Ex-Bruins great Phil Esposito, 78, has been a regular visitor to Russia in recent years, traveling there for speaking gigs and sometimes consulting with the Kontinental Hockey League, the country’s top pro league.
“I was supposed to go back over in March,” said Espo, reached at his home in Tampa, “but obviously . . . that got changed.”
Now, provided the world can achieve a post-pandemic norm, the prolific Esposito will head to Moscow in September at the behest, he said, of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Because I was awarded this highest award they can give a non-Russian civilian,” noted Esposito. “We’re going to do it now in September, and my buddy Rootin’ Tootin’ Putin is going to present it to me.”
The honor, which Esposito did not identify by name, is likely the Hero of the Russian Federation, given for service to Russia. It’s usually associated with a heroic feat of valor. Russian citizenship or acts performed specifically for Russia are not necessary to win the medal, which is a gold star suspended from a red, white, and blue ribbon.
“I go over there and actually skate with some of the old guys, and have some fun,” said Esposito. “I make a couple of speeches, sign some autographs, go to dinner . . . and they pay me for it. I love it.”
The “Hero” medal has been awarded more than 1,000 times, often to cosmonauts, and at least twice to athletes — including Alexander Karelin, the great Greco-Roman wrestler, and Larisa Lazutina, who won five medals, including three golds, in cross-country skiing at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano.
Putin, an ardent hockey devotee who still plays in pickup games, would have been only 19 years old in September 1972 when Esposito and his Team Canada brethren pulled into Moscow for the completion of the historic Summit Series between the nations.
Russia held a 2-1-1 series lead after the first four games in Canada and stood but 20 minutes from clinching the series when they carried a 5-3 lead into the third period of Game 8 (series deadlocked, 3-3-1).
Esposito, then age 30 and the most dynamic goal scorer the NHL had ever seen (back-to-back seasons of 76 and 66 goals), put on a third-period tour de force that led Canada to a stunning 6-5 win.
Less than three minutes into the third, he connected for his seventh goal of the series. Some 10 minutes later, he set up Yvon Cournoyer for the 5-5 equalizer. And with only 34 seconds remaining in regulation, Paul Henderson knocked home a puck that Espo first landed on legendary netminder Vladislav Tretiak.
Shot. Rebound. Score. Take that, Mother Russia. Henderson forever will be remembered for the GWG, but Canada goes home a loser if not for Espo’s broad shoulders.
Tretiak, by the way, was the starting goalie when the Russians faced Team USA at the 1980 Games at Lake Placid. Russian bench boss Viktor Tikhonov, displeased with what he saw of Tretiak in the early going, pulled him in favor of Vladimir Myshkin, setting the stage for the Yanks’ historic win.
“All I can say is,” Esposito recalled decades later about Game 8 in Russia to NHL.com’s Dave Stubbs, “that when they called my name, I was there. And I wasn’t coming off.”
Esposito had a penchant for, shall we say, extending his shifts. In the Summit Series, his protracted flights of fancy took ice time away from a pair of other decent centers, Bobby Clarke and Jean Ratelle, both of whom, like Esposito, also went on to become enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. When Espo had the hot hand, he knew it. Generally, when he was on a roll, teammates were happy to have him keep throwing the dice.
Reminiscing over the phone about his Bruins days, Esposito recalled he often logged around 35 minutes a game, nearly twice the ice time current Boston coach Bruce Cassidy typically feeds top line members Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. Different game a half-century later. Much shorter shifts for everyone, fourth-liners and superstars alike.
Some of those 35:00 TOI, your faithful puck chronicler reminded Esposito, came because he often turned a deaf ear to calls from the bench to change up on the power play and stayed out there sometimes for the full two minutes.
“Well . . . hey . . . ,” said Esposito, crafting a faux innocence. ”I had great cardiovascular. I looked like [expletive] on the beach, but I had great cardiovascular. Big defensemen with those sticks, they had to go through 2 inches of fat to get to the muscle.”
Esposito was in Russia some eight years ago for the 40th celebration of the Summit Series. The adulation there for the proud son of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, was of nearly Putinesque levels.
