In the arena seats an attractive dark-haired lady pummeled her husband's arm in a frenzy of partisan excitement. "Come on, Phil! Come on! Come on!" On the ice below her a bulky hockey player in the uniform of the Boston Bruins executed a rink-long rush with the inexorability of a high-speed freight train. Seconds later he shot. The puck went into the net, the light flashed on over the Chicago goal and the lady's expression changed completely. "Why, that dirty rat," she said. "He scored on his brother!"
The anguished lady was Mrs. Pat Esposito of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The player who made the goal was her No. 1 son, Phil Esposito (see cover), the highest-scoring player in NHL history. The sprawled and (momentarily) defeated goalie was her No. 2 son, Tony, one of hockey's finest goaltenders and the holder of a few records of his own.
For Mrs. Esposito, hockey games between the Bruins and the Black Hawks have become exercises in agony. The last time her heavyset steelworking husband Pat took her to see Chicago play Boston she opted instead to sit out the game in a hotel room watching Art Carney score on Jackie Gleason.
Pat Esposito is another story. He glories in every stop made by his son Tony, every point made by his son Phil. Two years ago, after Phil scored a total of 126 points and shattered the old season record by a generous 29, Pat told reporters that no, he was not completely satisfied and would not be until his younger son had nailed down comparative honors in goaltending. A year later Pat Esposito had little left to carp about. His son the goaltender had racked up 15 shutouts during the season to break the old record by two he had won the Vezina Trophy, emblematic of the best goaltending in the league, and he had been named NHL Rookie of the Year in his first full season. As for brother Phil, he had scored a mere 99 points—a sharp falloff for him though it would have been a memorable achievement for anyone else—but he did help lead the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup championship in 29 years.
March 29, 1971
This season the Esposito Brothers' Circus is flying as high as ever. A fortnight ago Phil got Goal No. 59 to break Bobby Hull's 1969 record, and barring the total collapse of his extensive network of totems and superstitions, he will exceed his own record for total points by a goodly number. And Brother Tony is once again in the running for the Vezina, although lately there have been psychological barriers to his winning it that have nothing to do with his skill in the net. The problem is simply that the Black Hawks are so far ahead of their nearest competitors in the West Division of the league that it has become impossible for the players to get up for each game; the defense has sagged and careless goals have been whistling by.
No matter. Dramatic productions often lag in the second act. It is the third act that counts, and this year's third act in the NHL may turn out to be an original Cecil B. DeMille production adapted from the Book of Genesis and starring Cain and Abel themselves. "Don't start talking about the Stanley Cup finals till we get in them," warns Phil, the superstitious brother, but the temptation is unavoidable. Boston has a healthy lead in the East; Chicago has an insurmountable lead in the West. So wise money has the Brothers Esposito squaring off for all the marbles once again. Last year when the two teams met in the Stanley Cup playoffs it took Boston only four games to send the Chicago team reeling out into the cold like West Madison Street winos. What happened? "I'm not Alibi Ike," says the Hawks' taciturn Tony, "but everybody was writing what a great hockey team we were, and we began believing our press clippings. We won't make that mistake this time."
Brother Phil touched his lucky turtleneck shirt, patted the medal stitched inside his thigh pads, blew a kiss in the direction of the inverted horns and the four-leaf clover over his locker, carefully uncrossed a couple of crossed hockey sticks down the row and said, "My brother is my best friend and the greatest goalie in hockey, but when we get on the ice he's not my brother, he's just another goaltender we have to beat."
Bas-reliefs of both brothers stand at two approaches to their hometown. "Welcome to Sault Ste. Marie, the home of the Esposito brothers," the plaques say. Heroes to the hometowners, Tony and Phil are also heroes to each other. But their relationship is far more complex than mere hero worship. It is a curious mixture of old-country Neapolitan warmth, sibling rivalry and all-out war.
"My name is Phil," says Phil Esposito heatedly. "Don't call me bleeping Tony." Phil saw several shades of heliotrope last month when the California Golden Seals' program listed the leading NHL scorer as "Tony Esposito." "Ain't that a new high in stupidity?" Phil announced. "They've made my brother the highest-scoring goalie in hockey history."
The healthy combativeness between the brothers goes back two decades. "It began with table hockey games," Phil recalls. "I'd pull the lever and slap that steel marble all over the place, and even then Tony used to make some terrific saves." When their father refinished the family basement into a long recreation room, the brothers strapped pads on their knees and began playing kneeling indoor hockey, slapping a rolled-up woolen sock up and down the "ice" with their hands.
"Every Canadian kid does things like that at 4 or 5," says Tony.
But not every Canadian kid takes to ice with the single-minded dedication of the Esposito brothers. "We used to get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning," says Phil, "load Tony's goal pads and everything on the toboggan and pull it right through town to the rink so we could practice before school. Usually I did the shooting and Tony the goal-tending. It's like baseball; every kid wants to get up and take his swings, and every Canadian kid wants to shoot the puck. I was a year older, so I did the shooting. Maybe Tony didn't like it, but he didn't have much choice."
