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
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
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
"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
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
was really surprised how big a deal it still
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."
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."