“One time, my wife looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t know I was traveling with Brad Pitt,’ ” Esposito, then 70, was quoted in the Toronto Star. “Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed by the admiration, the adulation, whatever it is. It’s overwhelming. I’m 70 years old and, man, it’s wonderful to still be recognized and known. I think I’m more famous [in Russia] than I am [in Canada and the United States]. Does that make any sense?”
Maybe. If so, sounds like there oughta be a medal for it.
Retiring refs hard to replace
Brian Murphy, earlier this month named Hockey East’s supervisor of officials for the men’s games, was one of four NHL officials to work their last regular-season games in 2019-20.
Provided none of them gets called back to duty for an NHL return-to-play fling this summer, a whole lot of experience has left the barn with the retirements of referee Dan O’Halloran, and linesmen Murphy, Darren Gibbs, and Scott Driscoll.
Total games worked by those guys in stripes: 6,910.
“I was privileged to work in the NHL for 32 years,” said Murphy, 55 reached this past week at his home in Dover, N.H. “And now I’m ready for this next phase of my life.”
Due to the league’s abrupt halt March 12, none of the four was able to work their final scheduled games. For Murphy, a UNH business grad (1985), his last laps were to be Saturday, March 28 at TD Garden, Bruins vs. Panthers. Instead, he was part of the crew that worked the Sunday, March 8 game in Chicago, Blackhawks vs. Blues.
“What I’ll miss is the people,” said Murphy, who became only the eighth official in NHL history to reach the 2,000-game plateau when he worked a game in Boston March 17 last season. “The security guys . . . off-ice officials . . . you can go up and down the ladder. But I think that’s the part you miss . . . whether it’s the guy who opens our door, or the security guy, or the off-ice guy who stops by and says hello before the game. There are so many people that work around the game that it’s their passion to be involved. They really care about it. They are part of the production and the game doesn’t go on without them, and sometimes I think we all take them for granted.”
In his new gig, Murphy will oversee a crew of some 45 refs and linesmen, including Jamie Koharski, the son of ex-veteran ref Don Koharski. The junior Koharski also has worked games in Germany, and many Hockey East officials work across other college leagues and in the American Hockey League, too.
Since landing the job, Murphy has been busy in the virtual space, recently holding a Zoom session that included all 11 Hockey East coaches.
“I’m in the listening phase of the job,” said Murphy, who also holds an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University. “I’m trying to find out what they think of the league. What issues they see with the league, maybe not even officiating. It can be hockey operation-type things — what they think about how the game is presented, or whatever. Just an opportunity for them to express whatever concerns they have about how the game’s played, the rules, whatever. It was a wide range of discussions, really. I thought each call would be about 30 minutes and some of them lasted upward of an hour. They care about the game. They care about how the game is officiated, and what rang through to me is that they really take an interest in it.”
Murphy, who worked nine Cup Finals over his 32 seasons, was among the most proficient, accurate, and respected linesmen in the game. No surprise that he leaned forward in his new venture with an emphasis on communication. As he noted here last year, talking and building relationships over time was central to his on-ice success.
“I think that’s what’s missing in the game sometimes,” Murphy said soon after working his 2,000th game. “It’s one thing to be out there making decisions, but you’ve got to be out there thinking as an official. It’s not all black and white out there. I try to tell that to our younger officials. And it’s also about the relationships. You’ve got to have a relationship with these guys, because they have to trust that you’re doing the right thing.”
Recchi toasts the Cup
If the NHL can pull all the pieces together, get back on the ice, and ultimately crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion, ex-Bruin Mark Recchi isn’t one to think it should be dinged with an asterisk.
Unusual circumstances, no doubt, but a win is a win in Rex’s eyes.
“We’ll view it as unique,” said the ex-Bruin winger, chatting this past week in a Zoom session with three Boston beat reporters. “You can view it two ways: You can put an asterisk beside it and say it shouldn’t have been done, or you can think, you know what, you are Stanley Cup champions. When it comes down to it and you’re playing for that Stanley Cup, it’s going to be the same intensity.”
