Canadian hockey player Phil Esposito was not one of the top scorers in his first few seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, choosing instead to pass the puck, so his teammates could score. But soon after Esposito was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1967, he began racking up the points with a combination of goals and assists. In 1969 Esposito became the first hockey player to score 100 points in a single season.
Esposito was always the superstitious sort. When a Ouija board “told” him he would amass 45 goals and win the scoring championship in 1969, Esposito took heart. Both of those predictions came true. What the board neglected to mention was that the Boston Bruins center would also become the first player in NHL history to score at least 100 points in one season.
Esposito record came as a surprise to hockey fans, the center had never been a prolific scorer. During his four seasons with the Blackhawks, Esposito served as a setup man for superstars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. From 1965 to 1967, he averaged a modest 24 goals per season.
Esposito’s emergence as the NHL’s top scorer was all the more improbable considering that he lacked the outward intensity of a Bobby Hull, the shooting accuracy of a Gordie Howe, or the grace of a Jean Beliveau. Esposito’s trademark was more subtle.
That changed after he was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1967. Like a “cherry-picking” basketball player with a knack of scoring easy hoops with tip-ins, Esposito constantly prowled the net for loose pucks that could be converted into easy goals. “They call me the ‘garbage goal collector,’” he once said, “but I don’t care what they call me as long as the pucks go in.”
Esposito, whose previous personal best was 61 points, collected a league-high 49 assists en route to an 84-point season. He ranked second in the NHL scoring race, just 3 points behind his former teammate Mikita.
Esposito’s second season in Boston, 1968-1969, landed him in the record books. By February it was clear that his torrid pace would likely result in a 100-point season. He suffered a minor setback on February 1969 when he took a swing at a referee. The outburst yielded a two-game suspension. Although he was initially upset by the incident, Esposito returned to the ice with exuberance.
At the end of February Esposito tied Hull’s and Mikita’s record of 97 points. On March 1 the Bruins hosted the New York Rangers at Boston Garden. It was Esposito’s 60th game of the season. With 14 games remaining, the question was not whether he would reach the 100-point plateau but how far beyond it he would go.
Every time Esposito’s stick touched the puck, the Garden’s sellout crowd cheered wildly. The Rangers knew as well as anyone that he would break the record, but they didn’t want to surrender the historic point. New York goalie Ed Giacomin was in fine form. Esposito missed on his first 10 shots in the game. Finally, in the second period, Esposito beat Giacomin and right wing Bob Nevin to ring up point number 98. It was his 38th goal of the season. Later in the game Esposito notched his 99th point on an assist to Bobby Orr. Boston won the game, 8-5, avenging a 9-0 defeat at the hands of New York 6 days earlier.
The next night, Sunday, March 2, Boston hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden. Another capacity crowd of more than 14,500 people was on hand, hoping to witness a slice of hockey history. They would have to wait until the third period.
As Esposito skated onto the ice for the final stanza, a young fan shouted, “Please, get that 100th point, Phil! I want to be able to say I saw it!” Esposito listened. 17 seconds into the third period, he culminated a play from Ted Green and Ken Hodge with a 20-foot wrist-shot that whizzed past Penguins goalie Joe Daley. “Daley moved to his right and hit the ice,” Esposito later said. “I spilled it underneath him.” For 15 minutes the Bruins faithful stood and applauded. They showered the ice with hats, programs, a football helmet—even a pink bra. Six minutes later Esposito scored again, giving Boston a 4-0 lead that stood until the final horn. Boston’s 4rth consecutive victory also moved the club into a first-place tie with the Canadiens.
Esposito finished the season on a tear, tacking on 25 more points in the final 13 games. He closed out the campaign with 49 goals and a league-high 77 assists for a total of 126 points. 4 of his goals came against his brother Tony, then a goalie with Montréal.
Esposito became the first Boston player to have his name inscribed on the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer. Esposito’s performance, his first of six 100-point seasons within 7 years, helped the Bruins compile a league-record 303 goals.
Despite Esposito’s efforts, the Bruins could not keep pace with Montréal in the East Division. The race was decided on the final weekend, with Boston finishing 3 points out of first place. With Esposito leading the way, the Bruins recorded their first play-off series victory in a decade, sweeping the Toronto Maple Leafs in 3 games. Boston then lost to Montréal in one of the most thrilling postseason matchups in recent history. Three of the six contests were decided in overtime, including the finale, which the Canadiens won after 31 minutes 28 seconds of sudden death. Esposito was magnificent, recording a league-high 18 postseason points.