Phil Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of fame on this day in 1994. For a look back at his impact on the league, THW presents this article, originally published in June, 2015.
In today’s look at important off-season trades over the years, we set our sights back to 1967. While this particular deal did not take place at the NHL Annual Meetings held in the first week in June, it is inextricably linked to the events that were scheduled for that gathering.
June 6, 1967: Expansion Day
June 6, 1967 is arguably the most significant day in hockey history. The complexion of the National Hockey League changed forever that day when the league doubled in size, expanding from six to 12 teams in one fell swoop. In the months and weeks leading up to that day, each of the six established teams worked around the clock preparing for that day.
Much of what transpired on Expansion Draft Day was a result of groundwork that had been laid beforehand. The established franchises knew they were going to lose significant assets to the new clubs and all were working hard to gain some value back for players they felt they couldn’t let walk away for nothing more than money. Some teams saw this as an opportunity to re-tool the roster and close the gap between themselves and the “have” teams. The Boston Bruins fell into that category.
Pre-Esposito Boston Bruins: Perennial Bottom Dwellers
The Bruins had not made the playoffs since the 1958-59 season, a total of eight years. Six times during that span they finished last. The franchise’s image had become synonymous with the popular phrase “the agony of defeat”.
Only two trades were consummated before the May 15 deadline, at which time rosters were frozen. The Bruins, seeking some of those assets teams were worried about losing, were involved in both deals.
Boston acquired the effervescent Eddie Shack from Toronto in exchange for centre Murray Oliver. It was a case of the Leafs, with no plans to protect Shack, dealing him for a potential replacement for retiring pivot Red Kelly.
Blockbuster Deal with Hawks for Esposito
The second deal was a blockbuster and would forever change the fortunes of the Boston franchise. The Bruins very reluctantly surrendered 22-year-old defenceman Gilles Marotte as the key player in a six-man transaction with the Chicago Black Hawks. Also going to Chicago was centre Pit Martin and minor league goalkeeper Jack Norris.
Coming back to Boston were three players whom the Hawks were altogether too eager to dispose of. Tall, lanky centre Phil Esposito was the key for new Boston general manager Milt Schmidt. “Espo” had centred a line with Bobby Hull and Chico Maki, and was the seventh-highest scorer in the NHL in 1966-67. However, Blackhawk management heaped huge amounts of blame on Esposito’s wide shoulders following their semi-final defeat at the hands of eventual Cup-winning Toronto.
Esposito, it was felt had the wrong personality and was missing the needed drive to lead a team to playoff success. The Hawks felt he was too slow and too soft, and lacked finish around the net. Little did Chicago GM Tommy Ivan know, an offensive volcano was just below the surface, and an eruption of goals and points was only a few months away.
Accompanying Esposito to Boston were young forwards Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge. The two were line mates for the Hawks Junior A club in St. Catharines in 1963-64. They were part of a high-scoring trio, with Stanfield at centre, Hodge on the right side and Dennis Hull at left wing.
Stanfield had spent the previous couple of seasons splitting time between Chicago and their CPHL affiliate in St. Louis. Word had gone around that the new St. Louis Blues franchise would make him their first pick in the expansion draft, but Ivan pre-emptively sent him to Boston.
Hodge, who scored 63 goals in 55 games in junior in 1964-65, had never been able to translate his OHA scoring prowess to the big league. He had 10 goals and 25 assists in his final year in Chicago. He was another that the Hawks weren’t going to protect from the six new franchises.
Hawks Thought They “Pulled One Over” On Bruins
The Hawks felt they had pulled on over on the Bruins by prying Marotte from their grasp. Standing only 5-8 and weighing in at 158 lb., Marotte was considered a hard-rock defenceman despite his lack of size. He was a great skater for a defenceman, and had just completed his second NHL season in Boston, scoring seven goals and eight assists. He spent some time on the forward for the Bruins as well as taking his regular turn on defence. Paired up with rookie phenom Bobby Orr, Marotte thought he was set for years with the Bruins.
Martin was supposed to replace Esposito and give Hull the tough set-up man for Hull that Esposito wasn’t. The problem for Martin was that he was neither a playmaker nor very tough. It took Martin a couple of season before he managed to start to produce the way the Hawks had envisioned.
Norris had been brought in by the Bruins to be understudy for Ed Johnston in the 1964-65 season but never achieved the success many had forecast for him. He got into only 10 games with Chicago over the next two seasons. He spent most of his time in the minors before finishing up his career with four seasons in the World Hockey Association.
An interest sidelight to the deal was that at the time, many “experts” questioned whether the Bruins had given up too much for a group of underachievers. As things turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Esposito Re-Wrote the Record Book
Esposito blossomed into the number one centre the Bruins had been looking for. Lined up with Hodge (something the Hawks seemed loathe to try), he was the second-leading scoring in the NHL in 1967-68, just three points behind former team-mate Stan Mikita. This season would mark the start of a stretch that would define his Hall-of-Fame career.
Esposito would spend eight seasons with Boston, winning two Stanley Cups in the process. He led the league in goals six times, including a record 76 in 1970-71. He was the scoring champion five times.
Esposito was traded to the hated New York Rangers early in the 1975-76 season in another blockbuster deal. He wound up his career with that team in 1980-81.
Hodge scored 25 goals in his first Boston season, thanks mainly to Esposito’s playmaking. He was the right-winger on Espo’s line that would later include Wayne Cashman on the left side. The threesome formed the most feared attacking unit of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
Like Esposito, Hodge would also finish his career with the Rangers. He was sent to New York a year after Esposito in a straight deal for Rick Middleton. After two seasons in New York, he was sent to the AHL part-way through the third year and retired shortly afterwards.
Stanfield enjoyed six productive seasons with the Bruins, mainly as the second-line centre on a line with Johnny Bucyk and John McKenzie. He became an adept penalty killer and played the point on the power play. He never scored less than 20 goals during his time in Boston. He was sent to the Minnesota North Stars before the 1973-74 in a deal for goalie Gilles Gilbert. He was traded to Buffalo half-way through his second Minnesota season, and stayed with the Sabres until 1977-78. He finished his career with Hershey of the AHL the following season.
Bruins in Playoffs 29 Straight Years After Esposito
Although relatively unheralded at the time, this trade was a landmark in the history of the Boston franchise. The Bruins began a great run as a powerhouse NHL team, making the playoffs in 29 consecutive seasons. It’s entirely conceivable that this unprecedented success would never have taken place had new GM Milt Schmidt not gone out on a limb and brought in these three players.