There was little to suggest Phil Esposito that he was on the brink of history. But the 1970-71 season would be one for the ages for the Boston Bruins sniper, a record-breaking festival of goals and assists that he still savors more than a half-century later.
“That was a magical season for me,” Esposito says today of his 76 goals and 76 assists.
Indeed it was, in many ways.
Esposito scored 1,590 points (717 goals, 873 assists) in 1,282 NHL games between 1963-81 for the Chicago Black Hawks, Bruins and New York Rangers. The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario scored at least 61 goals in four of five seasons for the Bruins between 1970 and ’75
His trophy case would overflow with individual awards. I won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, given annually to the player with the most goals in the regular season, for six consecutive seasons between 1969-70 and 1974-75. Five times he won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading point-scorer in the NHL. Twice he won the hart trophy voted as most valuable player and the Lester B. Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award), the MVP as voted by the NHL Players’ Association.
In 1972, Esposito was his country’s best player in the historic eight-game Summit Series, a team of NHL stars from Canada defeating a select team from the Soviet Union 4-3-1.
Phil Esposito played a huge role in Canada’s victory against the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series.
But you can best judge Esposito’s laser focus and his ability to finish around the net with his 1970-71 season, 78 games that was the offensive benchmark in the NHL for 10 seasons until Edmonton Oilers superstar Wayne Gretzky passed Esposito’s 152 points with 164 in 1980 -81, a year later eclipsing the latter’s 76 goals with a stunning season of 92.
One of Esposito’s records from 1970-71 remains intact. His 550 shots on goal, taken with his heavy ash-wood Northland Pro stick, remain the most in one season since the category was officially tracked beginning in 1959-60. The 528 taken by Washington Capitals forward alex ovechkin in 2008-09 ranks second.
“The way the game is played today, I don’t think 550 will be broken,” Esposito said. “Players don’t shoot as much now. There are a ton of blocked shots and the composite sticks used today are constantly breaking.”
Phil Esposito in action during his prime in the 1970s.
Esposito’s historic season fell between the Bruins’ two Stanley Cup championships that decade. It came in his seventh full NHL season, his fourth in Boston, after scoring 99 points (43 goals, 56 assists) in 1969-70.
“I didn’t set personal goals for offense,” he said. “When I began with Chicago in the six-team NHL, I wanted to score 20 goals a season, which was like hitting .300 in baseball. I did that in each of my three seasons with Chicago.”
A blockbuster trade May 15, 1967 sent Esposito to the Bruins with forwards Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield, returning forward Hubert “Pit” Martin, defenseman Gilles Marotte and goalie Jack Norris to the Black Hawks. It would become one of the most one-sided trades in NHL history, a virtual steal for the Bruins.
“I had a different goal when I was traded to the Bruins,” Esposito recalls. “I told (general manager Milt Schmidt) on the phone that I wanted to make $12,000. I almost quit hockey over it. I told Milt, “If you don’t pay me 12 grand I’m not coming. I can make that much in the steel plant (in Sault Ste. Marie).’ It was about economics, supporting my wife and daughter.”
Phil Esposito is chased behind the Toronto net on Nov. 14, 1970 by Maple Leafs defenseman Billy MacMillan with goalie Bruce Gamble, defenseman Bob Baun and Boston’s Wayne Cashman waiting in front.
Schmidt finally told Esposito he’d pay him $10,500 with a few performance bonuses, starting at 30 goals.
“I told Milt, ‘No, let’s start at 20 goals,'” Esposito remembers. “He said, ‘You’ve already scored 20,’ and I replied, ‘I don’t give a (darn), we’ll start at 20.'”
Esposito scored 35 goals his first season with the Bruins, making about $17,000 with bonuses he was paid.
With the Black Hawks, Esposito said he was a sponge for the wisdom of Bobby Hull, “who taught me more about hockey and life than anybody. Bobby told me, ‘See the top of the face-off circle, to the dot, to the net on either side? It’s like a funnel. That’s where you should consider shooting first and passing second.'”
Phil Esposito on the Bruins bench during the 1967-68 season, his first with Boston, between defenseman Ted Green (right) and forward Ken Hodge.
Esposito took that advice to Boston and lit up every opposing goalie for eight-plus seasons until he was traded to the Rangers with defenseman Carol Vadnais for forward Jean Ratelle and defensemen Brad Park and Joe Zanussi on Nov. 7, 1975.
“My first year with Boston, when I got to training camp, (coach) Harry Sinden told me on the ice, ‘I’m going to get you two guys to get you the puck. You’re going to be our scorer. I want you to play the slot area, a lot, from the top of the face-off circle.'”
Hodge would be Esposito’s regular right wing, a couple of left wings used on the other side until the arrival of Wayne Cashman.
