, or you are going to be stuck here your whole life,'" Esposito said. "I couldn't wait for the (school) day to be over so I could get down to the rink in the summer and play street hockey."

Hockey called and Esposito always heeded that call, often making a dash to lace up his skates and hit the ice with the neighborhood boys for hours, often having to beg his younger brother Tony (a Hall of Fame goaltender with the Chicago Black Hawks) to reluctantly give in to peer pressure to come out and join the games.

Those days of twirling around the ice in the southwest region of Ontario proved the early training grounds that started him on his path toward hockey immortality.

On To Stardom

Hall of Fame brothers faceoff - Phil Esposito, No. 7 for the Boston Bruins, preparing to challenge Black Hawks goalie Tony Esposito, No. 35. During the 1970-71, Phil shattered the record for most goals scored in a season - 76 - a record that held for a decade. Esposito was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 1987 his No. 7 jersey was retired by the Bruins.
Photos: Jerry Coli, Dreamstime.com

Those training-ground days eventually led to a contract with the Chicago Black Hawks as an 18-year-old that allowed him to escape working the steel mills of his hometown. For three-and-a-half seasons, Esposito starred in the junior ranks and the Black Hawks farm system before being brought up to the big club, making his mark at the NHL level and never looking back.

Playing alongside Chicago goal-scoring machine Bobby Hull, Esposito established himself as a frontline scorer, finishing in the top 10 in scoring twice in his first three seasons. But prior to the 1967-68 season, Esposito was dealt to the Boston Bruins in one of the most notable trades in NHL history, and that's where Esposito started to grow, not only as an eventual legendary player, but into the man so many have come to know.

Incredibly, the move nearly backfired on the Bruins as Esposito almost never reported to his new team. At the time, Esposito had a job at the steel plant driving trucks and bulldozers back home in Sault Ste. Marie. The Bruins offered him a contract and signing bonus that would have paid him less than the $12,000 he could make working at the plant year round.

After going back and forth with Boston, Esposito landed a deal that would pay him an $18,000 signing bonus - which was more than he was asking for - and he showed up for training camp.

It was that first experience doing things the way he felt best without looking back, that began to show exactly how his path to becoming a hockey legend would be carved.

"I sold myself and that's when I became a salesman," Esposito said. "I realized you have to speak up if you have a problem."

Esposito joined the Bruins and became an instant star, becoming the first player in NHL history to surpass the 100-point plateau, smashing through that barrier in his first season wearing the spoked B on his chest, and ending with 126 points to lead the league. He led the league in scoring four more times from 1971-74 playing for Boston. Esposito's 152 points in the 1970-71 set a league record that stood for a decade until Wayne Gretzky came along.

During his time with Boston, Esposito was the most feared scorer in the league. His penchant for scoring from the slot area (between the face-off circles) prompted a saying in Boston: "Jesus saves, Esposito scores on the rebound." He would win the Stanley Cup twice, "and we should have won more," he said.

It was that same "I know what to do" attitude and act-before-thinking mentality that carried over onto the ice and made him such an offensive force.

"He's a very hands-on guy and wants to know what is going on, and he was like that on the ice. He wanted that puck," said Bobby "The Chief" Taylor, a two-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1975 and 1976 who often faced Esposito when the Flyers played in Boston. "He wasn't one of those 'Don't give it to me' guys. He was so flamboyant, so great with the puck. He was known for his great hands-and his shot! Holy (crap)!

"He's very impulsive. What comes in his head comes out right away and I think that's what made him so good, because he was so reactive. He didn't hesitate, and this game is so fast if you hesitate, you are going to get checked. He never hesitated, he made that decision and boom, he went right to it and more often (than not) it was the right decision."

The Speech

Perhaps the moment in which Esposito introduced his way of doing things to the world came not in the NHL, but in a different chapter in his career playing with Team Canada during the famed 1972 Summit Series.

After turning down the offer four different times to participate in the eight-game series between the top players in Canada and the Soviet Union, Esposito eventually relented and signed on to play. But after dropping the fourth game of the series in Vancouver at Pacific Coliseum to fall to 1-2-1 in the series, hockey-mad Canadian fans showed their displeasure with the play of the national team, booing the players as they made their way off the ice. During the game while sitting on the bench, hearing obscenities come down from the fans questioning their team's performance, Esposito devised a plan to deliver a message back to the fans when he was asked to do a television interview after the game.

As usual, the delivery was unscripted, filled with passion and done the only way he knew how.

Years later, Esposito said he went back and watched the interview for the first time and felt embarrassed by what he had said, even though many point to that moment as the turning point of the series, which headed to Russia with the Soviets holding a 2-1 lead with one tie.

"For the people across Canada, we tried," Esposito told the broadcast audience. "We gave it our best. For the people who booed us, jeez, all of us guys are really disheartened and we're disillusioned and we're disappointed in some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we've got, the booing we've gotten in our own buildings. If the Russian fans boo their players like some of the Canadian fans - I'm not saying all of them - some of them booed us, then I'll come back and apologize to each and every Canadian. But I don't think they will. I'm really, really, I'm really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps. We know - we're trying. What the hell, we're doing the best we can. They've got a good team and let's face facts. But it doesn't mean that we're not giving it our 150 percent because we certainly are...

"Every one of us guys, 35 guys who came out to play for Team Canada," Esposito continued, "we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason. They can throw the money for the pension fund out the window, they can throw anything they want out the window - we came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home and that's the only reason we come. And I don't think it's fair that we should be booed."

Though Canada would drop the fifth game of the series to fall behind 1-3-1, the Canadians would rally to win the next three games, scoring three times in the third period to pick up a 6-5 victory in the deciding game, with Esposito picking up an assist on Paul Henderson's series-winning goal with 34 seconds remaining. Esposito backed up his words with his play on the ice.

"I was so frustrated by the fact that (fans) expected us to become a team in a week and you can't against guys that have been playing together since they were 10- to 13-years-old, to teach them how to beat the North Americans and especially the Canadians," Esposito said. "We get together and we're supposed to be a team in a week. And we screwed around like crazy in training camp; we thought it was going to be an exhibition. We lose that first game and we knew we had a lot of work to do. Then we get to Vancouver, and I said to Paul Henderson, if either of us gets the star of the game for our team, we have to tell these people we are trying our best.

"Then I get out there and Johnny Esaw asked a question, and there were three guys above the Zamboni entrance yelling at us, screaming, telling us the Russians were better, communism was better, and I had my stick and wanted to throw it like a spear at them. And the more they yelled, the angrier I got as I got up there. So when Johnny Esaw asked, I just went off. And I never knew what I said, really, until 10 years after, at the 10-year anniversary."

The Next Chapter...

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SMOKE Volume 18, Issue 2


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