Friday, January 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning founder Phil Esposito describes heartbreak of losing a child

He closes his eyes, and once again, he can hear the echo of his daughter's laugh.

It was never a gentle sound. Some women laugh like wind chimes in the breeze, and the sound is soft and sweet and melodious. That wasn't Carrie's laugh. Carrie had the Esposito family laugh, a raw and unbridled burst of joy that bounced off the walls and threatened to break the windows.

"My father's laugh,'' said Phil, his eyes still closed. "It came straight from the belly. No one laughed the way Carrie laughed.''

And then Phil was laughing, too, across the tears and the time and the loss. For a moment, for just a moment, the lines in his face did not seem so deep and the ache in his heart did not seem so overwhelming.

It has been a month now since a father lost a daughter, since a telephone rang and ripped him apart. There are still times, he admits, he is still numb. There are still times he misses her with a pain that cannot be described.

She was feisty, and she was bossy and if she had an opinion, by golly, she was going to share it with the world. After all, she was an Esposito, and she was her father's daughter.

And, like all parents who lose their children, Phil thought there was going to be more time.

It was Thanksgiving of 1978, and the movie Saturday Night Fever had just hit theaters.

Carrie was 10 years old, and her sister, Laurie, was 13, and they were visiting their father on Long Island. It was one of those moments that divorced fathers live for and, Esposito, a star with the New York Rangers, was no different.

Even now, Esposito can tell you about that weekend, about how Carrie would say, "Let's do the Saturday Night,'' and how he would dance and spin her around. About how they played charades. About how the girls squealed when he told them that they weren't eating swordfish. They were eating shark.

Then Esposito did the music from Jaws.

Duh-dum. Duh-dum. Da-dum-dum-dum.

And then the squeals came again.

"One of the best weekends we ever had,'' he said, grinning.

• • •

The memories flow easily for Esposito. What else does he have of the laughing little girl who used to cling to him so fiercely?

Esposito, 70, sat in a restaurant in South Tampa on Wednesday morning, drinking coffee and toying with his toast.

In some ways, Carrie's death doesn't make any more sense than it did on Jan. 30, when one phone call told Esposito she was in the hospital in a coma and, 45 minutes later, that she had died. It felt sudden and wrong, the way these things do.

"I didn't believe it,'' Esposito says. "I couldn't. It felt like a bad joke. I remember asking if it was April the 1st. It was like my heart broke. I haven't cried much in my life. But I walked next door to where my wife was, and I told her I had to talk to her, and I just broke down. I haven't ever cried like that.''

It had been eight months since Phil had seen his daughter. Carrie, 43, was living in Germany with her husband, former Lightning player Alex Selivanov, and their three children.

The day before she died, Carrie returned late from a hockey tournament in Mannheim with Nikko, her 13-year-old. She didn't feel well, and at one point, she coughed up blood. Still, she refused to go to the hospital.

The next morning, she still felt bad, and she asked Alex to take Nikko to hockey practice. Alex left but called a family friend and asked her to look in on Carrie. When she did, Carrie was passed out on the sofa. She had suffered an abdominal aneurysm. She did not survive.

"The doctors told me that if she had had it taken care of a few days earlier, they could have fixed it without a problem,'' Esposito said.

• • •

In the early days of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Esposito had one firm, immovable rule for the members of the front office: No fraternization with the players. Date a player, and you were going to be fired. No exceptions.

Then Carrie met Alex.

And Phil and his rule never had a chance.

At the time, everyone knew that Carrie and Alex were an item before Phil knew. Tony Esposito, Phil's brother, knew. Terry Crisp, the coach, knew. The entire locker room knew. But no one dared to tell Phil because Carrie was director of team services and Alex was a player.

Eventually, of course, Phil found out. He was just about to confront her when she said she had to talk to him.

"Alex and I are dating,'' she said. "I think I have to quit.''

"You aren't even going to give me the satisfaction of firing you, are you?'' he said.

"Absolutely not,'' she said.

And so it went between father and daughter. She pushed to start community programs before he was ready. She helped line up the players with houses and directions to shops and restaurants. She even loaned her clothes to a player (Manon Rheaume, the first woman to try out as a goaltender for an NHL team.) What team founder's did that?

