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Seven divided by two equals two Hall of Famers

by John McGourty

What stopped Phil Esposito in his tracks was Bourque stripping off his own No. 7 sweater to reveal the No. 77 sweater he would wear for the remainder of his career.
Boston Bruins defenseman Raymond Bourque had 7 1/2 NHL seasons under his belt and his stellar reputation had been riding a steadily ascending arc when he found an eleven-fold way to enhance that reputation on Dec. 3, 1987, 20 years ago today.

The occasion was the official retirement of Phil Esposito's No. 7 sweater to the rafters in Boston Garden, just prior to a game against the New York Rangers. The ceremony had been under way for a few minutes when the announcer said; "Ray Bourque, the captain of the Bruins, will make a presentation."

Bourque, who had been wearing No. 7 since he broke into the NHL in 1980, skated up to the red carpet and smiled at Esposito, who embraced him and clapped him on the back of the right shoulder. Bourque then handed Esposito a Bruins' No. 7 with Esposito's name on it.

"Espo" graciously accepted the folded sweater and let it unfurl. With the crowd cheering wildly, Esposito began to put on the sweater and then hesitated and said to Bourque; "What are you doing?"

What stopped Esposito in his tracks was Bourque stripping off his own No. 7 sweater to reveal the No. 77 sweater he would wear for the remainder of his career.

Bourque pulled his jersey off from the top, turned in a circle to show Esposito his new number and then shook his hand. The announcer extended the microphone to Bourque, who said; "Here's your jersey back, Phil. It's all yours."

There had been a lot of great retirement nights in Boston Garden -- Bobby Orr, Milt Schmidt, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell -- and many hockey and basketball championships that had produced loud cheering, but it was hard to remember a more cacophonous response than the one that rocked the hallowed hall that night.

The fans were cheering for the leader of the 1970 and 1972 Stanley Cup champions, a team that not only ended a 29-year Stanley Cup drought in Boston, but a team that had come together in a short period to end the nightmare that was the Bruins of the 1960s.

The Sault Ste. Marie native had played four seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks when the Bruins traded away skilled center Pit Martin and a rugged defenseman, the late Gilles Marotte, to acquire Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge on May 15, 1967. All three would be huge contributors to the Bruins’ success. Hodge, possessor of a powerful slap shot, played on Esposito's right wing, while Wayne Cashman patrolled the left boards. Stanfield centered Hockey Hall of Fame left winger Johnny Bucyk and stocky right winger John "Pie" McKenzie.

The trade has always been called one of the most lopsided in sports and it was in terms of gaining three players who contributed to the chemistry of a winning team. But those comments demean two fine hockey players and Esposito is quick to agree. Martin played 11 years for the Blackhawks, scored 243 of his career 324 goals for Chicago and got them to as many Stanley Cup Finals (2) as Esposito led Boston. Marotte played a dozen more years in the NHL.

In nine Bruins' seasons, Esposito scored 459 goals and added 553 assists for 1,012 points. He was traded to the New York Rangers on Nov. 7, 1975, with defenseman Carol Vadnais for center Jean Ratelle and defensemen Brad Park and Joe Zanussi. The deal was necessitated by Bobby Orr's crumbling knees and the Bruins' need for a No. 1 defenseman. The fans were slow to warm to Park, but came to love him. Ratelle quickly won the hearts of the fans with timely scoring and his classy ways.

But they never stopped loving Esposito. It was even hard to boo him in a Rangers uniform, something no one in Boston had ever had trouble with before. Several Boston churches that had signs that read, "Jesus saves," had those signs (defaced) amended to read, "... and Esposito scores on the rebound."

Esposito set an NHL record with 76 goals in 1971 and it stood 11 years until Wayne Gretzky scored 92 in 1981-82. Esposito's NHL record 152 points that season lasted 10 years before Gretzky broke it.

Those were heady years for Esposito, the Bruins and their fans and "Phil Esposito Night" was the night to relive it all over again. The fans never held the trade or Esposito's years toiling for the Rangers against him and he knew it.

In nine Bruins' seasons, Phil Esposito scored 459 goals and added 553 assists for 1,012 points.

Esposito is the most gregarious of men, proud of his career and comfortable with his fame and he seemed far from the choking-up that afflicts many players in such situations, but Bourque's gesture got to him. The prolonged cheering made it more difficult for him to compose himself."

"Ladies and gentlemen ... ladies and gentlemen ... ladies and gentlemen, please, one second, OK?" Esposito said struggling to quiet the crowd. "I gotta tell you that I was looking forward to this for a long, long time. I gotta admit it. Honestly, when I was preparing in my mind and in my heart, what we did with Raymond, who is one of the greatest players in the history of this game, what this young man did tonight is something that I'll never, ever, ever forget, no matter what happens in my life, Raymond Bourque, never."

With that, it was Bourque who began chewing on his lower lip in an effort to keep his composure.

"I must say just one thing about some of the kids who are playing on the New York Rangers team that have never played in Boston Garden before, you are playing in some place, I'll tell you that," Esposito said.

Amen to that, the crowd agreed as more prolonged cheering followed.

"Folks, thank you from the bottom of my heart," Esposito said, pointing to the gifts he'd received. "I'd be remiss if I didn't thank the greatest player who ever played this game, Bobby Orr, I'll tell ya."

Now, we've three grown men crying.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the love affair that our team had with you fans is something," Esposito finished. "You people made it all worthwhile. It's been beautiful to see you all here tonight. Thank you very, very, very much, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you."

Oh, what a night.

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