They sit on opposite sides of the Boston Bruins' dressing room, unmindful of each other because of a paneled pole between them that probably keeps the fusty old Boston Garden from falling down. In a few minutes the Bruins will take the ice against the champion Montreal Canadiens, but now Phil Esposito (see cover) and Bobby Orr—the National Hockey League's only two-man team—are psyching themselves for The Great Hockey Show they soon will be staging once again.
The room is strangely quiet as Esposito stands up and winks at the red horn suspended from the shelf above his seat. When Esposito's grandmother gave him the horn, she assured him it would always ward off the malocchio, the evil eye. Now the superstitious Esposito would rather play on roller skates than miss his pre-game wink. Sitting down, Esposito pulls on a tattered black T shirt, making sure it is inside out and backwards, and pins a St. Christopher medal to his suspenders. Then he deliberately sets his hockey stick onto the carpeted floor squarely between his outstretched legs, with the taped blade pointing in a northwest direction, and places his black and white gloves palms up alongside the butt end of the stick. At this precise instant Frosty Forristall, the team's assistant trainer, appears with a container of baby powder and splatters it on the blade of Esposito's stick. As Forristall walks away, Esposito looks sharply around for some unlucky omen, like a turned-over paper cup or, shriek, crossed hockey sticks.
Across the room Orr has been casually rolling two sticks together in his hands. Suddenly he gets up, puts aside one of the sticks and walks around the room, tapping each of his teammates on the leg with the remaining stick. When Orr finishes, the Bruins line up single file for the short walk to the ice. Counting heads and helmets, Esposito motions Ken Hodge into the 15th position in the line, falls in behind Hodge and tells the backup goaltender—Rookie Ken Broderick—to follow him. It is time to get the show on the road.
Like Ruth and Gehrig, Cousy and Russell, Hornung and Taylor, Esposito and Orr dominate their sport from the box office to the record books to the playing surface. They sell out nearly everywhere, even at times in sunny California, and when one of them does not win the scoring championship and/or the Most Valuable Player award, the other usually does; indeed, they have taken the last five scoring titles and four of the last five MVP trophies. Last week Esposito and Orr had their act in peak form as the drastically revamped Bruins, playing with seven newcomers in the lineup, collided head on with the New York Rangers and the Canadiens in a mini- Stanley Cup showdown. When the week's curtain came down, Boston was somehow clinging tenuously to first place in the East.
Poor Esposito. While most of Orr's hockey accomplishments already are legend, Esposito still cannot shake the image of "garbage collector" that was thrust on him during his days with the Chicago Black Hawks. Throughout his 10 years in the NHL Esposito has spent perhaps 75% of his ice time playing alongside either Orr or Bobby Hull, and he admittedly has suffered by comparison. Orr and Hull are the game's blond bombers, matinee idols and pinup poster boys, and their scrubbed faces appear in countless commercial messages. In contrast, Esposito is a slow, plodding skater with features the opposite of fair. Except for Lou Angotti of the St. Louis Blues, he has the worst case of five o'clock shadow in hockey. "When I scored 76 goals three years ago," Esposito says, "I was not offered one new major endorsement." Still, he recognizes his identity problem and seems to be reconciled to the fact that large advertisers shun him.
"You can't compare Orr and me or Hull and me," he says. "They bring people to their feet. They are spectacular players. Orr is the best player in the game; I know it and I admit it. I also know that my role is to score goals, to pick up loose pucks and put them behind the goaltender any way I can. So that's what I try to do—and the people still call me a garbage collector. That's life, I'm afraid."
Despite what others say about him, Esposito is the complete center, as he proved conclusively in Team Canada's games with the Soviet Union last year. He is tall and strong, as was that prince of centers, Jean Beliveau, and a man to cause terror whenever he skates within 20 feet of the net. He has hockey's best wrist shot, although he prefers to call it a snap shot, and he invariably shoots without looking at the net. "I have developed a feel for where it is, just as John Havlicek has a knack for knowing where the basket is," Esposito says. "Besides, taking even the quickest look wastes precious time." He estimates that maybe 80% of his goals each season come on either snap shots fairly close in to the goal or artful deflections. Once stationed in front of the net, the 210-pound Esposito is a difficult man to dislodge. He uses his long arms and a powerful body to fend off defensemen while waiting for one of his wings, Wayne Cashman or Ken Hodge, to get the puck from the corners or for Orr to blast away from the blue line. Sometimes, though, he pays a physical price for staking out his position; two weeks ago he lost sight of an Orr shot and the puck broke his nose. He was lucky to be playing at all, having suffered a severe knee injury in the playoffs last April.
Esposito, Hodge and Cashman have scored more points than any other NHL line since Harry Sinden, then the Boston coach, first tried them together in 1969. Hodge, a 6'2", 210-pound right wing, is a combination corner man and goal scorer, while Cashman, one of the three best punchers in the NHL, confines most of his activity to the corner boards. The pugnacious Cashman usually starts his fights with a decided advantage; he is a southpaw, something his opponents forget until his left hand has connected half a dozen times. "Without Cashman and Hodge," says Esposito, "I wouldn't score half as many goals."
Unlike most high-scoring lines, Esposito, Cashman and Hodge have not yet acquired a fancy nickname on the order of Buffalo's French Connection (severed now with Center Gilbert Perreault sidelined by a broken leg) and New York's Gag (Goal-a-Game) Line. Boston fans have offered a number of possibilities, however. One suggested Esposito's Mosquitoes, because "they buzz, hum and draw blood." Another lobbied for the CHE line, because "they are revolutionary, like Che Guevara."
The Mosquitoes were scoring goals at a record pace as the Bruins buzzed into New York in midweek to play the struggling Rangers, who had not won a game in seven starts and faced a wholesale shakeup if they did not beat Boston. These were the same Rangers who had handily disposed of the Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup, but now they seemed helplessly adrift on the ice floes of the NHL. As a none-too-gentle reminder of the realities of November 1973, General Manager Emile Francis told the Rangers, "Don't send your laundry to the cleaners."