They sit on opposite sides of the Boston Bruins' dressing room, unmindful of each other because of a paneled pole between them that probably keeps the fusty old Boston Garden from falling down. In a few minutes the Bruins will take the ice against the champion Montreal Canadiens, but now Phil Esposito (see cover) and Bobby Orr—the National Hockey League's only two-man team—are psyching themselves for The Great Hockey Show they soon will be staging once again.
The room is strangely quiet as Esposito stands up and winks at the red horn suspended from the shelf above his seat. When Esposito's grandmother gave him the horn, she assured him it would always ward off the malocchio, the evil eye. Now the superstitious Esposito would rather play on roller skates than miss his pre-game wink. Sitting down, Esposito pulls on a tattered black T shirt, making sure it is inside out and backwards, and pins a St. Christopher medal to his suspenders. Then he deliberately sets his hockey stick onto the carpeted floor squarely between his outstretched legs, with the taped blade pointing in a northwest direction, and places his black and white gloves palms up alongside the butt end of the stick. At this precise instant Frosty Forristall, the team's assistant trainer, appears with a container of baby powder and splatters it on the blade of Esposito's stick. As Forristall walks away, Esposito looks sharply around for some unlucky omen, like a turned-over paper cup or, shriek, crossed hockey sticks.
Across the room Orr has been casually rolling two sticks together in his hands. Suddenly he gets up, puts aside one of the sticks and walks around the room, tapping each of his teammates on the leg with the remaining stick. When Orr finishes, the Bruins line up single file for the short walk to the ice. Counting heads and helmets, Esposito motions Ken Hodge into the 15th position in the line, falls in behind Hodge and tells the backup goaltender—Rookie Ken Broderick—to follow him. It is time to get the show on the road.
Like Ruth and Gehrig, Cousy and Russell, Hornung and Taylor, Esposito and Orr dominate their sport from the box office to the record books to the playing surface. They sell out nearly everywhere, even at times in sunny California, and when one of them does not win the scoring championship and/or the Most Valuable Player award, the other usually does; indeed, they have taken the last five scoring titles and four of the last five MVP trophies. Last week Esposito and Orr had their act in peak form as the drastically revamped Bruins, playing with seven newcomers in the lineup, collided head on with the New York Rangers and the Canadiens in a mini-Stanley Cup showdown. When the week's curtain came down, Boston was somehow clinging tenuously to first place in the East.
Poor Esposito. While most of Orr's hockey accomplishments already are legend, Esposito still cannot shake the image of "garbage collector" that was thrust on him during his days with the Chicago Black Hawks. Throughout his 10 years in the NHL Esposito has spent perhaps 75% of his ice time playing alongside either Orr or Bobby Hull, and he admittedly has suffered by comparison. Orr and Hull are the game's blond bombers, matinee idols and pinup poster boys, and their scrubbed faces appear in countless commercial messages. In contrast, Esposito is a slow, plodding skater with features the opposite of fair. Except for Lou Angotti of the St. Louis Blues, he has the worst case of five o'clock shadow in hockey. "When I scored 76 goals three years ago," Esposito says, "I was not offered one new major endorsement." Still, he recognizes his identity problem and seems to be reconciled to the fact that large advertisers shun him.
"You can't compare Orr and me or Hull and me," he says. "They bring people to their feet. They are spectacular players. Orr is the best player in the game; I know it and I admit it. I also know that my role is to score goals, to pick up loose pucks and put them behind the goaltender any way I can. So that's what I try to do—and the people still call me a garbage collector. That's life, I'm afraid."
Despite what others say about him, Esposito is the complete center, as he proved conclusively in Team Canada's games with the Soviet Union last year. He is tall and strong, as was that prince of centers, Jean Beliveau, and a man to cause terror whenever he skates within 20 feet of the net. He has hockey's best wrist shot, although he prefers to call it a snap shot, and he invariably shoots without looking at the net. "I have developed a feel for where it is, just as John Havlicek has a knack for knowing where the basket is," Esposito says. "Besides, taking even the quickest look wastes precious time." He estimates that maybe 80% of his goals each season come on either snap shots fairly close in to the goal or artful deflections. Once stationed in front of the net, the 210-pound Esposito is a difficult man to dislodge. He uses his long arms and a powerful body to fend off defensemen while waiting for one of his wings, Wayne Cashman or Ken Hodge, to get the puck from the corners or for Orr to blast away from the blue line. Sometimes, though, he pays a physical price for staking out his position; two weeks ago he lost sight of an Orr shot and the puck broke his nose. He was lucky to be playing at all, having suffered a severe knee injury in the playoffs last April.
Esposito, Hodge and Cashman have scored more points than any other NHL line since Harry Sinden, then the Boston coach, first tried them together in 1969. Hodge, a 6'2", 210-pound right wing, is a combination corner man and goal scorer, while Cashman, one of the three best punchers in the NHL, confines most of his activity to the corner boards. The pugnacious Cashman usually starts his fights with a decided advantage; he is a southpaw, something his opponents forget until his left hand has connected half a dozen times. "Without Cashman and Hodge," says Esposito, "I wouldn't score half as many goals."
Unlike most high-scoring lines, Esposito, Cashman and Hodge have not yet acquired a fancy nickname on the order of Buffalo's French Connection (severed now with Center Gilbert Perreault sidelined by a broken leg) and New York's Gag (Goal-a-Game) Line. Boston fans have offered a number of possibilities, however. One suggested Esposito's Mosquitoes, because "they buzz, hum and draw blood." Another lobbied for the CHE line, because "they are revolutionary, like Che Guevara."
