MONTREAL -- It was Christmas Eve 1980 and Phil Esposito, his place in hockey history set in cement after an illustrious 18-1/2-season, record-breaking NHL career, knew he was at the end of the line.
"I woke up and I told my wife, 'I've had it. It's time to retire,'" Esposito recalled. "She looked at me, said, 'That's nice,' then went back to sleep."
On Jan. 9, 1981, Esposito played the final game of a 1,282-game career that spanned three decades, from 1963-64 to 1980-81. He broke in with the Chicago Blackhawks and played 3-1/2 seasons there, was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1967 to star with Bobby Orr through November 1975, then finished with almost six seasons for the New York Rangers.
Esposito was a five-time Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL's leading scorer, won the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player twice and was a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Bruins in 1970 and 1972.
At the end of 1980, Esposito was in his hockey twilight "and I could see the writing on the wall," he said, Rangers general manager and coach Craig Patrick having replaced the fired Fred Shero that November and planning lean heavily on a youth brigade.
Esposito was the most prolific active player in the NHL when he retired with 717 goals, a mark exceeded only by the 801 scored by Gordie Howe (who played 485 more games). Esposito's 873 assists gave him 1,590 career points, trailing Howe's 1,049 and 1,850.
His retirement was known shortly before the Rangers' Jan. 9 game at Madison Square Garden against the Buffalo Sabres. Instead of being a bit of a role player, Patrick had Esposito centering Don Maloney and Doug Sulliman, "the Rangers' best players," Esposito said.
The week leading up to the game had been a whirlwind of emotions, with Esposito torn for some time about retiring, so even he was surprised by how well he played that night before an adoring crowd.
"What surprised me mostly in that last game is that I hadn't practiced for five, six days and I played as good a game as I had for a long time," he recalled. "One of the things I'm most proud of is that I retired when I knew I should. And it wasn't easy. No matter what, it's never easy."
Esposito earned the final point of his career at 12:00 of the first period, getting the primary assist (with Dave Maloney picking up the other) on a goal by Dean Talafous.
"Who cares if it was Dean Talafous or Wayne Gretzky?" Esposito said with a laugh.
He picked up a penalty at 14:35 of the third period, whistled by referee Ron Hoggarth.
"It was kind of a stupid, chintzy penalty," Esposito recalled. "I was getting away with murder that game and I knew it. I didn't think they'd call anything. When they did, I'm skating to the box and I'm saying, 'Hogie, c'mon … you're giving me a penalty now?' and he says, 'I should have given you five already.' We both laughed.
"What I remember mostly about the game was in the last 10 seconds, I had the puck in the slot, right there, I had goalie Don Edwards beat, and Mike Ramsay dove and stopped the puck with his glove. I remember that because I'd have had a goal with my two assists that night."
Gently told he had just a single assist, Esposito replied, "Really? Well, I don't remember things like that. I don't give a [hoot]."
His work as an assistant coach for Patrick didn't last long.
"No fun," said Esposito, who would move on to establish and run the Tampa Bay Lightning, work as a broadcaster and set himself up in a variety of businesses in Florida.
"I mean, when you can't yell at the refs any more, it's time to get away from the ice."