Phil Esposito: Legendary Boston Bruins Sniper

Boston Bruins sniper

Over the rich history of the Boston Bruins, the franchise has become synonymous with many legendary players. One of these players includes Phil Esposito. Esposito enjoyed the best years of his career playing with the Black and Gold. During the Bruins glory years with the greatest defenceman of all time, Bobby Orr, Esposito was a perennial leader in NHL scoring, setting records along the way.

Boston Bruins Sniper Phil Esposito’s Career

Early Days

Philip Anthony Esposito was born on February 20, 1942, in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Canada. Phil is the older brother of former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito. Both brothers had enormously successful NHL careers, and both have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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Esposito grew up in a blue-collar environment. His father, Patrick Esposito, dropped out of school during the 1930’s Great Depression. Phil’s mother, Frances, occasionally played in the net while her two sons shot a rolled-up sock at her in their family home. “Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us, and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees, and we’d shoot at her. After beating her several times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.” Phil speaks of his mother in the book “Puckstruck” by author Stephen Smith.

Growing up close in age, the Esposito brothers spent much time playing hockey together. As Sault Sainte Marie is known, the Soo gave the Esposito’s good outdoor ice for five months out of the year. The brothers were Bantam teammates before Phil went to Sarnia to play Junior B.

Playing Junior and in the Minors

Sarnia Legionnaires 1960

“If it wasn’t for Sarnia, it is doubtful Esposito would have ever suited up for an NHL game.” Dan McCaffery of the Sarnia Observer said in a 2003 article.

In 1960, Esposito tried out for the St.Catherines Tee Pee Junior A hockey team. After breaking the team curfew, Esposito was kicked off the team. The incident triggered Esposito to “quit” playing hockey. Tommy Norris, manager of the Sarnia Legionnaires Junior “B” Hockey team, lured Esposito into playing with the club for the 1960 season. The future Hall of Famer attended school at St. Patrick’s in Sarnia, where his grades were so bad the principal reportedly told Esposito that he would never amount to anything.

Esposito excelled on the ice that season for the Legionnaires despite his poor grades, scoring 47 goals and 61 assists in just 32 games. Esposito gained a reputation as quite the joker during his time in Sarnia, “I remember one time Philly loaded up a guy’s shoe with Vaseline. And he would switch false teeth around in the dressing room. A lot of guys would leave the arena before they put their teeth in, then they’d have to scramble back to get their own teeth.” Jim Sanko, the former teammate with the Legionnaires, said.

St Catherines Tee Pees Junior “A” and St.Louis Braves

Following Esposito’s success playing with the Legionnaires,  the gifted scorer joined the St Catherines Tee Pees for the 1961-62 season. The centre played 49 games for the Tee Pees, scoring 32 goals and 39 assists for 71 points. The Chicago Blackhawks took notice of Esposito’s performance with their junior club, and he was assigned to the Hawks’ minor league team, St Louis Braves, for the 1962 season.

Esposito played two seasons for the Braves accumulating 62 goals and 108 assists for 170 points in 114 games.

Chicago Blackhawks

Esposito became a full-time NHL player in the 1964-65 season. During his first entire season, he showed glimpses of his scoring touch. He scored 23 goals and added 32 assists through 70 games. However, this was a far cry from the production levels Esposito would eventually go on to hit.

After four seasons in Chicago, the Blackhawk dealt Esposito to the Bruins. Unfortunately, the trade turned out to be highly one-sided, as the best was yet to come. During his time with Chicago, Esposito scored 74 goals and 100 assists in 235 games played.

Becoming a Boston Bruins Icon

First to 100

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Arriving in Boston ahead of the 1967-68 season,  Esposito saw an immediate boost to his production, scoring 35 goals and 49 assists in 74 games. In his second season with Boston, the prolific scorer became the first-ever player to break 100 points in a season. Unfortunately, Esposito failed to break the century mark the following season falling just short with 99 points in 1969-70. Nevertheless, Esposito and a young prodigy, defenceman Orr led Boston to a Stanley Cup Championship in 1970.