“When Wayne came, it was like, ‘Whoa… the three of us together,'” Esposito recalls.
Phil Esposito battles Maple Leafs defenseman Tim Horton in 1967-68 at Maple Leaf Gardens. In the background, from left: Toronto’s Jim Dorey and Paul Henderson, Boston’s Tom Williams.
They set an unofficial record for points by a line: 336 (Esposito’s 152, Hodge’s 105 and Cashman’s 79). These three powerful forwards terrorized the opponent and were more robust than the 1970-71 NHL Guide suggested. The book lists Esposito at 195 pounds, Hodge at 200 and Cashman at 180, which Esposito thinks is hilarious.
“We called ourselves the ‘Fat Line,'” he jokes. “We were all over 212, 215. ‘Hodgie’ was the fattest, I was second and ‘Cash’ was third. The Rangers had (Jean) Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield as the ‘Goal-A-Game Line.’ Good for them, but we were breaking all sorts of records and we didn’t have a name, so I gave us one.
“Back then they weren’t testing for body fat. I told Harry and Milt when I first got to Boston, ‘Don’t bother me about my weight. If I’m playing bad, let’s talk about it.’ I’d get fined in Chicago $10 for every pound I was over 195. Every paycheck was $30, $40 off my pay. always big and chunky, I played around 218. I was 228 in Russia in 1972.”
Phil Esposito with his late brother, Tony, a Hockey Hall of Fame goalie, in Tampa Bay in 2017.
Esposito recalls himself and hulking Chicago defenseman Elmer “Moose” Vasko being fined left and right by the Black Hawks when they tilted the trainer’s scale.
“One time Moose told me in camp, ‘Kid, come with me to the sauna, we’ve got a weigh-in.’ I went in and Moose had a case of beer. I’m like, ‘What the (heck)?’ Moose just said, ‘This will help us to dehydrate!'”
Esposito’s record-breaking 1970-71 season saw him score seven of his 32 NHL hat tricks, average 7.05 shots per game and score 16 game-winning goals. Twenty-four of his goals from him came on the power-play.
Fifteen games that season, Esposito took at least 10 shots, three times taking 13. His longest stretch without a goal was four games, “and how the heck did I do that?” he wonders today.
Phil Esposito beats Toronto goalie Bernie Parent at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 3, 1971 for his 73rd of 76 goals that season.
Esposito didn’t merely break Bobby Hull’s NHL record of 58 goals set in 1968-69, he obliterated it. Goals 59 and 60 came at the Los Angeles Kings on March 11, 1971.
“Typical me, doing it on the road,” he says.
Esposito broke three records that night:
Most goals in a season.
His two goals and one assist gave him 128 points, breaking his own record of 126 scored in 1968-69.
And he broke Jean Beliveau’s record of most goals in a season including the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens legend having scored 59 in 1955-56.
Phil Esposito was celebrated by Canada Post in 2016 with a stamp, one in a series of “Hockey Night Heroes.”
Lost in the shadow of Esposito’s landmark season was the 51-goal season of teammate Johnny Bucyk, who at 35 years, 308 days became the oldest player to score 50, and the NHL career-high 139 points of defenseman Bobby Orr. Bucyk’s record stood until Ovechkin scored his 50th of the 2021-22 season at 36 years, 215 days for the Capitals on April 21.
Esposito’s record of 76 goals stood until Gretzky broke it with a five-point night (three goals, two assists) at the Buffalo Sabers on Feb. 24, 1982. Esposito had followed Gretzky for a couple of games, the end of his record at hand.
“I finally told Wayne in Buffalo before the game, ‘Please, will you score a goal so I can go home?'” he says with a chuckle. “My feeling was, as Bobby Hull had told me, records are made to be broken.
Phil Esposito in 2020, featured in the NHL Network Originals documentary “The 1970 Boston Bruins: Big Bad & Bobby.”
“When Wayne went to the junior Soo Greyhounds in 1977-78 as a 17-year-old, my dad told me, ‘Son, we have a skinny little kid up here named Gretzky who’s going to break all your records.’
“The first game I ever played against Wayne, I remember facing off against him, thinking he wasn’t very good on the draw because I beat him clean every time. But you could see that he saw the ice better than anybody. He was a kid, what, 18? He was obviously unbelievable. As years went on, I never, ever saw a player who knew what you were going to do with the puck, even before you did.”
More than 50 years later, Esposito still savors the memories of his 76-goal season for the ages, still getting a kick out of it.
“The following season I scored 66 and a Boston newspaper said that I was slumping,” he said, laughing again. “I didn’t give a (darn) about my stats after that, until after I’d retired.”
Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame collections (Graphic Artists; Frank Prazak; Melchior DiGiacomo); GettyImages; NHLNetwork; Canadian Post; Dave Stubbs (Esposito Brothers)