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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Phil Esposito: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Premier goal-scorer in early '70s helped Bruins win Stanley Cup twice

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

Phil Esposito was hockey's version of Willie Sutton, the prolific American bank robber. Asked why he robbed banks, Sutton said, "Because that's where the money is." Why did Phil Esposito park his hulking frame in front of the opponent's net? Because that's where his goals were scored.

A 6-foot-1, 215-pound, strong, gregarious man who seldom hid his emotions, Esposito was nearly unstoppable when he maneuvered in the slot. He'd find or fight for some free ice against the frustrated defenders trying to stop him, and figure out a way to get the puck on his stick. As soon as it was there, he sent it goalward.

 

Video: Phil Esposito was record-setting goal scorer

 

"He moved well; not quick but he kept moving," former NHL defenseman and coach Pat Quinn said on the TV series "Greatest Hockey Legends." Quinn's nine years playing in the League coincided with Esposito's prime. "You had to hunt him down in the coverages. And when the puck got there, he had the fastest shot of anybody I can remember. It was on his stick and gone."

Not only was it gone, it often ended up in the net. Esposito became the NHL's premier goal-scorer in the early years of expansion, the player who set the single-season records for goals and points that would fall to Wayne Gretzky a decade later.

Anyone who claims to have spotted the greatness in the young Phil Esposito is a liar. Unlike most of hockey's top players, whose talents show through before they are teenagers, no one saw even glimmers of superstardom in "Espo" -- not even his father, Patrick, as he watched his eldest son advance through the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, youth hockey leagues.

 

PHIL ESPOSITO CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,282 | Goals: 717 | Assists: 873 | Points: 1,590

 

"Frankly I had my doubts," he told Montreal sportswriter Andy O'Brien. "He was big and tall, but he was weak on his ankles."

His first skates had been "double runners," and the tube skates he got later were far too big, so Esposito grew to be neither fleet nor fluid on blades. He was also overweight at times. He didn't make his bantam team on his first try. When he was 14, he was cut from his midget team. At 18, he was also cut from the Junior A St. Catharines Teepees when he first tried out for them and had to settle for a season in Junior B Sarnia before making the Teepees.

But he always could score, and that kept his NHL dream alive. Esposito scored 47 goals in 32 games for Sarnia in 1960-61, and when he made the Teepees the following year, their Chicago Black Hawks sponsor owned his rights. As a minor pro in the Black Hawks' system, he continued to pile up points and got the call to the NHL as a 21-year-old in January 1964.

Esposito saw limited duty that season, playing 27 games; his skating remained suspect, keeping him a step behind the pace of play. Things improved when it was discovered he had mismatched feet and needed different-size skates. And Black Hawks coach Billy Reay had "Espo" and teammate Ken Hodge work out with Bobby Hull, a superior skater and the NHL's most dynamic player. "You skate 15 times around the rink with Hull setting your pace and you become a better skater or you drop," Esposito said.

Early the next season with the Black Hawks slumping, Reay put Esposito between wings Hull and Chico Maki. The "HEM Line" was born, and the Black Hawks took off, as did Esposito's career. In his first three full NHL seasons he averaged nearly 24 goals, but his role was less about scoring and more about setting up Hull, who became the first to score more than 50 goals, getting 54 in 1965-66.

Despite his solid production, Esposito became the target of criticism. He acquired the reputation as a "garbage collector," bestowed on him by a Chicago reporter who wrote a story stating Esposito's goals resulted largely from rebounds, that he feasted on leftovers from Hull's screaming shots. Esposito bristled at the label, which followed him throughout his career.

"I think it's unfair. I really do," he later wrote in "The Brothers Esposito," his dual autobiography with his brother Tony. "I get a lot of good goals now where I have to work like hell. And sometimes I get the garbage, which are mainly rebounds in front of the net. But you have to take those, too, because many games are won on rebounds."

Poor playoff performances added to the heat. He had scored four goals and assisted on four others in 29 postseason games over four years for Chicago, and most grievously, had no points in 1967 when the aging Toronto Maple Leafs dumped the first-place Black Hawks in the Semifinals in six games. He believed he was made the scapegoat for that failure. But his always outspoken nature didn't sit well with management. A trade was inevitable.

And what a trade it was. In what is considered one of hockey's most one-sided deals, the Bruins traded Pit Martin, Gilles Marotte and Jack Norris for Hodge, Fred Stanfield and "Espo" -- who turned out to be the wild card.

The trade created a powerhouse out of the last-place Bruins, catapulting them into marquee status. They already had a ton of developing talent, including rookie of the year and budding superstar defenseman Bobby Orr. Esposito became energized in a new role -- scorer rather than playmaker -- and his production exploded. "Here in Boston," he told Sports Illustrated, "I'm carrying the puck more. In Chicago we gave it off to the wings. And my wings here are getting me the puck from the corner. A center can't ask for anything more."

