Phil Esposito said Gordie Howe was his boyhood hero.
"He was the end-all, be-all," Esposito said. "He was the guy."
And Esposito, 74, the Lightning founder and Hall of Fame forward, has a permanent reminder of Howe, a scar above his lip.
You see, Esposito said Howe's moniker of "Mr. Hockey" was well-deserved, but so was his nickname of "Elbows." Esposito found that out the hard way the first time he faced Howe, one of the game's greatest players, who died Friday at 88.
It was in Esposito's second NHL game, with the Blackhawks against the Red Wings in 1963 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. In Esposito's first shift, he lined up against Howe on a faceoff. Teammate Bobby Hull told Esposito, "Watch that old (expletive)." Howe blinked once or twice, flashed a little grin. The puck dropped, and Howe shocked Esposito with an elbow to the mouth.
"I turned around, swung my stick at him," Esposito said. "I'm on the ice six seconds and I've got six stitches and I'm in the penalty box.
"I came back at him, I'd say to him, 'You old (expletive), you used to be my idol.' Later on, he told me that's the first time anyone had said, 'You used to be my idol.' He said, 'I respected you for that.' "
Esposito said Howe, at 6 feet and 205 pounds, had a mean streak on the ice but was nice off it. Esposito said one of his favorite memories was when he and fellow Hall of Famers were honorary captains at the 1986 All-Star Game in Hartford after both had retired. They played one last shift together.
"Howe was a special, special, special player," Esposito said. "People ask me all the time, 'Who was the greatest player?' I think Bobby Orr was the greatest defenseman I ever saw. (Wayne) Gretzky is the greatest forward I ever saw. But all-around, it was Gordie. He could play defense, he could play wing, he could play center. It didn't matter. This guy would win every faceoff, could kill penalties, on the power play. He was unbelievable."
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