New York — 'Tis the season to be more spirited. We move faster, talk more animatedly, stay awake later. Our energy tanks are full. Phil Esposito is this way 52 weeks a year.
Espo, as he is known throughout hockey, is a big, garrulous man with a patrician nose whose enthusiasm could power the average nuclear plant. If you're planning a holiday party, seat everybody next to him.
It's good that he has nearly boundless vitality, because in his new job as general manager of the New York Rangers he needs every atom of it.
The Rangers haven't won the Stanley Cup since before the 44-year-old Esposito was born. They've spent most of this season losing close games and battling for last place.
Esposito was given three years to turn the franchise around. He is responding by going on the offensive, as befits the man who scored more goals in the National Hockey League than anybody else except Gordie Howe. The sign in his office reads ``Enough Waiting.''
He is leading the league in trades, has reorganized the scouting staff, and recently changed coaches. And he's just getting warmed up.
``I've never been accused of being patient,'' he admits with his say-cheese grin. ``And I'm not going to be indecisive. Every negative must be converted into a positive. I know how tough this job is, and the question is whether I'm strong enough to get it done. The answer is: you bet your Christmas I am. My main responsibility is to stock the roster with quality players, and I totally intend to.''
Esposito stunned Madison Square Garden by trading Bob Brooke, a captain, to Minnesota for Tony McKegney.
So far, Espo looks semi golden. McKegney, a rangy forward who is one of the few blacks in the NHL, has enlivened a sluggish offense and is the team's top scorer.
Last week the rookie general manager, only months removed from the Ranger TV booth, made what could prove to be the deal of the season, sending defenseman Kjell Samuelson, whose principle claim to fame is being 6 ft 6 in. tall, to Philadelphia for goalie Bob Froese who led the league last season in goals-against average, save percentage, and shutouts. Esposito could have pilfered the Liberty Bell and angered Flyer fans less.
The suspicion is that he may now try to trade Froese or Doug Foetaert, who has been backing up John Vanbiesbrouck, for the established scorer the Rangers conspicuously lack.
His objective may be to go after Pittsburgh's young Mario Lemieux, the heir apparent to Wayne Gretzky. A long shot, perhaps, but with Espo's gung-ho approach and Gulf and Western's money behind the Rangers, strange things could develop.
``We need a guy like Gary Carter of the Mets,'' he says, hitting his desk, a vigorous thump. ``He delivers a big hit at the right time. We need a 40-goal scorer like that.''
Esposito blamed the scouting staff he inherited for the lack of an explosive forward. He hired former Boston teammate Wayne Cashman as a scout (he has since become an assistant coach) and ex-Ranger goalie Ed Giacomin as a special-assignment scout and goaltending coach.
Espo knows he should be out more looking at top prospects himself, but now he's behind the bench coaching. Tom Webster, who replaced the deposed Ted Sator, will miss several games because of a physical problem.
Esposito coached breifly and effusively earlier this season after he fired the defense-mined Sator and was searching for a successor. The players responded with increased intensity.
``He relaxes you and makes you want to work hard for him,'' said Winger Don Maloney. ``Ted was such a perfectionist you worried too much about making a mistake. Phil tells you it doesn't matter if you make a mistake - keep giving a good effort. Hockey is largely a game of mistakes and emotion, and having been a great player he appreciates that.''
``It's a game played over a long season and it has to be fun,'' says Esposito. ``I'm pretty old-fashioned about hockey. I don't put a big emphasis on computers and videotapes and European style. I want players who are intelligent and dedicated and able to enjoy themselves.''
His detractors, most of them out of town, speculate that the strong-willed Esposito could have trouble delegating responsibilities - especially to his coach - and keeping up with the heavy load of paperwork, meetings, etc., that goes with the job.
His supporters contend he's an able organizer who knows hockey inside and backwards and has brought a revitalized attitude to a stagnant operation.
Now, if he could only come up with a Phil Esposito at center....