Like it or not, kid brother Tony became so proficient at blocking pucks that he found himself playing goal all over town. At 10 he was in the nets for his neighborhood team. "We were playing in a city tournament," says Phil Esposito, "and Tony let in two goals from the red line. I mean they went half the length of the ice and slid right past him. So we lost the game and we were all crying. I was the meanest guy on our team and I felt it was my place to say something, so I skated up to Tony. The tears were streaming down his face and right there in front of everybody I said, 'You blind jerk, you blind no-good s.o.b. You quit on us.' He should have punched me in the mouth, but he just cried. It wasn't long after that that my father took him to an eye doctor and it turned out he needed glasses bad.
"After he got the glasses nobody could beat him. We played in a school tournament and we won a game 2-1 and Tony made 77 saves; 77 saves! He was voted the Most Valuable Player in the tournament and I was voted the most likely to succeed. Even then we were highly competitive with each other, but we were twice as competitive with anybody that challenged either one of us. I got in many a fight for Tony and he got in many a one for me, and we had some groovy fights with each other. Once I knocked a hole right through our basement wall when we were fighting. My father never found out. We covered the hole with a picture of Jesus."
The two brothers grew up with oddly contrasting personalities. Phil, the freewheeling brother, is called "The Happy Wop" by his teammates. Tony, like most goaltenders, is a brooder, a worrier. "You know any goaltenders that don't worry a lot?" he asks. "The only ones that don't worry are the ones that are too dumb to understand the situation."
Brother Phil, on the other hand, seems not to have a care in the world. He is the perpetual laugh riot, the catalytic agent of the Bruins' dressing room. He sits in front of his highly personalized locker and fends off all comers. "You have the ugliest body in history," says Phil's roommate, Don Awrey. "You are the captain of the all-ugly body team. Look at you! You've even got a pot."
"I don't have no bleeping pot," Esposito roars in feigned anger. "That is pure muscle you see there. Feel it."
"Yeah," Awrey says. "That's what I tell everybody, too."
"I got long muscles," Esposito says. "Long and concealed. Why, I measured 36-36-36 when I was 14 years old. I've always had these concealed muscles. Look at my legs. Beautiful, aren't they? What else is ugly about my body?"
"Your face," Awrey says.
Defenseman Bobby Orr, hockey's all-everything, tends to break into raves when he discusses his high-scoring teammate. "The minute Phil was traded to us from Chicago four years ago he changed this whole team," Orr says. "We were a last-place club. Now we're the champions. Give the credit to Esposito. He went around training camp bringing us together. He'd say, 'Come on, guys, I know we can make the playoffs, but we got to stick together.' We did, and we still do. We're like a team of brothers. I know Phil has scored a lot of points, but to my mind he's even more important off the ice. He's the main force that holds us together."
At his center-ice position Phil Esposito is a study in Houdini-like deception. He never seems hurried, and some have erroneously charged him with laziness. A stopwatch shows the fallacy. Where shorter, busier skaters will go down the ice in short strokes—zzzt, zzzt, zzzt—Esposito will cover the same distance in a single, long-striding zzzzzzt. Nonbelievers should have seen a recent game at Toronto where Darryl Sittler, the Maple Leafs' speedy young forward, shot into the clear at Toronto's blue line and was caught by Esposito in 20 yards.
On offense Phil tends to position himself 10 or 15 feet in front of the goal mouth and fire away with the slingshot ease of a metal center in a pinball hockey game. He has neither the awesome slap shot of a Hull nor the fast feet of an Orr, but he has one of the quickest sticks in hockey. "He gets the puck and fires it into the goal while you're still trying to figure out how he got the puck in the first place," says teammate Ed Johnston. "He's so strong that he can fend off the other guy with one arm and skate right around him. The only way I know to stop him is to put somebody on him and shadow him constantly, but then you're opening things up for his two linemates, Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge. And they can score on anybody."
Indeed, Cashman-Esposito-Hodge have already become the highest-scoring line in history, breaking a record set by Esposito, Hodge and Ron Murphy. It is a beefy line, more than 600 pounds and 18 feet in total height—behemoth by hockey standards. "We try to go at 'em in waves," Esposito says. "Hodgey and Cash go into those corners like tigers to dig that puck out of there, and I help out. If the other team wants to pay too much attention to me, the others will score. And it doesn't hurt when Bobby Orr's out there firing those cannon shots of his from the point."
Tony Esposito will not admit to any sleepless nights worrying about his brother's mighty production line, but his conversation indicates that he has spent long hours pondering the problem that may well confront him in this year's playoffs. Unlike his brother, Tony—now 27—is the possessor of a well-proportioned body. He stands an inch under 6 feet and weighs 187 pounds. For a while he was an accomplished halfback, and his musculature is not of the concealed variety. And while Phil wears a clown's face, laughing and smiling and treating the world like a huge Italian joke, Goaltender Tony seems a more dour soul. "He's a nice guy," says a teammate, "but he's not a ho-ho-ho guy like Phil."
"No, I don't joke around a lot," Tony says. "Goaltending is my business. I don't want to be distracted. There's nothing funny about goaltending."
