(Photo: By Boston Bruins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
At the beginning of his second-to-last of 18 NHL seasons, Phil Esposito scored his final hat trick. On October 18, 1979 at Madison Square Garden, his 32nd hat trick established an NHL record. With those three goals and two assists, Esposito brought the New York Rangers to a 6-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
Esposito scored his first NHL hat trick on October 15, 1967, his second game and first win with the Boston Bruins. At Boston Garden, they trampled rival Montreal Canadiens 6-2. After four seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, Esposito had been traded in a deal that most consider gave the Bruins the far better end of the bargain. He remained with the Bruins until 1975, during which time he topped the scoring leaderboard and made the First All-Star Team six times, won the Hart Trophy and the Stanley Cup twice, and set records for goals and points in the 1970-71 season. From 1975 until his retirement in 1981, Esposito skated with the Rangers.
Until Esposito, Bobby Hull held the record for NHL regular-season hat tricks at 28. He scored that final hat trick on December 22, 1971, when Esposito had less than half that. However, Hull left for the World Hockey Association (WHA), so his additional 13 hat tricks do not count towards the record. Esposito scored his 29th hat trick to top the list on November 30, 1977. Earlier that month, he had scored his 600th goal, placing him third behind Gordie Howe (786) and Bobby Hull (604). During the 1979-80 season, Esposito tied Hull for most consecutive 30-plus-goal seasons (13).
Esposito’s hat trick record could not survive Wayne Gretzky. Exactly five years after Esposito’s 32nd hat trick, Gretzky scored his 29th. Gretzky set the new record with his 33rd hat trick on January 26, 1985. He went on to score 50 regular-season hat tricks and still holds the record. Esposito remains in fifth behind Mario Lemieux (40), Mike Bossy (39), and Brett Hull (33). He also still ranks sixth in career goals (717) and 10th in career points (1,590).
As Bruins teammate Bobby Orr told Sports Illustrated in 1971, “We’re like a team of brothers. I know Phil has scored a lot of points, but to my mind he’s even more important off the ice.” After retiring in 1981, Esposito went on to manage and coach the New York Rangers before founding the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise (with his brother Tony Esposito) in 1992.