No one saw the pandemic-forced interruption in play coming, noted Recchi, and he gives the league and players credit for trying to make the best of being dealt a difficult hand.
“I think it would be pretty fun to have that asterisk,” added Recchi, “and say, ‘You know what, this is what happened.’ You can tell your kids, it was a pandemic and this what we had to do and we found a way to be the best team in the world.”
Recchi, now an assistant coach in Pittsburgh under Mike Sullivan, was in player development with the Penguins for a few years before moving to bench duty. He’s grown to like it and has been encouraged by GM Jim Rutherford to stick with it.
“So I think I’ll see where this takes me,” said Recchi, noting how much he has learned under the tutelage of Sullivan, the ex-Bruins coach, and Jacques Martin.
The Penguins’ coaching staff , said Recchi, has been consulting with an MLB team during the pause — he opted not to identify the club — and he has found the input invaluable. The Penguins’ staff did similar with the Steelers last year.
“We’ve been working on how they handle things, how they do things,” said Recchi, referring to the MLB team. “It’s been tremendous. We’ve had some great dialogue about how they handle superstars, and how they handle keeping people together. It’s been really neat.
“We’ve really tried to dive into some things as a coaching staff, and that’s what Coach Sullivan is great at — he just wants us to get better and keep working on things.”
If all goes as the NHL hopes, players as early as this coming week will start skating in small groups at their home practice facilities or arenas. If local governments restrict such gatherings, noted Bruins president Cam Neely, the league stands ready to help them find suitable sites. “They wouldn’t want teams unable to start for, say, a week later than the other teams,” said Neely. “They’re hoping everyone is on even ground from the start.” . . . Plans were still not made public as the weekend approached, but all but seven NHL teams will report back to duty for what would be a 24-team playoff tournament. Players from Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit, and New Jersey won’t be back in action until training camps open for the 2020-21 season . . . Retiring NHL referee Brian Murphy was only 5 years old in May 1970, and therefore too young to remember the famous “Flying Bobby” goal that Bobby Orr scored to clinch the Cup for the Bruins. But nearly 30 years later, he was thrilled to get Orr’s autograph in an impromptu meeting at the old Maple Leaf Gardens during the 1998-99 season. It was Boston’s last game at the old barn and Orr, recalled Murphy, was there to drop the puck for the opening faceoff. “Ray Scapinello [veteran linesman] gets Orr in our locker room, and we’re chit-chattin’ with him, and Ray wants an autograph,” recalled Murphy. Scapinello handed over a piece of scrap paper for Orr to sign. "Bobby goes, ‘I’m not signing that! Hold on a second,’ ” said Murphy, noting that Orr then ducked out to the adjacent room, reserved for Leafs ownership and execs. “So Bobby goes in there and grabs 10 of those old Goal magazines, and his picture that night was on the cover. He brings the 10 magazines in our room and signed every single of them. I know [the media] tells those stories about him all the time, but it’s all true. That’s him.” . . . The league has to decide whether to hold it annual entry draft in June. The annual start of free agency on July 1 is another sticking point, along with signing bonuses that are typically paid in July. One report this past week suggested such bonuses across the league will approach a half-billion dollars. Per capfriendly.com, the Bruins are only on the hook for $4.2 million in signing bonuses this summer: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Charlie McAvoy all at $1 million apiece, and defensemen Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton at $100,000 each . . . Per Recchi, the 2011 Cup-winning Bruins in their recent Zoom sessions identified a time for an upcoming reunion. “I can’t believe it’s been nearly 10 years already,” he said. “Now we just have to find a spot.” . . . Jarome Iginla and Alexander Mogilny both have good shots at being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame next month. Provided the party goes on as usual, induction weekend in Toronto will be Nov. 13-16 . . . Next month also will be five years since Don Sweeney, then just weeks on the job as Boston GM, made the moves that positioned the Bruins with pick Nos. 13, 14, 15 in the 2015 draft. Jake DeBrusk (14) has been proven to be a keeper. Jakub Zboril (13) and Zack Senyshyn (15) thus far have combined for eight games. Both Zboril and Senyshyn, their contracts expired, could be let go as free agents this summer.