"My father used to say, 'If you plant potatoes, you're going to get potatoes.' She was just like me. She was a pistol.''

• • •

In some ways, Carrie Esposito spent much of her life chasing her father's footsteps.

She was 5 when Phil and Linda, her mother, divorced. Even now, he can hear her screaming, "Daddy, don't go!'' He remembers answering, "I'm not leaving you and your sister.''

Carrie was a hockey player's baby. She arrived on Feb. 12, 1968, and Linda's contractions began in the middle of a 3-3 tie between the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins. Phil never made it to the hospital. "What was I going to do?'' he said.

She was still a baby the next season, when Phil became the first player ever to score 100 points and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup and her father was the MVP of the league. She was 2 when he scored 76 goals, and she was 9 when he scored his 600th goal, and she was 13 when he retired. She was 16 when he went into the Hall of Fame. She was 19 when his jersey was retired by the Bruins.

Still, there is a weight that comes with having a celebrity for a father. Once, when Carrie was young, one of her teachers said something about her father to her. The next day, Phil showed up with his girls.

"I said, 'Is it true you said something bad about me and embarrassed my daughter?' '' Phil says. "He said, 'I didn't say anything bad. I just said you wouldn't even be in the NHL if it wasn't for Bobby Orr.'

"I said, 'Look, that's fine. You're entitled to your opinion. But I don't want that kind of talk in front of my kids. Do you understand that? I don't want my kids disillusioned. And the fact is, pal, I was in the NHL before Bobby. So put that in your pipe. If I ever hear this kind of talk, there is going to be trouble.' ''

Esposito grinned. "Maybe I threatened him a little bit. I didn't mean to.''

Yes, you did.

"Yeah, I did.''

No wonder, then, Carrie married a hockey player.

Still, it can be a lonely life. Carrie followed Alex to Russia, and to Germany, and to the Netherlands, and back to Germany. She would call her family and plead for someone to visit her. She was lonely, she would say.

"She was 5,000 miles away,'' Phil said. "That breaks my heart sometimes."

• • •

Want to know who Carrie Esposito was?

Last year, the wives were waiting in the hallway after Alex's team won a championship. Inside, the players were celebrating, and the wait became endless.

"This is bull,'' Carrie said. So she flung the door open and walked into a locker filled with naked hockey players.

"Listen, a-------,'' she shouted. "We're all waiting to party with you, so get your a---- going.''

Esposito chuckles.

"Does that sound a little like me?''

• • •

He wishes he had told her that he loved her more often, especially when she was a teenager. He wishes he had spent more time. He wishes there had been more moments.

What father wouldn't? Divorce is hard, and celebrity is hard, and guilt is relentless. When Phil flew to Germany for Carrie's funeral, he admits he had questions.

"There was a lot of guilt then,'' he said. "Did I do enough? Was I a good enough father? Could I have done more? When I was there, even at the funeral, I had those feelings.

"But the more people I talked to about Carrie, the more people who said she had told them how I was always there for her, how we had really connected, the more that went away.

"I didn't have any more guilt on the plane coming home (bringing her ashes with him). I was satisfied I did as well as I could do as a father in the circumstances that were delivered. I'm okay with it. I'm not grieving as much. I remember the fun times, the good times. I really believe I did all I could do.''

• • •

Well, not yet.

A month before she died, Carrie called home. Her mother, Phil's ex-wife, had just died, and Carrie's painful hip was acting up again.

"You have to promise me,'' Carrie told her father. "If something happens to me, you have to take care of the kids. Because Alex can't.''

It was an eerie thing to say at the time. Looking back, it sounds a bit like premonition.

Oh, Phil has his plans. He wants to help Dylan, the 18-year-old who is fluent in English, Russian and German, get into hotel management. He has had talks about getting Nikko and Rocco, 9, into a hockey academy.

Ah, but what happens when the questions come? What happens when Nikko or Rocco want to know about their mother.

Will Phil talk about her beauty? Or her stubbornness? Her fire? Or her passion? Will he talk of the baby he held or the daughter he lost?

"When that time comes,'' Phil said, "I'll know what to say.''

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