November 20, 2012 - Federal Hockey League (FHL)
Phil Esposito and his wife Danielle share their Orange, Connecticut home with three cats named Peppy, Oreo and Cleo, three Yellow Labrador Retrievers, Max, Mickey and Baily and Cricket, a Jack Russell Terrier.
But on the job, in his second season as the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Federal Hockey League's Danbury Whalers, the 42-year-old Esposito, a former left wing and veteran of eight minor league seasons spent mostly in the East Coast League, shows a preference for pit bulls, a breed more in line with the image of who he was as a player and how he wants his team to play.
"Well, basically I played the enforcer role most of my career," Esposito says. "I know, hockey, they're trying to get away from that now so there's not too many of those guys left but I was fortunate enough at the time when I played my career there that I was able to have that role and I was grateful to do that and that was my way to contribute to the team and stuff. I could play too. I got my share of points and things like that but whenever there was an issue that needed to be dealt with, I was the guy that dealt it."
Esposito played high school hockey at Salisbury Prep in Connecticut. He was put on the waiting list at Yale but decided to play his freshman season at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in 1989-90.
"I went to West Point to basically play Division One college hockey," he said. "I went there on the notion that if hockey worked out then I was able to take off and leave and maybe pursue a hockey career or if worst case scenario was is if things didn't go as planned hockey wise for me then I would finish out my college at West Point, graduate and then make [the] military a career for me.
"Unfortunately, or fortunately I should say, my freshman year at Army went really well. I was one of two freshmen on the team and I played a lot, got a lot of points as a freshman rookie there [six goals, four assists, 48 penalty minutes in 23 games] and then I made a decision at the end of the year to go play junior hockey in Canada and pursue playing a professional career."
While Esposito never went on to earn a college degree, he credits West Point with giving him quite an education.
"My strength as a coach is motivation," he says. "I mean going to West Point really helped me out with some of the things that I needed to learn to be a leader. Just a lot of different things. You really can't put it into words. You either have that Type A personality to be a leader or you don't.
"I've always had it, I think, and I think out there they just kind of taught me how to use it and how to get people to do things when they don't really want to do them or when they don't think they can do them and I think that's the biggest thing. I can build a guy's confidence up and once you get that guy's confidence built up to the point where he thinks he can do whatever it is you're telling him to do, he can actually get it done and that's one of the big things about my ability to get guys motivated."
Esposito motivated himself to go to western Canada to play for the Junior A Vernon Lakers of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League where he helped them win two national championships in the two years he played there. He had over 500 minutes in penalties his second year with the Lakers and added approximately 40 points.
The army of one turned pro during the 1991-92 season, reporting to training camp with the American Hockey League's New Haven Nighthawks that fall where he caught the eye of the legendary player and coach John Brophy who accumulated nearly 4,000 penalty minutes (talking about pit bulls!) as a defenseman in the Eastern Hockey League for 18 seasons and then went on to win three East Coast League championships as the head coach of the Hampton Roads Admirals (90-91, 91-92, 97-98).
Esposito played only 11 games that year split between the Admirals, the Knoxville Cherokees and the Johnstown Chiefs scoring one point with 39 penalty minutes.
"I wound up going to Hampton Roads and playing for Broph there in the East Coast League that year," said Esposito. "I got into a couple of games strictly because I was a rookie and Broph had a lot of tough guys on his team at that time and it was more or less kind of like almost one of those years where you're just trying to work your way into the lineup."
Esposito's busiest seasons were 1994-95 when he played 23 regular season games and two playoff games for the Jacksonville Bullets of the Sunshine Hockey League (SuHL) scoring seven goals with 11 assists and 253 penalty minutes and the following year when he played a total of 50 games split between the East Coast League's Mobile Mystics (26 games) and the Bullets who had moved into the Southern Hockey League.
Esposito had eight goals, six assists and 151 penalty minutes for Mobile and 12 goals, 11 assists and 210 penalty minutes for Jacksonville.
Asked if he lived his dream as a hockey player Esposito said, "I did. I definitely did. I lived in all kinds of different places. I met my wife down in Biloxi, Mississippi when I was down in Mobile, Alabama playing down there in the East Coast League. I definitely have. I would have liked to have gotten [to] a higher level obviously or maybe even the National Hockey League but I went to training camp with the Tampa Lightning a couple of years in a row in Tampa. Florida and stuff, 92-93, 93-94, my second and third year pro.
"Phil Esposito was the general manager down there at the time and I went down to training camp down there. I was down there and played in an exhibition game," he said.
When asked if his name might have helped him with Phil Esposito the general manager, he replied, "I think it might have had a little bit to do with it too but I'll take whatever I can get. It was a lot of fun to be there."
Esposito was at home in Connecticut in 2008 working with the construction company he still owns when the phone started ringing. He came out of retirement to play for the Hudson Valley Bears of the now defunct Eastern Professional Hockey League but he tore a bicep tendon in his arm in a fight and retired for good at the age of 38 after 10 games. Esposito coached the Bears when the original coach was fired.
To be continued in next weeks edition of Inside the Glass.