1975 was a year of shocks in popular culture. M*A*S*H killed off Henry Blake—the lovable, goofy, and semi-competent Lieutenant Colonel in charge of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077. Jaws injected fear into film-goers thinking about going to the beach for summer recreation, lest they be shark attack victims like the ones portrayed on screen. And, the Boston Bruins traded Phil Esposito to the New York Rangers.
Esposito going to New York was not, to be certain, a global event. Or even a national one. For Bostonians whose devotion to sports knows no boundaries of faith, though, it was an upset of the natural order of things. Sure, Esposito started his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he flourished in Boston. Milestones include two Stanley Cups, a perennial NHL All-Star selection, and two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy, which honors the player most valuable to his team. Not since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season had betrayal pervaded the city, from Beacon Street to Boston Harbor.
“I’m crushed. I thought I had found a home in Boston,” lamented Esposito, quoted by Tom Fitzgerald in the Boston Globe.
Esposito emerged as a New York City icon, much like his fellow Boston transplant.
Boston sent defenseman Carol Vadnais to the Rangers as well, who played center. In return, New York let go of defenseman Brad Park, center Jean Ratelle, and Joe Zanussi—a defenseman for the Providence Reds, the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Boston Globe sports columnist Leigh Montville ascribed the term “garbageman” to Esposito because he scored goals that were neither flashy nor dramatic, thereby igniting a touch of scorn. But when Esposito journeyed down I-95 toward his new home, scorn gave way to unease. “One difference already has surfaced here,” wrote Montville. “The people—the same people who were cold toward Esposito and his records—now seem worried. They see a big hole in the scoring totals. They see a lot of goals that aren’t going to be scored. They see a lot of things that might not be done.
“That is the way it is with a garbageman. You never miss him until he’s not around.”
He led the Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup—the marauders of Madison Square Garden lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
Still, decades later, the trade causes angst for Esposito. Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons chronicled Esposito’s viewpoint in 2013: “I didn’t choose to leave Chicago. I didn’t choose to leave Boston. I signed a contract in Boston for less money than I could have gotten from going to the WHA. I could have made millions doing that. And you know how they repaid me? Three weeks later, they traded me (to the New York Rangers).”
Retiring after the 1980-81 season, Esposito transitioned to being an assistant coach for the Rangers. His post-retirement duties also included general manger, head coach, and analyst for televised games on MSG Network.
Esposito spearheaded the founding of the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with his brother, Tony, a fellow NHL standout. In 1992, the Lightning débuted in a 7-3 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks. Phil Esposito and Tony Esposito are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 1984 and 1988, respectively. Notably, the former’s biography page on the Hall of Fame website depicts him in a Boston Bruins uniform. And so it is in the memories, imagination, and Bruins lore for fans of a certain age.