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Espo learned to love the Big Apple ... eventually

by Evan Weiner /

"I said, please don't say it's New York, please, because if you do I am going to jump out the window! (Don Cherry) says, 'Close the window!"
-- Phil Esposito

The NHL trade deadline traditionally has a lot of players on edge and until that deadline passes. But trades can occur at virtually anytime of the calendar year, except for that period between the trade deadline and the end of the regular season and during a short window at Christmas.

Back in October 1975, the Boston Bruins got off to a slow start and there were whispers that General Manager Harry Sinden was looking to shake up the club. Phil Esposito was still scoring goals at a record pace at the time, and was coming off a season where he had scored 61 goals, which was down from his total of 68 in 1973-74. Still, Esposito was an incredible goal scorer netting 76, 66, 55, 68 and 61 goals between 1970 and 1975. But Esposito was 33 and Sinden decided it was time to move ahead. At the same time, the New York Rangers got off to an awful start and were looking to move players and salary.

A Bruins-Rangers trade made sense if big name, big salary players were to be changing addresses.

Esposito heard the rumors and was mentally prepared to be dealt. But there was one city he dreaded -- New York. He had nothing against the Rangers organization or Rangers players, but New York City was a different story.

Esposito was in Vancouver preparing for a game against the Canucks on Nov. 7, 1975 when coach Don Cherry came to his hotel room. Cherry was breaking the news that Sinden completed a deal with the Rangers which would sent Esposito, along with defenseman Carol Vadnais, to New York for center Jean Ratelle, defenseman Brad Park and minor-league defenseman Joe Zanussi. Cherry could not get the words out his mouth, something that may defy belief to many, but in this case Esposito stopped Cherry in his tracks.

"I said, please don't say it's New York, please, because if you do I am going to jump out the window," Esposito told his now former coach. "He says, 'Close the window!'

"Of all the places I didn't want to be was New York. Because when you come in town with another team, at the time we stayed right across the street at the hotel and it’s not a bad hotel, but that area around Madison Square Garden wasn't the nicest area in the world. It's gotten better over the years, but way back in the 70s, it sure wasn't one of the greatest areas in the world. And I just didn't like it and that is all we saw of New York was that area. You say, 'Holy man, what kind of place is this?'"

But Esposito quickly discovered there was far more to New York than being holed up at a hotel on 7th Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Street and walking across the street to the Garden. Esposito grew to like the area, especially after the Rangers moved their practice facility from Long Beach in Nassau County to Rockland, then Westchester County.

"Once I got there and got away from Long Beach and the Island ... It was great out there on the beach, but that drive (to the Garden) used to kill me," Esposito said. "The Van Wyck Expressway and through the (Midtown) Tunnel or over the (59th Street) bridge, I just couldn't handle it. So when I moved into the city, that’s when I started liking New York. We lived in Manhattan from '77 to '85 and then moved to our house in Bedford (in Westchester). I absolutely loved it.

"Those eight years were fun times. My wife and I, we went to theaters, to museums, we had a great time and if you can afford to live to Manhattan, it’s really a beautiful place."

Esposito remembered the scene in the hotel room in Vancouver. Bobby Orr was there along with Cherry and Esposito did a double take when he first saw Cherry.

"Well Don had the ugliest pajamas I ever saw in my life," said Esposito. "It's like his shirts now with the big collars and whatever you call them. They were the ugliest things and Bobby had on a tattered t-shirts with a pair of shorts. Both of them looked like they were both up all night. I think Cherry was and his few strains of hair were flopping all over the place. He did say, 'You better close the window, shut the window, don't let him out, don't let him by the window.'"

Then Cherry tried to use another approach to mollify down Esposito.

"He says, 'Now calm down Phil, think of Vadnais, he had a no-trade (clause in his contract).' I said 'Think of Vadnais!' I said 'Are you serious, think of Vadnais!' I mean I did not want to be traded to the Rangers. The thing that hurt me more than anything though was about a month and a half prior I had turned down a very, very lucrative offer from the WHA to stay in Boston. I thought I would spend the rest of my life in Boston and my career and everything else, but as it turned out it was the best thing that ever happened to me being traded to New York."

Esposito absorbed the news of the trade and concluded that he had no choice, that Boston didn't want him and he was a hockey player and needed to work. But both Cherry and Orr weren't ready to say goodbye.

"I just sat down after and said 'I got to go,'" he recalled. "The funny thing that Cherry said and Bobby said 'Don't go because Vadnais has a no trade, you don't have to go. Don't go. Say you are not going to report, see what happens.'

"You know the funny thing down the road you find out different things. Don Cherry approved the trade, he was involved in the trade, he was the coach. He wasn't as much an angel as he led onto to be. He did put all the blame on Harry Sinden, but the fact remains he was the coach and I am sure he was involved like all general managers in trades, they involve their coaches and the coaches have a lot of say in it. The funny thing is that Grapes at the time, Don Cherry, he indicated to me this was the most difficult thing he ever had to do and maybe it was, but for me it was the most difficult thing."

Esposito packed got dressed and headed to the airport to catch a plane to get to Oakland and meet his new teammates. Esposito was not in a very social mood.

"I remember getting on that airplane, flying to Oakland to meet the Rangers that night," said Esposito. "I flew first class because I said screw them all. And I had a couple of drinks on the plane and it was the first time in my life that I ever I ever played a hockey game with a couple of drinks in me. I got two goals and two assists and I will never forget Gary Sabourin scored four goals on John Davidson from the blue line. I said, 'Where am I? What kind of a team is this?' And, after the game the players didn't care whether they won or lost. That bothered me an awful lot and I got into trouble right off the bat with some of the players on the team because of their lack or interest whether we won or lost."

Esposito retired in 1981 and became a Ranger assistant coach, a TV analyst and also served three years as the club's general manager and twice was the team’s interim coach. Esposito had no problems trading players during his tour as Rangers GM, he made more trades in his three-year stint as the Blueshirts' boss than Vancouver did in the 1980s. Esposito was the major force in getting and establishing the Tampa Bay Lightning expansion franchise.
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