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On This Date in Sports December 3, 1987: Number off the Back

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins gives Phil Esposito the shirt off his back, revealing a new uniform number, as #7 is retired in honor of Esposito.  The move was a surprise to everyone at the Boston Garden, as nobody expected Esposito’s number to retire on a night he was honored before a game against the New York Rangers. The Bruins would one day retire #77 in honor of Borque.

Phil Esposito was born on February 20, 1942, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Esposito’s career began with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1963, where he showed great potential as an offensive playmaker, helping Bobby Hull finish among the leading goal scorers in the NHL. Following the 1966/67 season, Chicago traded their budding star to the Boston Bruins with Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield for Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin, and Jack Norris. In Boston, Phil Esposito became a superstar, leading the NHL in assists in 1968 while winning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer in 1969 for the first time in his career. Espo would win four more scoring titles and lead the NHL in goals six straight seasons from 1970-1975. This included a then-record 76 goals in the 1970/71 season. Phil Esposito also won two Hart Trophies as the NHL MVP in 1969 and 1974, while the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.

After reaching the 500-goal milestone, the Bruins traded Phil Esposito with Carol Vadnais to the New York Rangers for Brad Park, Joe Zanussi, and Jean Ratelle. The deal left Esposito angry and bitter. In New York, Phil Esposito never again reached the level of stardom he had with the Bruins but remained a proficient goal scorer. He would help the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Finals before retiring in 1981 with 717 career goals, which ranked third behind Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull at the time. Shortly after his career ended, Phil Esposito moved to the front office where he worked as General Manager of the Rangers, helping draft the foundation of the 1994 Stanley Cup team.

While Phil Esposito was finishing his career with the Rangers, the Bruins found a new star in Defenseman Ray Bourque, who was given Esposito’s #7 jersey. Born on December 28, 1960, in Saint Laurent, Quebec, Bourque made his NHL debut with the Bruins in 1979; he would finish that season with 17 goals and 48 assists to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. It did not take Ray Bourque long to establish himself among the best defensemen in the NHL. In 1987 he won the Norris Trophy for the first time; he would win it five times in eight years.

On the night the Bruins honored Phil Esposito, it marked a thawing in what had been a chilly relationship since the night he was traded to the New York Rangers on November 8, 1975. The Bruins were playing the New York Rangers and planned to hold a ceremony to honor his career but had no official plan to retire his number. Ray Bourque skated over to Esposito during the ceremony wearing his familiar #7; when he got to the honoree, he took off his jersey and handed it over, saying, this is yours. Upon taking off his sweater, it was revealed Ray Bourque had a new jersey with #77 on his back. The Bruins would win the game 4-3, with Borque scoring a goal and an assist in a third-period comeback.

Ray Bourque’s #77 would become just as iconic to Bruins fans as Esposito’s #7. When he played with the Rangers, Esposito was forced to wear #77 himself, with #7 being worn by longtime Ranger Rod Gilbert. Borque would play for the Bruins for two decades, becoming the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer and scorer among defensemen. After finishing his career with the Colorado Avalanche, Ray Bourque had his special night with#77 rising to the rafters along with #7 as a Bruins retired number.