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Esposito's view from center ice

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Just before the casket was closed forever, Phil Esposito said he reached in and removed a black ring from his father's finger. On that ring is engraved, "Boston Bruins, 1970 Stanley Cup Champions."

Phil Esposito had given his prized possession to his father, Pat.

"He told me to take the ring back when he died because I only had two Stanley Cup rings," the NHL Hall of Fame center said. "But he told me to leave him the All-Star wrist watch, because I had plenty of those."

During Esposito's illustrious 18-year NHL career, he had a center-ice view in five Stanley Cup final series. He played for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1965 finals, the Boston Bruins in 1970, 1972 and 1974 and the New York Rangers in 1979.

But only twice did Esposito and his teammates earn the right to drink champagne _ and beer _ from the coveted cup.

"It was the ultimate," Esposito said beaming. "We really threw the champagne at each other. But when there was beer in the Cup, we made sure we didn't spill it. We made sure we drank the beer."

In 1970, Esposito set playoff records with 13 goals and 27 points (since surpassed) to help the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in 29 years. Two seasons later, the Bruins won the Cup again.

Boston has not won hockey's top prize since.

The 49-year-old Esposito won't have a center-ice view for the 1991 Stanley Cup finals. Tonight, the president of the Tampa Bay Lightning will be in front of a television, watching the Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins battle in Game 1.

"I hope these guys don't take being there for granted," Esposito said. "They may never get there again. We (the Bruins) thought we should have won four or five Stanley Cups. But we now realize how really tough it is to win it all."

Boston has won just five Stanley Cups since its inception in 1928.

When Esposito was growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, he said he used to dream about winning the Cup.

"That was the ultimate dream for every little kid playing hockey in Canada," he said.

Esposito got his first chance to play in hockey's big show during his second season in the NHL. He was playing for Chicago, which lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1965 final.

Five seasons later, Esposito got his second chance.

In the first round of the 1970 playoffs, the Bruins and Rangers were tied at two games apiece. Boston went 10-0 for the rest of the playoffs.

"We had this cocky confidence," Esposito said. "We really knew after we won the first series against New York that we would win the Cup."

Esposito vividly remembers teammate Bobby Orr scoring the winning goal 40 seconds into overtime to give the Bruins a 4-0 sweep of the St. Louis Blues.

Esposito also remembers riding down the streets of Boston in a convertible with Orr, Johnny Bucyk, Ted Green and the Stanley Cup.

"It was something else," Esposito said. "I mean it was crazy. Women were taking off their bras and throwing them at us. Everybody was having a great time."

"It was something else," agreed Gerry Cheevers, the Bruins' goaltender. "The parade was awesome. The people in the streets were attacking the convertibles. It was a crazy, wild, wild time."

In 1972, Boston blew a chance to win the series at Boston Garden. With the Bruins holding a 3-1 series lead, the Rangers pulled out a 3-2 victory to force a sixth game at Madison Square Garden.

In a Sports Illustrated article, Esposito said after that loss: "If the Rangers think they're going to beat us in the next two games, they're full of Park spelled backwards."

Park refers to Brad Park, the Rangers' star player.

Esposito had two assists to help Boston shut out the Rangers 3-0 in the hostile environment.

"You should have seen Logan Airport," Esposito said of the team's return to Boston. "The place was mobbed. When we stepped off the plane, it was scary.

"Bobby (Orr) and I fought our way through the crowd. But (teammate) Derek Sanderson was so scared he bribed a security guard to change clothes with him."

Esposito said the players spent three straight days celebrating.

"I woke up and I was in Florida _ in Palm Beach," he said. "I think Eddie Johnson (Bruins goaltender) paid for the plane tickets. I remember being on the plane, but I don't really remember landing."

Last June, the Bruins held a 20-year reunion of the 1970 championship team.

"It was like reliving it all over again," Esposito said. "It seemed like the people never forgot us. When we were there, people would wave to us everywhere we went. They all knew who we were. It was special."

And so were his teammates.

"We were all so close when we played together," Esposito said. "We not only were together on the ice. We partied together. We fought together. Everything was together. I think that's why we did so well. We cared about each other."

Esposito now wears both his black ring from the 1970 championship and a silver ring for the 1972 championship. He said he would like to have each of his daughters inherit a ring.

One problem _ he has three daughters.

"I guess the Lightning will have to win a Stanley Cup," he said. "That might even be more special than winning it as a player.

"I was a builder on the Bruins, I wasn't the architect. On the Lightning, the players will be the builders and my brother Tony and I will be the architects.

"But no matter what. My name will always be engraved on the Stanley Cup _ twice. That means a lot."

NHL STANLEY CUP FINALS

THE SERIES

The teams: Pittsburgh Penguins, 41-33-6 (first in Patrick Division, sixth overall) vs. Minnesota North Stars, 27-39-14 (fourth in Norris Division, 16th overall).

Stanley Cup finals: Best-of-seven series opens at 7:30 tonight in Pittsburgh.

Television/radio: All games live on SportsChannel America-cable. WFNS-910 AM plans to carry all games; some may be tape-delayed.

Season series: Penguins, 2-1-0 (1-0-0 at Pittsburgh; 1-1-0 at Minnesota).

How they got there: Pittsburgh, the Wales Conference champion, beat New Jersey (4-2), Washington (4-1) and Boston (4-2). Minnesota, the Campbell Conference winner, downed Chicago (4-2), St. Louis (4-2) and Edmonton (4-1).