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JOURNALISM: Phil Esposito [Download .doc version]


Story, Phil Esposito, by Jeffrey Reed

Special to FOREVER YOUNG

Every person faces a defining moment in their life – a moment which defines their character forever. For hockey superstar Phil Esposito, that moment arrived following Game 4 of the 1972 Team Canada versus Team USSR Summit Series. Concurrently, Canadian hockey was redefined after Canada beat Russia in that eight-game series.

"It was war and, yes, hell for us whether we wanted it or not," Esposito says today, more than three decades after the most memorable hockey series in history. But in 1972, Team Canada – unprepared mentally and physically to face a team of unknown stars – fully expected to flex their NHL muscles and beat the Russians in every game.

Displaying a brand of hockey on par with the NHL’s best – minus the emotion – the Russian squad passed, skated, and scored – sometimes with ease – and shocked the hockey world. Hockey would never be the same. Disappointed fans in Vancouver loudly booed Team Canada after their 5-3 loss in Game 4.

The Russians would now take two wins and a tie back to their homeland, but not before Esposito – the unofficial leader on and off the ice for Team Canada – "gave the whole country a tongue-lashing on national television," writes Esposito, in his new autobiography, Thunder And Lightning: A No-B.S. Hockey Memoir, written with author Peter Golenbock.

"I said, if the Russian fans boo their players in Moscow like you people are booing us, I’ll come back and apologize personally to each and every one of you, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I really don’t. We’re doing our best. They’re a good hockey team, and we don’t know what we can do better, but we’re going to have to figure it out. But to be booed like this is ridiculous," writes Esposito.

Paul Henderson, who scored seven goals – three of them game winners, including the series-clinching goal in Game 8 – today unselfishly praises Esposito as the real hero of the Summit Series.

"I think Phil, in one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, really put it on the line," Henderson says of Esposito’s impromptu tongue-lashing. Henderson adds, "The finest period of hockey ever played ... was that third period of the last game in Moscow. (Esposito) scored the first goal, and he set up the other two. This is what leadership is all about. You can talk it, but you make it happen. He made it happen."

During his entire life, Esposito has never shied away from the leadership role, but it has always come with a price. A risk taker to this day, Esposito’s life has been far from perfect. He was cut from the St. Catharines Junior A hockey team for breaking curfew, and soon afterwards kicked out of high school after sleeping in class and disrespecting a teacher while with Sarnia’s Junior B club. Esposito was traded twice during his 18-year NHL career. He has had two failed marriages – admits to adulterous behaviour in his new book – and has seen business ventures produce many headaches. And, as an NHL coach, general manager, and minority owner, he has ridden a roller coaster of emotions, all the while letting nothing, nor no one, change his character.

In the preface to, Thunder And Lightning – a tell-all book – Esposito states, "I may never get another job in hockey. But I don’t care." In the introduction, he writes, "I have had one overriding philosophy in my life, which is to have as much fun as possible." About his book, he writes, "If I have offended anyone, tough (expletive). I’m not sorry."

If there is one definitive description of Esposito, it is that of a gambler. He took chances – and won more times than he lost – while skating for the Chicago Black Hawks (1963-64 to 1966-67), Boston Bruins (1967-68 to 1975-76), and New York Rangers (1975-76 to 1980-81). He gambled as general manager of the Rangers (1986-89), and the Tampa Bay Lightning (1992-98) before being fired from both clubs.

Esposito has never been afraid to live every day as if it is his last. In Thunder And Lightning, he talks freely about his wild times in the NHL: the booze, the drugs, the women, the wheeling and dealing, the good times and the camaraderie, the bad times and the back-stabbing. He takes readers into the boardrooms, the back rooms – and even the bedrooms – of the men who made their lives in the NHL.

Despite Esposito’s brutal honesty – not to mention his vocabulary that would make a sailor blush – he is a loveable man-child. Like an innocent child, he pleads for praise of his book: "Did you really like it, honest to God?" he asks. Proud of his Italian ancestry, Esposito lives life to the fullest. Today, at age 61, he changes pace during a loud, lengthy conversation full of laughter and emotion, and says quietly, "One thing I don’t do anymore is plan a long way ahead. Things change."

