PITTSBURGH -- Phil Esposito met Gordie Howe -- well, Howe's legendary elbow -- in his second NHL game.
Esposito, then a 21-year-old rookie with the Chicago Black Hawks, as they were called then, made his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens during the 1963-64 season, barely getting snow on his blades.
A few nights later, the Black Hawks were at the Olympia to take on the Detroit Red Wings; Howe by then was in his 18th NHL season.
No one tells a story better than Esposito, the brilliant center who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984. So we'll let him relate the details of his first time facing Howe, the Red Wings icon who died at 88 on Friday:
"My very first game in the NHL was in Montreal. I only got on the ice once. The next game we played was in Detroit and I sat on the bench, never got on the ice, and then in the third period, [coach] Billy Reay said, 'Esposito, you go out there with Bobby Hull and Reggie Fleming. And let Bobby take the faceoff.'
"I go out there and I'm like, 'Holy [expletive]; Gordie Howe, Hall of Famer. Alex Delvecchio. Teddy Lindsay. Billy Gadsby. Terry Sawchuk, (teammates) Pierre Pilote and Bobby Hull.' All these Hall of Famers. I'm going, 'Oh my God.' Then Bobby says to me, 'Phil! You got that old son of a [gun]?' and he's nodding at Howe. I said, 'I got him,' and Gordie just smiled at me.
"The puck drops and he gives me an elbow. Right under my nose. Cuts me for six stitches. I'm on the ice six seconds. I turn around and say, 'You old son of a [gun]!' I could feel the blood coming down. I swung my stick at him, at his pants because that's where we swung those days, the only place we had padding, and Gordie and I got two minutes each.
"We went into the penalty box, with only an usher between us. I went in first. I had a towel with ice in it, trying to stop the bleeding. I lean around the usher and I say to Gordie, and you can write this the way you want, 'And you used to be my [expletive] idol!' He says, 'What did you say, [expletive]?' And I replied, 'Uh, nothing, Mr. Howe. Absolutely nothing.'
"A couple years later I played in the All-Star Game with him. Don't forget, Gordie was 14 years older than me. I'm (21) in my rookie year, he's 35. He said to me, 'That's the first time in my life somebody said to me that I was his idol. I was flabbergasted.' I said, 'So why did you elbow me in the head?' He said, 'Phil, I tested every rookie. If you didn't respond, I owned you. For as long as you played, or I played. And you responded.' And you know what? He never bothered me again, and I never bothered him.
"I'm playing in an All-Star Game in St. Louis, on the ice with Gordie and Bobby Hull as my linemates. I'm going, 'Holy [expletive], I can't believe this.' Gordie says to me, 'Kid, where do you want me on the faceoff?' and I said, 'Anywhere you want to go.' He said, 'You're the [expletive] center, where do you want me?' so I said, 'Why don't you go on the bench? Gordie, I'm just joking!'
"I golfed with Gordie and I never saw a guy hit the ball like that. Never. I really liked him, I did. He truly was my idol. I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie [Ontario] and I'd get Detroit Red Wings sweaters every Christmas. I never liked No. 9; I was a No. 7 guy [he wore No. 7 for most of his career]..
"For me, Gordie was the greatest all-around player in hockey. He could do everything."