The Mosquitoes were scoring goals at a record pace as the Bruins buzzed into New York in midweek to play the struggling Rangers, who had not won a game in seven starts and faced a wholesale shakeup if they did not beat Boston. These were the same Rangers who had handily disposed of the Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup, but now they seemed helplessly adrift on the ice floes of the NHL. As a none-too-gentle reminder of the realities of November 1973, General Manager Emile Francis told the Rangers, "Don't send your laundry to the cleaners."
Esposito, with 16 goals in 12 games, Hodge with 10 and Cashman with five had thus far outscored 10 of the NHL's 16 teams, including the Rangers. Nevertheless, that fact depressed Sinden, now the Boston general manager. "People think we're a two-man and one-line team," Sinden said before the game, "and it scares me to think they may be right."
Sinden's fears were realized that night as the Rangers rudely routed the Bruins 7-3. New York's Larry Popein, a rookie coach fighting to save his job, assigned his strongman, Center Walter Tkaczuk, the job of neutralizing Esposito, and though Tkaczuk followed him everywhere except the Boston dressing room, Esposito managed to score two more goals—his 17th and 18th of the year. Orr got the final Boston goal with an assist from Esposito—did someone say two-man team?—but Boston never truly threatened New York's early lead.
Back in Boston, the Bruins and the Canadiens arrived at Logan Airport at just about the same time, but the Montreal players were smiling easily and kidding one another while the Boston players wore grumpy faces. While the Bruins were losing in New York, the Canadiens had taken over first place in the East by a meager point with a 4-1 victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto. Yvan (Roadrunner) Cournoyer already had scored 10 goals, Jacques Lemaire's new hairpiece hadn't slowed him down and suddenly Montreal no longer seemed concerned about Goaltender Ken Dryden's defection to a law firm. Taking Dryden's place now was another product of a U.S. college—Wayne Thomas of the University of Wisconsin—and he had allowed only 11 goals in the last eight games. "He is playing for us the way Kenny always did," said Captain Henri Richard. "He keeps us in the game with four or five big saves early, then we beat them in the last 30 minutes. Really, it is no different from last year."
Thomas was Montreal's No. 3 goaltender last season. He had presumed that his future would lie with Detroit or Pittsburgh or even the World Hockey Association. He had played in only 10 games for the Canadiens, and while he had lost only once and achieved a fine 2.37 goals-against average (Dryden's was 2.26), there was little chance Thomas would play in Montreal as long as Dryden was there. Then one night Thomas received a phone call from Dryden. Thomas' future suddenly acquired a stronger French accent, for Dryden revealed that he was going to retire.
Even so, Thomas was still Montreal's No. 3 goalie behind Michel Plasse and rookie Bunny Larocque, Plasse had a disastrous training camp, so Larocque opened the season in goal. After two impressive performances, Larocque played poorly in back-to-back losses to Toronto and Atlanta at the Forum. So Coach Scotty Bowman tried Thomas against the Rangers and has kept him in goal ever since. "It's strictly confidence," Thomas says. "Last year I knew that no matter how well I played, I'd go back to the bench when Dryden was ready. Now I know I can be the No. 1 goaltender on my own merit." Although Thomas had not dressed for any of Montreal's Stanley Cup games last spring, in Boston he displayed a cup ring. "I wear it with a certain amount of guilt," he said, laughing.
Over at the Garden, Derek Sanderson, the deposed center who now plays for the minor league Boston Braves, welcomed Esposito when he arrived for the game. "You guys sure were good in New York," he said. "I was watching from my bed, and I had to reach over and turn the television to Kojak for a little excitement. They ought to keep that tape and use it to show kids how not to play hockey." True. That night, however, the Bruins and the Canadiens played what Bobby Orr rightfully called "hockey the way it was meant to be played." Thomas and the equally new Boston goaltender, Gilles Gilbert, matched incredible save for incredible save. Both teams hit cleanly—and often. Esposito did his customary stints with Cashman and Hodge, performed on the power play, killed penalties and occasionally centered a fourth line for a pair of rookie wings. Orr was on the ice for at least three of every four minutes, but still the Bruins trailed 1-0 after two periods. Then Esposito and Orr turned it on.
Squaring off against Peter Mahovlich on a power play, Esposito won the face-off and shot the puck into the corner. He went into the boards, collected the puck, faked a pass to the covered Cashman in front of Thomas and then slid a pass to Johnny Bucyk, who was skating at Thomas on the left wing. Bucyk waited for Thomas to move and then deposited the puck between the goaltender's legs. Later, with the clock running out, Orr departed on one of his typical rink-long rushes. This time, though, he stopped against the right boards and flicked a wrist shot toward the net. Thomas reacted quickly, blocking the shot with his right glove, but the puck seemed to hang in midair for a second. Thomas swiped at it, but so did rookie Left Wing Dave Forbes. Forbes connected and drove the puck past Thomas for the goal that catapulted the Bruins back into first place.
Henri Richard, in Stanley Cup form histrionically, argued with passion that the goal was null and void because Forbes hit the puck with his stick raised above his shoulders. His protest was ignored, and as the race among hockey's top teams warmed up, this was clear: Boston would be null without Orr, void without Esposito.