Hockey players call it "the slot," but it is more like Central Park after dark. When Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins stands in that 5-by-10-foot zone in front of a goaltender for more than one second, he fully expects to stop the butt end of an opponent's stick with his stomach, catch a few fists in his face, get stick-whipped around the ankles or be held, bumped, elbowed and shouldered. More muggings are committed in the slot than in any other high-crime area in North America.
Since the slot also provides the prime goal-scoring position in hockey, these attentions are an occupational hazard, and medical repair bills are a routine income-tax deduction. Esposito scored 68 goals this season and probably 50 of them came on shots from the slot. In return, he endured about 13 elbows and five punches per goal and suffered one broken nose, one bruised wrist and countless facial cuts. Esposito does not just stand there. He parks his 6'2", 215-pound truck of a frame and sets up housekeeping. "Phil rents the slot from the Boston Garden," says Bobby Orr.
"He stays in there so long we should be able to move him out some way," says Defenseman Brian Glennie of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "But sometimes he doesn't even budge when he gets hit." No fool, Esposito realizes that if he waits long enough, one of three situations is sure to develop: he will get the puck from one of his wingers—Wayne Cashman or Ken Hodge—working in the corners; he will deflect one of Orr's shots from the blue line; he will collect the rebound from an Orr blast. This routine has produced startling results for the Bruins. Esposito has led the National Hockey League's goal scorers in each of the last five years, and Esposito, Orr, Hodge and Cashman were, in order, the league's top four scorers this season.
As the Stanley Cup playoffs opened last week, the most pressing problem confronting Glennie and his Toronto teammates as they skated into Esposito's Boston fief clearly was to stop him. The Maple Leafs well remembered that Defenseman Ron Harris of the New York Rangers had nullified Esposito in last season's opening playoff series by hitting him at the perimeter of the slot with a low, hard, clean hip check in Game Two, sending him to the hospital for knee surgery. Without Esposito's stick to worry about, the Rangers ousted the favored Bruins from the playoffs three games later.
April 21, 1974
The first phase of Toronto's "Stop Esposito" program was a vocal plea directed toward the referees. "Esposito's a great hockey player," said Coach Red Kelly, "and he doesn't need any help from the officials. You know, he thinks that because he's Esposito, no one should touch him and he should be allowed to hit our players at will."
Esposito always has practiced a subtle form of retaliation. If he feels he has been fouled but thinks the referee has either missed it or deemed the action legal, he plays the supplicant. He scowls. He frowns. He shudders. He shakes his head. He raises his shoulders. He winces. He drags his leg. Anything to create sympathy. "He's a super actor," says one referee. Esposito also chats with the officials. Some are friendly chats, others are hard-eyed, unfriendly chats. "It's all done for a purpose, everyone knows that," says Esposito himself. "There's no way the referee will change the call he just made—or didn't make—but I'll get him thinking and then next time, well, maybe we'll get the break."
Kelly laughs at the thought of Esposito begging for a penalty. "He's like the guy who robs a store, runs out the front door, yells Thief, thief,' and points to two guys down the street," Kelly says. "He gets away with murder. The simple fact is that he doesn't like to get hit."
Phase two of the Toronto plan was to hit Esposito repeatedly. "You can't push him," says Glennie, the best body-checker among the Toronto defensemen. "You've got to muscle him, or at least try to, and I like to work on his concentration. He gets upset very easily. So I talk to him. I never say, 'I'm going to chop your head off,' or anything like that. I just try to get under his skin."
In the first game Glennie and the other Leafs began hacking away at Esposito at the opening faceoff. Early in the second period the two principals put menacing sticks in the air and Referee Art Skov whistled them both to the penalty box. The muggings continued to be successful as Toronto Defenseman Mike Pelyk went to the box with Esposito after another altercation. Esposito obviously was off his game and his line managed only three shots on Goaltender Doug Favell all night.
Although the Bruins won that game 1-0 on Gregg Sheppard's goal, Esposito was furious at the Leafs and the officiating. "No team ever held me or hooked me as much as they did tonight," he said. "Glennie was unbelievable. I guess it's about time I start to retaliate more than I have been. Actually, I should have become more aggressive a long time ago, but I get paid to score. I'm not a great fighter by any means. I've probably lost all the fights I've ever had. But this stuff can't go on anymore.
"Bobby Hull always told me that the worst thing about hockey is that the rules can be stretched so that pests can make life miserable for the better players. What if Orr got racked up every night? Say two guys deliberately went after him every game and kept pounding him into the boards. Bobby doesn't need that; he'd probably quit. Then hockey would be the big loser. Now I don't think I should be granted immunity or anything, but I believe the referees should watch for infractions more closely because, let's face it, I get fouled—and Orr gets fouled—more than most players. Instead, they don't watch us at all. If something happens, they say we should expect it because we're stars."
If Esposito was mugged in the first game, he was the mugger in the second. He practically decapitated Glennie at one point and later elbowed Pelyk and rookie Ian Turnbull as they tried to cover him in the slot. Midway through the second period Glennie knocked Esposito to the ice with one of the year's best body checks. Bouncing up, Esposito skated to the crease and planted himself between Glennie and Favell. Before Glennie knew what was happening, Esposito had retaliated for that check by battering him with five elbows to the head. When Glennie fought back, Referee Bob Myers signaled for matching penalties. As the melee continued Ken Hodge dutifully came to Esposito's aid, and when the battle was over Glennie had a five-stitch cut over his eye. "It seems that if you rap a guy over the head, the way Esposito and Hodge did, he gets a penalty for taking the rap over the head," Kelly said. "Esposito intimidated the referee."
Esposito later scored a goal on the Boston power play—a shot from the slot, naturally—as the Bruins won 6-3, but once again the Esposito-Hodge-Cashman line was relatively ineffective. "We did what we wanted to do by containing them," Kelly said, shaking his head, "and then the Sheppard line kills us."
Back in Toronto for the third and fourth games, Kelly continued to question the officiating, and Toronto newspapers ran pictures of Esposito hooking and holding Maple Leaf players. "You really can't blame Phil for doing what he has been doing," said Ed Johnston, a former Bruin who is an alternate Toronto goalie. "If you can punch guys and get away with it, then you should punch them and get away with it. He keeps giving—and we keep taking it on the head."
As Kelly had expected, Toronto complaints this time fell upon receptive ears; the Bruins spent a good part of the second period of Game Three parading to the penalty box without a Toronto player for company. "All those write-ups about the Boston Bruins hitting the poor Leafs," snapped Bruin Coach Bep Guidolin. "I saw the same Toronto team that I saw in Boston, and the players didn't looked bruised to me."
But despite the penalties and the ineffectiveness of the Esposito line, the Bruins had their third win, 6-3, as Sheppard got his third and fourth goals of the week and linemates Bobby Schmautz and Johnny Bucyk also scored.
"Am I upset?" said Esposito. "No way. We won the games, didn't we?" On Sunday night Boston beat the Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime, thus eliminating them in four straight. Toronto had won the battle of the slot, but the Bruins had won the war.