The 1970-71 regular season was something to behold as Esposito broke more scoring records. The Bruins legend scored 76 goals and 76 assists in 78 games. Even more mind-blowing is the number of shots on net Esposito piled up throughout the season. He fired a whopping 550 shots on goal during that 1970-71 season, lighting the lamp on  13.8% of them. Unfortunately for the Bruins, despite the miraculous regular season, they were defeated in the playoffs by rival Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins could not solve rookie goaltender Ken Dryden who Esposito said had “arms like a giraffe.”

1972 Stanley Cup Championship and Summit Series

1972 was a massive year for Phil Esposito as he helped lead Boston to their second Stanley Cup Championship in three seasons. Esposito’s name filled scoresheets around the league once again that season. Posting 66 goals and 67 assists in 76 games played.

Also during the 1972 calendar year was the Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet Union. Esposito led Canada with 13 points throughout the eight-game series. Following a game played in Vancouver, Esposito gave a heartfelt interview with a message to Canadian fans who booed the team.

With Team Canada trailing the Soviets 5-3 after two periods of play in the eighth and final game, Esposito played like a man on a mission. Esposito refused to lose and led the Canadian team to a comeback in the 3rd period. He scored early to make it a 5-4 game. The Boston Bruins sniper then assisted on the tying goal. He followed that up by assisting on Paul Henderson‘s series-winning goal, a moment forever encapsulated in Canadian history.

Back in Boston 1972-75

Following the Summit Series, Esposito returned stateside, where he played parts of four more seasons with the Bruins. Esposito piled up three more 100-point seasons, the last of his career in 1974-75. Unfortunately, the Boston Bruins sniper was unable to help lead the team to a third Stanley Cup Championship.

New York Rangers 1975-1981

After playing just 12 games with the Bruins in the 1975-76 season, on November 7, word broke that the Boston Bruins sniper had been traded to the New York Rangers.

“I was in bed about 7 o’clock this morning, as all good little boys should be, when the news came through; Don Cherry (Bruins Coach) called me, then came to my room and told me. I was crushed, I thought I had a home in Boston. It has been a great town for me. But no regrets toward the Boston management,” Esposito said about finding out he’d been traded.

Boston sent Esposito and defenceman Carol Vadnais to the Rangers in exchange for Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and a minor league player Joe Zanussi.

Esposito played out his career with the Rangers, amassing 184 goals and 220 assists for 404 points through 422 games played with the club.

Retirement and Life After Hockey

On January 8, 1981, Esposito retired as a player and became the Rangers’ assistant coach. Later, he would be named the Rangers general manager, a position he held from July 1986 to May 1989.

Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984. Over his playing career, he totalled 717 goals and 873 assists for 1590 points in 1282 games. His 1012 points with the Bruins rank third in franchise history, while his 459 goals scored as Bruin rank 2nd all time. In 1987 Boston retired Esposito’s number 7 in a memorable moment for Bruins’ fans. Captain Ray Bourque famously pulled off his number 7 jersey to honour Esposito, revealing his number 77, which also hangs in the Garden rafters.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Phil Esposito had a massive role in creating the Tampa Bay Lightning; Esposito worked tirelessly to allocate funding from potential owners to develop league expansion fees. Esposito was Tampa Bay’s first president and general manager, holding the positions until 1998. He then served as a colour commentator during radio broadcasts for the Lightning for the next 20 years. Esposito can’t step away from the game as he remains involved with the Lightning.

Closing Remarks

The life and career of Phil Esposito have been nothing short of amazing. He held records as the first player to 100 points in a season and the first to score 60 and 70 goals. His 76 goals and 152 points in a single season remained an NHL record until Wayne Gretzky could top feat. Congratulations go out to the former Boston Bruins sniper on all his accomplishment throughout his playing days and his time spent in the front office.

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