On Thursday (November 29, 2018), the Boston Bruins continued a long tradition of retiring the numbers of their greatest players. Rick “Nifty” Middleton’s No. 16 became the Bruins’ 11th retired number. One of the most memorable sweater retirements in Boston took place on December 3, 1987 – when Phil Esposito’s No. 7 was the 7th Bruins’ number raised to the rafters.
Esposito first donned No. 7 for the Boston Bruins in 1967 after wearing the number with the Chicago Blackhawks since 1963. With the Bruins, Esposito earned the Art Ross Trophy (for top point scorer) five times and the Hart Memorial Trophy (as MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (as most outstanding player) twice each. With the team, he won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972. To this day, he still holds the Bruins’ record for most goals and most points in a single season (1970-71). Esposito could not keep No. 7 upon being traded by the Bruins to the New York Rangers in November 1975.Cue Ray Bourque, drafted by the Bruins in 1979. The 18-year-old expected to be able to keep his No. 29 but found No. 7 at his locker before his first game. He was told not to worry if anyone gave him grief about wearing the number, and fortunately, no one did. Instead, Bourque went on to win the Calder Trophy as best rookie, and he won his first Norris Trophy (of five) in 1987. He still holds Boston’s record for most points and leads the NHL in points for a defenseman. It must have seemed a really lucky number since Esposito and Bourque were so successful, especially at scoring.
It was just a matter of time before the Bruins retired Esposito’s number after he stopped playing in 1981. The night finally came on December 3, 1987, when he was in town coaching the Bruins’ opponent, the New York Rangers. Since Bourque had been made a captain (with Middleton) in 1985, it seemed natural that he was called up to make a presentation. No one but Bourque and the Bruins’ coaching staff knew what he was about to do. He skated over to Esposito wearing No. 7 and pulled off his jersey to reveal another with the No. 77, the number he would wear to his own retirement. Later Esposito shared that Bourque told him, “It’s yours and always should have been yours.” Bourque reveled in the fact that his gesture left Esposito momentarily speechless. When Esposito began his remarks, he told the cheering crowd, “Raymond, who’s one of the greatest players to ever play this game, what this young man did tonight is something that I’ll never ever ever forget no matter what happens in my life.” As the ceremony ended, the No. 7 banner was raised to the organ’s rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The night ended better for Bourque than for Esposito as the Bruins won 4-3. Bourque played for the Bruins until his final season, 2000-01, when he played on the Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche. On October 4, 2001, Bourque’s No. 77 became the next number retired by the Bruins.