Like most brothers, Phil and Tony Esposito are no strangers to sibling rivalry.
The Esposito brothers took the competition out of the house and onto the ice when Phil was a high-scoring center and Tony was a stingy goalie in the National Hockey League.
Now they’ve taken it to the front office as they are both general managers for teams fighting for the top spot in the same division.
“I think it’s more pressure than we ever faced as players,” says Phil. “It was much easier when we were playing against each other.”
That was through much of the 1970s, when Phil was setting goal-scoring records with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers and Tony was an All-Star goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Since then, both have been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and moved into front office positions--Phil with the Rangers and Tony with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This has created a new awareness in both.
“When he and I were playing, we were controlling our own lives and we could say anything we wanted about anybody or anything,” Phil says. “But now we control other peoples’ lives and that’s a very, very touchy thing. I don’t think Tony had this much pressure as a goaltender.”
As for his new business relationship with his brother, Phil says he has to think twice about making trades with him, especially since they are both in the Patrick Division.
“I wish it wasn’t the same division,” says Phil, honestly. “I’ll tell you this: if he wasn’t in our division, we would have made a couple of deals already. I would have tried to help him out more and I think he would have tried to help me more.”
Not that either has ruled out a trade between them.
“I feel if I can make a deal with anybody that would help our team, I would make it,” Tony says. “I don’t care who I’m trading with.”
Along with everything else, the Espositos have been caught up in a controversy involving their teams as the result of a violent game at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 30.
The game was marred by nearly 300 minutes in penalties and a slashing incident in which Ranger defenseman David Shaw injured Pittsburgh star Mario Lemieux and put him out of action for three games. The league suspended Shaw for 12 games and both Espositos thought the penalty was too stiff, considering suspensions that were meted out to other players in the league for more serious incidents.
“We were supposed to go out for a beer after the game, but we didn’t go because Tony thought he should be with his coach and his team,” Phil says. “I understood. I would have done the same thing.”
Says Tony: “The game just got out of hand and it’s a game that shouldn’t have had happened. I didn’t like it, I’m sure Phil didn’t like it. It’s a black eye for hockey.”
Some of the Penguin players have promised retaliation in their next game on Nov. 23 in Pittsburgh. That doesn’t sit well with either Esposito.
“Our team will never play that kind of hockey,” Tony says. “I will not tolerate it.”
Back in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where the Espositos grew up, things were less complicated. Then, all you had to worry about was skating and shooting the puck. Or, in Tony’s case, stopping it.
As Tony remembers, Phil was a late bloomer as a skater.
“He developed his skating late because he was so tall,” Tony remembers of his brother. “When you’re tall and lanky like that, your coordination takes a little more time to develop. In his late teens, he really developed as a strong skater. He was almost impossible to knock off the puck.”
Like many kids, the Espositos practiced hockey anywhere they could, summer or winter. Naturally, Phil would shoot and Tony would try to stop the puck.
“I think the fact that my brother was a goalie helped our situation,” Phil says. “I owe him a lot and I don’t think he ever realized it, because I shot the puck at him a lot and I got to learn how goaltenders react in certain situations. I like to think that he may have gotten the same sort of thing back. But I think I gained more than he did.”
When Tony faced Phil on the ice later in the pros, he described it as an “awesome” experience.
“We would have a great battle on the ice,” Tony remembers. “When he’d score a goal, I would get hate letters: ‘Why did you let your brother score?’ It was pretty difficult not to let him score. He was an awesome goal-scorer who would get a goal a game.”
Phil finished his career as the second leading goal-scorer in NHL history with 717. He has since dropped to third, behind Marcel Dionne, currently active with the Rangers.
As a goaltender, Tony’s career was no less brilliant. He currently ranks third among the all-time goaltenders with 423 wins and is seventh among the shutout leaders with 76.
The Espositos were teammates during most of their youth. They first played together on a pewee team called “Zone Seven.”
“They divided the cities into zones and if you lived in that zone, you played on that team,” Phil says. “We played minor bantam, too, and at school as well.”
As the older brother of the two by 14 months, Phil was usually a step ahead of Tony in most things. They played together until Phil went away to play junior hockey and Tony went to school.
After that, they never were on the same team again except for NHL All-Star games and the memorable Soviet-Canada series of 1972.
Remembering his playing days against his brother, Phil says: “I always wanted my brother to play well and I wanted to win 1-0 with me getting the winning goal.”
That fantasy seldom happened, of course.
“I remember in the playoffs one year, I got three goals in three games against Tony, but we lost,” Phil says. “I got all sorts of hate letters saying it was my fault because I didn’t want to score on my brother and we lost the playoffs because of it. I got traded the next year.”