In the arena seats an attractive dark-haired lady pummeled her husband's arm in a frenzy of partisan excitement. "Come on, Phil! Come on! Come on!" On the ice below her a bulky hockey player in the uniform of the Boston Bruins executed a rink-long rush with the inexorability of a high-speed freight train. Seconds later he shot. The puck went into the net, the light flashed on over the Chicago goal and the lady's expression changed completely. "Why, that dirty rat," she said. "He scored on his brother!"
The anguished lady was Mrs. Pat Esposito of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The player who made the goal was her No. 1 son, Phil Esposito (see cover), the highest-scoring player in NHL history. The sprawled and (momentarily) defeated goalie was her No. 2 son, Tony, one of hockey's finest goaltenders and the holder of a few records of his own.
For Mrs. Esposito, hockey games between the Bruins and the Black Hawks have become exercises in agony. The last time her heavyset steelworking husband Pat took her to see Chicago play Boston she opted instead to sit out the game in a hotel room watching Art Carney score on Jackie Gleason.
Pat Esposito is another story. He glories in every stop made by his son Tony, every point made by his son Phil. Two years ago, after Phil scored a total of 126 points and shattered the old season record by a generous 29, Pat told reporters that no, he was not completely satisfied and would not be until his younger son had nailed down comparative honors in goaltending. A year later Pat Esposito had little left to carp about. His son the goaltender had racked up 15 shutouts during the season to break the old record by two he had won the Vezina Trophy, emblematic of the best goaltending in the league, and he had been named NHL Rookie of the Year in his first full season. As for brother Phil, he had scored a mere 99 points—a sharp falloff for him though it would have been a memorable achievement for anyone else—but he did help lead the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup championship in 29 years.
This season the Esposito Brothers' Circus is flying as high as ever. A fortnight ago Phil got Goal No. 59 to break Bobby Hull's 1969 record, and barring the total collapse of his extensive network of totems and superstitions, he will exceed his own record for total points by a goodly number. And Brother Tony is once again in the running for the Vezina, although lately there have been psychological barriers to his winning it that have nothing to do with his skill in the net. The problem is simply that the Black Hawks are so far ahead of their nearest competitors in the West Division of the league that it has become impossible for the players to get up for each game; the defense has sagged and careless goals have been whistling by.
No matter. Dramatic productions often lag in the second act. It is the third act that counts, and this year's third act in the NHL may turn out to be an original Cecil B. DeMille production adapted from the Book of Genesis and starring Cain and Abel themselves. "Don't start talking about the Stanley Cup finals till we get in them," warns Phil, the superstitious brother, but the temptation is unavoidable. Boston has a healthy lead in the East; Chicago has an insurmountable lead in the West. So wise money has the Brothers Esposito squaring off for all the marbles once again. Last year when the two teams met in the Stanley Cup playoffs it took Boston only four games to send the Chicago team reeling out into the cold like West Madison Street winos. What happened? "I'm not Alibi Ike," says the Hawks' taciturn Tony, "but everybody was writing what a great hockey team we were, and we began believing our press clippings. We won't make that mistake this time."
Brother Phil touched his lucky turtleneck shirt, patted the medal stitched inside his thigh pads, blew a kiss in the direction of the inverted horns and the four-leaf clover over his locker, carefully uncrossed a couple of crossed hockey sticks down the row and said, "My brother is my best friend and the greatest goalie in hockey, but when we get on the ice he's not my brother, he's just another goaltender we have to beat."
Bas-reliefs of both brothers stand at two approaches to their hometown. "Welcome to Sault Ste. Marie, the home of the Esposito brothers," the plaques say. Heroes to the hometowners, Tony and Phil are also heroes to each other. But their relationship is far more complex than mere hero worship. It is a curious mixture of old-country Neapolitan warmth, sibling rivalry and all-out war.
"My name is Phil," says Phil Esposito heatedly. "Don't call me bleeping Tony." Phil saw several shades of heliotrope last month when the California Golden Seals' program listed the leading NHL scorer as "Tony Esposito." "Ain't that a new high in stupidity?" Phil announced. "They've made my brother the highest-scoring goalie in hockey history."
The healthy combativeness between the brothers goes back two decades. "It began with table hockey games," Phil recalls. "I'd pull the lever and slap that steel marble all over the place, and even then Tony used to make some terrific saves." When their father refinished the family basement into a long recreation room, the brothers strapped pads on their knees and began playing kneeling indoor hockey, slapping a rolled-up woolen sock up and down the "ice" with their hands.