He produced more, scoring 35 goals and 84 points in 1967-68 to finish second behind Stan Mkita (87 points) in the scoring race, and made the Second All-Star Team. Meanwhile, Boston made the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

In 1968-69, Esposito had 49 goals and shattered NHL records with 77 assists and 126 points, winning his first scoring title. Esposito, Hodge and Ron Murphy combined for 270 points, helping the Bruins finish second in the East Division and reach the Semifinals. Shaking off his postseason history, Esposito, in 10 games, led the NHL in goals (eight), assists (10) and points (18) in the playoffs, despite Boston's not making the Stanley Cup Final.

He led the NHL with 43 goals the next season, to go with 99 points, making the First All-Star Team for the second straight season. Again he led the NHL in playoff goals (13), assists (14) and points (27). And after Orr's fabled, flying overtime goal in Game 4 of the Final against the St. Louis Blues, Esposito had his name on the Stanley Cup.

The key to it all was Esposito's chemistry with Orr. "I had the ability to read Bobby Orr," he said on "Greatest Hockey's Legends." "I knew when he was going to break, where he was going to go and knew sooner or later, he was going to give me the puck or score, so I made sure I got myself into position."

Orr credited Esposito with being "the main force that holds us together." The Bruins were a legendarily close team, both on and off the ice. Orr told Sports Illustrated in 1971, "The minute Phil was traded to us from Chicago four years ago, he changed this whole team. We were a last-place club. Now we're the champions. Give the credit to Esposito. He went around training camp bringing us together. He'd say, 'Come on, guys, I know we can make the playoffs, but we got to stick together.' We did, and we still do. We're like a team of brothers. I know Phil has scored a lot of points, but to my mind he's even more important off the ice."

On the ice, he became hockey's dominant center. In the six seasons starting in 1968-69, he won five scoring titles, never totaling fewer than 126 points in those five seasons. He led the League in goals six straight times from 1969-75. He won the Hart Trophy twice and made the First All-Star Team six consecutive years. He blew away old records in 1970-71 by scoring an astonishing 76 goals and 152 points, the pre-Gretzky standard. With Wayne Cashman taking Murphy's spot that season, the Esposito line scored a combined 336 points.

Defenseman Brad Park, then of the New York Rangers, said checking Esposito "was like trying to move 220 pounds of dog dirt. You couldn't get a good grip on him. He would be out in the slot, he would place himself a little bit farther away from the net so the defenseman couldn't go out to him but close enough where the people covering the points wouldn't get to him."

Critics continued to call him a garbage collector, now scavenging off Orr's brilliant rushes and bullet shot. But around Boston, bumper stickers began to appear on cars, a clever retort to critics. They read: "Jesus Saves … And Espo scores on the rebound."

A second Stanley Cup season followed in '72, Boston beating the Rangers in six rugged games, and again Esposito was the top postseason point-getter (24) and goal-scorer (nine). It would be the last championship for this group that many, including Esposito, believe should have won more.

A few months later, without the injured Orr, he led star-studded Canada to victory over the Soviet Union in the Summit Series, providing effort and offense as the series' leading scorer with 13 points, setting up Paul Henderson's timeless series-winning goal in Game 8. Combined with the emotional charge of a nationally televised speech defending his Canada teammates and castigating boobirds after the Game 4 loss in Vancouver, he won over any remaining doubters. He'd now grown immensely popular, especially in Canada.

Later he wrote, "I was never able to play at that level again."

Esposito had more excellent years in Boston, but when Don Cherry became coach in '74, his lunch-pail approach didn't mesh with Esposito's view of how the Bruins should play.

Video: Bruins trade Phil Esposito to NYR

Traded to the struggling Rangers on Nov. 7, 1975, he was quickly named captain and continued to score consistently, finishing around 80 points in each of his four full seasons on Broadway and averaging 37 goals.

The Rangers enjoyed a strong 1978-79 season, boosted by a line formed in midseason, Esposito between Don Maloney and Don Murdoch. The trio played like the "Espo"-Hodge-Cashman line had years earlier, and Esposito had 42 goals, leading New York in scoring and turning 37 years old. The Rangers knocked off the first-place New York Islanders in the Semifinals and marched toward the Cup against powerful Montreal. They lost the Final in five games, although Esposito led the Rangers with 20 playoff points.

He considered retirement that summer, but played another full season in New York, scoring his 700th goal and registering his 13th consecutive 30-goal season, tying Bobby Hull for the most in NHL history. The Rangers began to rebuild and Esposito's ice time fell off. He retired in January 1981. Esposito, who is sixth in career goals (717) and 10th in points (1,590), was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984.

His style may have appeared, in the words of renowned Toronto hockey writer Trent Frayne "gangling, almost awkward," but in his own, idiosyncratic fashion, Phil Esposito rewrote the record books. As "Espo" himself said, "I just plod along, nice and slow, though I get my goals."

 

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