A few critics have argued that there is plenty funny about goaltending, at least the way Tony does it. Gracefulness does not come easy to either Esposito brother, despite their prodigious accomplishments. Phil seems to skate clumsily, and Tony sometimes looks like Mayor Daley waddling out on the ice in his street shoes to solicit votes. In contrast to such hockey ballerinas as New York's Eddie Giacomin or Toronto's Jacques Plante, Tony is a flop-down goaltender, a tarantella of arms and pads and elbows. "Yeah," says Bobby Orr wryly, "he's a flop-down goaltender, all right. He flops all over the place, he's got his arms flying, he even opens his pads and gives you a nice wide gap to shoot at. And then he makes the save. Son of a buck, I can't score on him. I've got two goals on him in my whole career."
But—son of a buck—there is one Boston Bruin who can score on Tony Esposito, and his name is Phil. The first time the two brothers faced each other on a major league hockey rink, the score was 2-2, and both Boston goals were scored by Phil. For a while Tony held his own, but then the roof fell in. "Phil was in a slump, and I gave him some advice over the telephone," Tony remembers ruefully. "I told him he wasn't handling the puck enough and that he wasn't shooting enough." The next year, in the opening seconds of the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ken Hodge knocked Tony to the ice with a hard shot that caught the goaltender just behind the mask, near the temple. "Tony went down like a ton of bricks," recalls Phil, who was on the ice at the time, "and I was scared to death. I just skated around in little circles, fighting this impulse to go help my brother. I could see everybody crowding around him, and him laying there on the ice, out cold. It was awful. Then that fine gentleman Bobby Hull came down the ice and skated past me, and as he did he said, 'Don't worry, Phil, he's O.K.' He knew how close Tony and I were."
Hull and his Chicago teammates might have fared better if Tony had not been O.K. Once he was up again, Boston opened up with its siege guns and won the game 6-3. And three of the Bruin goals were scored by Phil Esposito. "He was Gangbusters that night," Tony says. "Bang. Bang. Bang. He was always in the right place at the right time. He could have scored three more goals." In the rest of the series Phil scored twice more, and Boston won in four straight.
In this year's interdivision competition between the two teams Boston has won twice and tied once at Boston, while Chicago has won twice at home. "Phil's way ahead of me this year," Tony says. "He's got four goals against me, including another hat trick. He tries to needle me in the games; he says things like, 'You're lucky. You're lucky,' but he's the best centerman there ever was. He'll score on anybody."
How will Tony stop Phil if the two finest teams in hockey collide again in the Stanley Cup? "I think I know how to do it now," Tony says, "but I hate to say. I hate to put wood on his fire. What we're gonna have to do is stop that line, and to stop that line we've got to stop Phil. That means taking a run at him once in a while, keeping him off-balance. You got to shadow him, try to get him angry. Then he gets penalties, and he can't score from the penalty box. Once he got into a fight against us and got about 17 minutes of penalty time. By the time he got back on the ice we were four goals ahead."
If Chicago's strategy will be to goad the cheerful Phil Esposito into the penalty box, Boston's strategy is less specific. "Chicago has a great defense," says Phil Esposito. "Guys like Pat Stapleton, Bill White, Doug Jarrett, Keith Magnuson—they make it tough. But the toughest guy on their defense is my brother. He's the one we have to beat. I think I know how to do it. Maybe I know where he's a little weak. But I ain't saying. No, I ain't even telling my linemates how to beat him."
Don Awrey interrupts. "Well, it's not hard to figure out, right?" he says, "Tony's a spread-eagle kind of goaltender, right? And he's down on his hands and knees a lot, right? So you beat him by hitting the top corners, right?"
For a brief second Boston's devout catalyst seems perturbed. The man who brought the whole team together flares up in brief anger at his roommate. "You blank," he says. "You got your bleeping nerve. Two goals you got on him the whole season, and you're telling everybody how to beat my brother." But the half-feigned anger subsides, and Phil slaps his roommate on the arm playfully, as though to show he was joking.
"I'm the only one that knows how to beat Tony consistently," he continues. "And I ain't saying."
"Suppose," he is asked, "the playoffs go down to the seventh game and Boston is facing Chicago for all the glory and all the money. Will you then reveal the secret of beating your brother?" Phil Esposito coughs. He blows his nose. He coughs again. He asks that the question be repeated. After a long pause he says, "Well, the Stanley Cup playoffs will show us. We all know that blood is thicker than water, but is blood thicker than money?"
Finally he says, "No. He's my brother. Let's hope the situation never comes up." He squirms like a man who has been asked a cruel and unreasonable question. "Let the other players find out for themselves," he says. "If anybody beats my brother, it should be me. Right? That's only fair."
There is no way that Mrs. Pat Esposito of Sault Ste. Marie could agree with any answer her older son might make to such a question. In fact, Mrs. Pat Esposito will not even be in the stands to see how the question is finally resolved. She has retired from spectating. The story of Genesis is a stirring one, but not when your sons are acting it out on the ice.