Esposito's on-the-ice glory is history, but managing still beckons

Carol Vadnais, who played with him during the glory days in Boston and through less rewarding times here with the Rangers the past five years, will remember Philip Anthony Esposito in one special way.

"He'll be flinging his fist up in the air to celebrate scoring a goal," Vadnais says. 'That's how he was most fulfilled."

The popular Espo, second-leading scorer in National Hockey League history behind Gordie Howe, flung his fist skyward only seven times the first half of the 1980-81 campaign. His proud offensive production curtailed, he retired in midseason.

"I had hoped to challenge Gordie's career total of 801 regular-season goals," he said, having stopped with 717. "But I always promised myself that when I didn't enjoy it anymore I'd retire. I'm not sure I did the right thing -- I never will be -- but I felt it was for the good of the team, the fans, and my family. I was getting very hard to live with. I had a good career, and my time came."

His friend Vadnais agreed.

"Seven goals in 40 games -- that's not Phil Esposito," Carol said. "The defense was checking him as if he were 28. But he's 38, and he was losing his enthusiasm for the game."

Esposito was a goal scorer, pure and simple. Well, simple at any rate. He didn't score a lot of picture goals, but he learned early that a rebound or a puck pushed in from a scramble in front of the net counts just the same as a weaving end-to-end rush.He planted his lumberjack's frame in front of the cage and held his grounds until the puck came to him one way or another. Then he put it past the goaltender as directly as possible.

In 1970-71, playing for the Bruins, he scored a record 76 goals that is the often-mentioned target for today's young lions like Mike Bossy. (Less acclaimed but equally noteworthy is his identical number of assists that year, for a record point total of 152.)

What Bossy and today's other top scorers should appreciate is that Espo did it not just one year but year after year after year. He whipped in 66 goals the following season, 55 the next, then 69 and 61.

In an 11-year period extending from the 1969-70 season through 1979-80 he amassed 592 goals, or an average of 54 a year.

That feat may never be threatened.

"I got to where I could hearm the puck catch the inside of the net," Phil says in his raspy voice. "It makes a lovely sound, like puuuh.m That was the big appeal of the game to me."

He never approached his Boston statistics here, but he earned his formidable salary. He was the team's leading scorer each of the last four years. That his output fell this season won't diminish his marvelous 18-year record.

"Looking back, I had some great individual thrills and some great team thrills -- it's a team game, after all," Esposito reflected. "Beating the Russians in Moscow in 1972 was somem thrill. Winning the Stanley Cup for the first time with the Bruins was another.Beating the Islanders in the playoffs the year before last war really something.

"What would I do differently? I'd probably sign with the World Hockey Association when I was offered all that money shortly before I was traded. I'd have made a pile of money and wound up back in the NHL anyway.

"But I'm in good shape financially, and New York is the best place for an athlete to retire. I have business involvements here that are ongoing. People shouldn't feel sorry for me. I'm starting a new career."

Espo will remain with the Rangers at least through this season as assistant to Craig Patrick, the new general manager and coach, who succeeded Fred Shero. He will do promotion and TV work and be on the ice at practices.

"I want the young players to pick my mind," he says. "I want to learn the coaching end of the game, because for some time I've aspired to be a general manager -- not just a coach, because there isn't enough security. I'm excited about the future."

After this year, he will be available if another team wants him. The Rangers seem committed to Patrick as their general manager, and Patrick may still bring in Herb Brooks, who directed the US Olympic squad, to coach. Espo is a friend of an entrepreneur who is bidding to put an expansion franchise in the New Jersey Meadowlands complex, and that could be a tangible possibility for him if he does not remain with the Rangers.

Vadnais will remember him for thrusting a fist overhead to celebrate scoring yet another goal. I will remember him for the inimitable way he would hold court after a game, sitting and perspiring in front of his locker in the black turtleneck underwear that was a carryover from his Bruins tenure. He would forthrightly dissect the play, interjecting jokes, his full Italian face theatrically expressive. He could have been a Roman emperor, reviewing the wars.

One afternoon last year, my son's team was rewarded for winning the Connecticut high school championship by an on- ice visit from a half dozen Ranger stars. For three hours Espo gave his time and energy, working vigorously with the awed young men on their moves and shots. He was enjoying himself in a way he was not able to enjoy himself his final months as a player. It said to me that he could become a very effective coach.

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