Indeed, hockey changed the lives of both Phil and Tony Esposito, Phil’s younger brother and Hall of Fame goaltender with Chicago. Born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Phil Esposito became the property of the Black Hawks at age 12, when the Original Six club signed him to a contract-binding C form for $500. Always the leader of neighbourhood gangs (whose worst offense was to break windows), Esposito wore number 7 because he loved Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. He also worshipped Howe – Mr. Hockey.

Esposito first gave the hockey world a glimpse of future stardom while with Sarnia during the 1960-61 season. He scored 47 goals, 61 assists in 32 games. "I tore the league apart," remembers Esposito, "but I screwed around a little too much." In his book, he writes, when he signed to play for the minor-league St. Louis Braves, where he tallied 36 goals, 54 assists in 1962-63, "I was making the minimum, $2,500, but I lost $1,500 of it playing poker."

Reflecting on his life, Esposito says, the best job he ever had – including his NHL career – was working as a greeter for the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City during the early 1980s.

But it was on the ice where Esposito would find fame as one of the game’s greatest centres. At 6'1" and 220 pounds, he had the soft hands of a speedy winger. Esposito became the prototype strong forward, parking himself in front of the net and, emulating his Black Hawks teammate, Hull, snapping his wrists to score goals at an unprecedented rate.

Traded to the Bruins along with Kenny Hodge and Fred Stanfield for Jack Norris, Pit Martin and Gilles Marotte, Esposito quickly became the leader of the Big Bad Bruins. Off the ice, the Bruins were a rowdy, reckless bunch, but on the ice, all business. Superstars like Orr, Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers, Wayne Cashman and Ted Green made the Bruins of the late-1960s-early-1970s one of the best in NHL history.

In 1968-69, Esposito became the first player to crack the 100-point mark, scoring 49 goals and 77 assists. Then, the impossible happened: in 1970-71, the big scoring centre netted 76 goals, along with 76 assists. Even Hull had only amassed 58 goals in a single season. What was even more incredible was, after undergoing surgery for a career-threatening knee injury, Esposito returned to the ice with an MVP season in 1973-74, scoring 68 goals and 77 assists.

Bruins general manager Harry Sinden traded Esposito to the arch-rival Rangers during the 1975-76 season. "I was really upset," Esposito writes. "It’s 28 years later, and I’m still not over it." Years later, Sinden would say of the bigger-than-life Esposito, "His presence became overwhelming."

Before retiring as a Ranger in 1981, Esposito scored his 700th goal in 1980. Only Wayne Gretzky (894), Howe (801), and Marcel Dionne (731) have more career goals. Detroit Red Wing Brett Hull finished the 2002-03 season with 716 goals. Esposito’s career marks: 717 goals, 873 assists for 1,590 points (eighth all-time) in 1,282 games; five Art Ross Trophies (scoring title); two Stanley Cups with the Bruins; and twice the Lester B. Pearson Award winner as the NHL’s outstanding player, in 1971 and ‘73.

In 1984, Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In true Esposito fashion, he quips in his book, "It wasn’t that big of a deal to me because I feel there are some players in the hall who shouldn’t be there, and as a result is sort of cheapens it for everyone. I don’t know how Tretiak, the Russian goalie, got in there."

Esposito’s number 7 jersey was retired in Boston in 1985. Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque traded his number 7 for 77. Esposito said he was "close to tears," but also said, "They never should have given my number to any other player after me."

After his wild playing, coaching and general manager days in New York, Esposito took a huge gamble, spent his life savings investing in his new venture – the Tampa Bay Lightning – and successfully talked Japanese businessmen into investing as majority owners in the $50-million expansion club. Although he was eventually pushed out of his minority ownership, Esposito calls the founding of that hockey club his proudest hockey accomplishment.

Today, Esposito lives in Tampa Bay. When he’s not golfing, he works as a commentator for Fox Sports, and the Lightning radio network. He also dabbles in other business ventures, including a printing company.

"Do you want to hear the most ironic thing?" Esposito asks, loudly. "My son-in-law (former NHL player) Alex Selivanov signed a contract with St. Petersburg, Russia. His coach is Boris Mikhailov (star of the 1972 Russian team)!

As Esposito says, things, indeed, do change. But one thing that will never change is the character of Phil Esposito.

 

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