Interview: Hockey Great (and Sault Native) Phil Esposito on the State of the Game
The five-time NHL scoring champion shares opinions on everything from the Olympics to NHL expansion to the necessity of pedicures
Phil Esposito didn’t take a subtle approach toward scoring a then-NHL record 76 goals in 1970-71. The hulking Boston Bruins centreman planted himself right in front of opposition goalies and fired 550 shots on goal that season – a record that still stands. And even at age 75 today, “Espo” takes a similar in-your-face approach toward interviews. He has never changed.
Esposito’s dauntless, colourful, and instinctive bravado helped him become not just a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Bobby Orr-era Boston Bruins, but also Canada’s emotional leader in the historic eight-game 1972 Summit Series versus the Soviet Union. Americans of a certain age may know where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon; Canadians can answer where they were when Paul Henderson scored the game-winning goal against the Soviets – which Esposito assisted.
Nowadays, the native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is the radio colour commentator for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL franchise he co-founded in 1992. The former coach and GM of the New York Rangers has also signed on as a consultant to Kunlun Red Star, the new KHL club in Beijing that’s intended to develop hockey in China before it hosts the 2022 Olympics.
But don’t mistake that move for some unconditional endorsement of international hockey – nor contemporary hockey in general. As much as this two-time NHL MVP admires the speed and skill of modern superstars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, he remains a true man of the 1970s at heart – as Billy discovered when we caught up recently with Esposito by phone from his home in Tampa, Fla.
Q: If the NHL wants to grow hockey in Asia, is it a mistake to skip the 2018 Olympics in South Korea?
A: Not at all. Listen, I was one guy who never wanted the NHL to go to the Olympics. Ever. I don’t agree with it. Never have and never will. I don’t agree with shutting business down for 17, 18 days and loaning your product for nothing. Who the hell does that? Why do we do it? I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it should be for professionals. If that’s the case, and you take basketball, they play, but they play in the off-season. They play in the Summer Olympics. They don’t stop their season. Baseball doesn’t stop their season. Why the hell do we stop our season?
"I don’t agree with all the training today. I think that’s why they get hurt so much."
Out all of your old teammates, who have you stayed in touch with most?
Kenny Hodge and Wayne Cashman from the Bruins. Kenny lives just about 20 minutes from me, and Cash lives in Ocala, up the highway. I think I’ve stayed in touch with those two the most of all the guys. You know when they say if you win a Stanley Cup or a big thing, you walk with them forever? It’s the truth.
The guys on Team Canada ’72, like Peter Mahovlich and Pat “Whitey” Stapleton and Brad Park, I see them constantly, because I’m on the board for the ’72 team. The Canadian government wants to wait till the 50th anniversary to commemorate us. I hope we’re still around.
You were 29 when you peaked with 152 points for the Bruins in 1971. If a 29-year-old Phil Esposito got to play in today’s league, how would he do?
If my aunt had b---, she’d be my uncle. What kind of question is that? How would I know? I don’t know. These guys are faster, they’re bigger, they’re stronger. The equipment is to die for. I don’t know even know how they get hurt, to tell you the truth, with the equipment and the goaltending equipment and all that. But the one thing they don’t have that we had was respect for one another. And without respect, you’ve got nothing.
I don’t agree with all the training today. I think that’s why they get hurt so much. With me, you know, they had to go through an inch, an inch and a half of fat before they got the muscle. Now they spear you and they’ve got muscle.
Overall, how do you like the way the game is played today?
Well, there’s certainly not enough scoring in the game. The goaltending equipment is huge. The defence is huge. With all that padding, everybody blocks shots. That I don’t like about the NHL. I don’t like the fact that guys are able to hit from behind with no repercussions. I mean, they don’t give a crap. I don’t like that at all. I don’t like the fact that you’re not allowed to protect yourself, and I especially hate the after-whistle scrums, where they’re pushing one another.
In my day, if I pushed a guy like that, the guy would have punched me right in the face, and I wouldn’t have done it again. Now they mill around, and you’ve got guys who aren’t brave at all, yapping about it. I just don’t like that at all.
As a player, you wore size 10½ skates on size 12 feet. What did that feel like?
Five times in my eighteen and a half years playing in the NHL, after the season I went into the hospital and got corns and bunions and everything else cut off. It was awful. Awful! And had I known about pedicures and wasn’t such a hardhead, I would have been doing pedicures back then. I think all hockey players should do it – anybody who keeps putting their feet in those tight, tight boots.
In the 1992 expansion draft for Tampa Bay and Ottawa, teams were allowed to protect 14 skaters and two goalies. In this year’s expansion draft, they could only protect 10 skaters and one goalie. Are you envious of the deal the Vegas Golden Knights got?
Oh, we got screwed. Us and Ottawa got absolutely screwed. We had to take the third and fourth goalies. We had to take the fifth and sixth defencemen, the tenth and eleventh forwards. And you know what? What pissed me off more than anything was a year later when the Florida Panthers and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks came in, they changed the rules. They allowed them to take the second goalie and the fourth defenceman. You know what I mean? It was the same amount of money, but we got f---ed. There’s no doubt about it.
"What Pittsburgh did this year was phenomenal to repeat. Phenomenal."
What did you think of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs?
What Pittsburgh did this year was phenomenal to repeat. Phenomenal. But you have to have the luck of the draw and things have to fall your way. There’s no doubt things fell Pittsburgh’s way. Especially beating Washington again. They have this – I don’t know what it is, but they have a little mystique over Washington. It was like, we could never beat the Montreal Canadiens with the Bruins, it seemed. But yet we could beat the New York Rangers. And the New York Rangers could never beat the Bruins, but they could beat the Montreal Canadiens. It was weird.
What’s it like when you go back to Sault Ste. Marie to visit?
I haven’t been there for a year and a half now, two years, but it feels like I never left when I go there. I see all my buddies. It’s like I was there two weeks ago, you know what I mean? I don’t know about you, but if you have a buddy that you haven’t seen for a long time, and then you run into him or make plans to meet and have a beer or something, it’s like you never left. It’s just amazing. I do miss the Soo a little bit, and my sister still lives there.
My grandson [Niko Esposito] is going to go to Lake Superior State [University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan], not this year, but the following year. He’s got a full boat scholarship, playing hockey over there. I’m really happy about that, and I’ll be going up there quite a bit to watch him play.
What makes you happy nowadays, Phil?
Getting up in the morning. Just being able to survive and enjoy life as much as I can. I’ll never stop working. That’s just the way I am. I didn’t make an awful lot of money like the guys have done in this era, or even the ’90s. So I have to work the rest of my life, just like all the guys from the ’60s and ’70s. I enjoy golf with my buddies. I enjoy life, man. That’s what it’s all about.