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When Lightning Strikes
November 24, 2003

Story by: Damon Papadopoulos

I shook his hand. The right one. Not that it really would have mattered, considering he had a Stanley Cup ring on each hand. And so there I was, talking to the guy who was the first player in the NHL to score a hundred points, led Team Canada into the 1972 Canada-Russia series and was the former President and GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Yes, that guy: Phil Esposito.

You see, I'm lucky in that where I work, guys like Phil Esposito will come around once in a blue moon and shoot the breeze. In this particular instance, Mr. Esposito came in to talk about his new book, Thunder and Lightning: A No BS Hockey Memoir (written with sports author Peter Golenbeck). Not that he really talked about the book that much; instead, he spent most of the time reminiscing, laughing and having fun.

And that's what makes Phil Esposito a truly unique individual: the fact that he is just a regular guy. It's in the way he speaks, the way he's at ease with whomever he meets, the way he talks to you as if he's known you all his life even if you just met him and talked to him for a grand total of one minute.

But that's just the way he's always been. If he likes you, he likes you; if he doesn't,
he'll tell you. He's a man who speaks his mind, and when he was interviewed recently by Gord Stellick for Toronto sports radio station The FAN 590, he laid it all out on the table.

Covering everything from his early days in the big league to his role as founder and part owner of the Lightning, Esposito talked from the heart and shot from the hip, stating, "If you're gonna do what I've done and write this book, then I wanna go out there and promote it and everything else because that's the only way to get it [the point] across: that people should buy it and have a good time reading it."

To say Phil Esposito is passionate about his book is an understatement. "I enjoyed all the stories; all the things that happened to me," Phil stated with amusement. And it took him about a year and a half to document these stories in Thunder and Lightning, working about eight or nine hours a week, every week.

One of the stories that didn't make the book involved Bobby Hull, "a character would always get me in more trouble," laughed Esposito. But this time, Hull was sticking up for his then-Chicago teammate.

"There was this time in Detroit, we're playing the Red Wings… and [coach] Billy Reay had said, 'If you win the game, we're gonna pay for all the beer.' And we won the game and Bobby went up to him and says, 'Okay, all the guys, we're going together and Billy's gonna pay the bill.' And Billy says, 'No, no, no, I meant if you won and we got to the finals and we win.' And Bobby says, 'That's not what you said.' I was standing right beside Bobby and Billy said that's what he said."

Esposito went on to say that the boys went out, got their own beer and came back to
the hotel. Unbeknownst to them, Billy Reay had given up his suite to a family and
hotel management put him next door to where Esposito and some of his teammates were staying.

"We're sitting in the room, drinking beer and throwing the cans against the wall and singing him [Reay] 'hymns,' if you know what I mean." (Translation: swearing).
"Next day," Esposito chuckled, "Billy came in the room and really started to lambaste me about things and Bobby stood up and he said, 'Wait a minute Bill. You can give it to
Phil all you want, but I was there, too, and I was cursing you also. And so was Chico [Resch].' Billy just turned around and walked out and I said, 'Thank you very much Bob.'"

Of course, one of things everyone wanted to know about was what went on "behind the scenes" with Team Canada and the '72 Series with Russia. For instance, there were two moments when Esposito thought the team really came together. The first occasion was when Guy Lapointe's wife gave birth. He recalled, "The players got three or four cases of beer and sat in this big park not far from the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. All the guys toasted Guy's baby and his wife."

The other bonding incident occurred the next day at practice when Alan Eagleson came in and told the team the Russians wanted to change the deal: no wives and an issue to do with money. Esposito spoke for the team, asking Alan Eagleson, Harry Sindon and John Ferguson to leave the room.

He then turned to his team and said, 'Guys, as far as I'm concerned, we've got to make a decision here. Unless the deal stays the same-because we made a deal and you're only as good as your word in life- we've got to stick by it. And if they want to change the deal, well, if it was up to me, I'd say 'screw 'em,' we'll go back home."

Finally, Esposito explained, "We all had our say, we all had a little vote. We'd all tell Eagleson unless the deal's the same, we're quitting." Luckily, when the team told Alan Eagleson of their decision, he replied, "That's what I wanted to hear. I'll make sure it's done."

And he got it done; otherwise, there might not have been an historic Canada-Russia series. Even thirty years later, it's one of the most talked about moments in sports.

"To this day I still can't believe…I was really surprised how big a deal it still is,"
Esposito mused. People who weren't even born at that time still talk to him about the monumental meeting, thanks to the release of the DVD Team of the Century.

Esposito went on to say, "There's a lot of guys that didn't want to re-live it. They didn't want any part of it. And a lot of guys that think that it should be over with and forgotten, but the truth is, I don't think it'll ever be forgotten."

Probably not.

Yes, Phil Esposito is a hockey legend and an author, but he's still just the regular guy who was born in the Soo and grew up playing hockey. In his words: "Man, I've done it all except drive the Zamboni."


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