Philip Anthony “Espo” Esposito, OC (born February 20, 1942) is a retired professional hockey centre who played 18 seasons in the National Hockey League for the Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. He is an Honoured Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and is considered to be one of the best to have ever played in the National Hockey League.
Esposito signed with the Chicago Black Hawks as a teenager, and after a sparkling junior season with the St. Catharines Teepees of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1962, spent two seasons with Chicago’s minor league affiliate, the St. Louis Braves, scoring 90 points in his first season and 80 points in only 46 games in his second.
Midway through the 1964 season, Esposito was called up to the parent Black Hawks to make his NHL debut. Centering for the great Bobby Hull beginning in the 1965 season, he proved himself a quality playmaker, twice finishing amongst the league-leading scorers over the next three seasons.
In 1967, he was dealt to the Boston Bruins in a blockbuster trade, along with Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. While the hitherto unremarkable Hodge and Stanfield became stars in the black-and-gold, Esposito blossomed into the greatest scorer of his day, becoming the first NHL player to score 100 points in a season with 126 in the 1969 season. He would top the “century” mark six times in all, including five consecutive seasons between 1971 and 1975 (plus a 99-point season in 1970). Esposito would also capture the Art Ross Trophy in 1969 and 1971–74 as the top regular season scorer. Esposito was named to the NHL’s First All-Star team six consecutive times (from 1969–74), and won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in 1969 and 1974. His Boston fans printed and displayed bumper stickers during his best years to celebrate his scoring: they read, “Jesus saves, Espo scores on the rebound.” Esposito, while not a fast or graceful skater, was best known for his unmovable presence in front of the opposition net from which he could score from all angles. Esposito has said: “Scoring is easy. You simply stand in the slot, take your beating and shoot the puck into the net.”
During these great years, centering one of the most renowned forward lines in history with Hodge on right wing and left winger Wayne Cashman, Esposito and fellow superstar Bobby Orr led the Bruins to Stanley Cup victories in 1970 and 1972, and first-place finishes in the league in 1971, 1972, and 1974.
During 1970–71, Esposito shattered the record for most goals scored in a season when he finished up with 76. This record stood until 1982 when Wayne Gretzky scored his 77th, 78th and 79th goal against the Buffalo Sabres on February 24, 1982 at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Esposito was on hand to present the game puck to Gretzky. Esposito also set the single season point-scoring record in 1971 with 152, a mark likewise now held by Gretzky. Only three other players have reached the 150 point-scoring plateau — Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Bernie Nicholls — and only Gretzky, Lemieux, Brett Hull, Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny have scored 76 or more goals in a season. That season also saw Esposito shatter the single season mark for shots on goal with 550, an unsurpassed mark which only one other player has approached within a hundred (Alexander Ovechkin in 2008–09).
After his performance in the Summit Series, where he was the inspirational captain for Team Canada and its leading scorer in the series, he won the 1972 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s outstanding male athlete of the year and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Esposito also scored the first goal of the series and he scored or assisted four times in the deciding game. During that series, his scolding of Canadian fans, who booed the national team after a 5–3 loss to the Soviet Union in Game Four, was credited with firing up his teammates: “If the Russian fans boo their players in Moscow like you people are booing us, I’ll come back and apologize personally to every one of you, but I really don’t think that will happen. We gave it and are doing our best. All of us guys are really disheartened. . . . We came out here because we love Canada. They’re a good hockey team, and we don’t know what we could do better, but I promise we will figure it out. But it’s totally ridiculous — I don’t think it is fair that we should be booed.”
He also played for Team Canada in the inaugural Canada Cup in 1976, on a line with Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Marcel Dionne. The following year, Esposito would represent Canada once more in the 1977 World Championships.
On November 4, 1977, Esposito scored his 600th NHL goal at Vancouver, becoming the first player to reach that milestone in a Rangers uniform. He retired in 1981, then only second to Gordie Howe in career goals and total points, and third in assists to Howe and Stan Mikita.