Luke Esposito will return to New England ice next season at Harvard, northeast of his native Greenwich, Conn., with a solid hockey résumé.
As a senior at Brunswick, Esposito netted 47 points in 29 games. Playing this season for the Chilliwack Chiefs in the British Columbia Hockey League, Esposito earned Coastal Conference rookie of the year and first-team all-star honors. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound center finished tied for third in the BCHL with 71 points in 55 games on 17 goals and a league-leading 54 assists.
With all that, he will probably still hear the trash talk he’s always heard about his family ties.
And we’re not talking about the clan associated with the No. 7 hanging from the Boston Garden rafters.
Like Bruins legend Phil, this Esposito also has Rangers connections, but they are through his uncle, Mark Messier, his mother Mary-Kay’s brother.
Esposito has been around hockey forever, from skating as a pre-schooler at 2004 NHL All-Star Game festivities to regular family activities with his uncle and his maternal grandfather — accomplished player and coach Doug.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a huge opportunity,” Esposito said of his lineage. “My grandpa and uncle Mark and Paul have been through so much and have so much experience, I try to use that as much as I can. It’s a tremendous opportunity and I’m grateful for it.
“I get chirps that I’m only here because of my uncle and grandpa. I take it on myself to prove to people that I earn my spot. I didn’t get my commitment at Harvard or score 70 points because of my uncle. I feel like all the hard work paid off.”
Chilliwack coach and general manager Harvey Smyl can relate to Esposito’s experience. While Harvey had a playing career that took him to Michigan State, his older brother, Stan, was an eight-year captain of the Vancouver Canucks.
“(Luke) carries himself extremely well,” Smyl said. “He’s a fabulous individual. I understand what he’s saying. There are times where it may be a burden. He never showed that. He’s extremely proud of his whole hockey family, as he should be. As a coach, I was aware of it. I try to read if there are any issues. I never discussed it with him because I didn’t need to.”
The family hockey activity Esposito relishes most is when Messier brings a crew to the Rangers’ practice facility. Mark, his son, Esposito, his brothers Mark and Matteo — a junior and a sophomore, respectively at Brunswick — and a friend will play 3-on-3 or do post-ups.
“He’s still in such good shape and he’s so competitive,” Esposito said of Messier. Esposito said that as he’s gotten bigger and stronger that they have some pretty good battles, but “he’s just so good, it’s unbelievable.”
Growing up, Esposito said he had trouble matching up with players his own age, never mind one of the sport’s all-time greatest players.
Playing youth hockey for Mid-Fairfield, Esposito said his smaller stature couldn’t cash the checks his hockey mind was writing. He was a third-line player and as such he embraced not having his line get scored on, winning faceoffs and knowing his defensive coverage down low.
As he matured and trained at Brunswick, Esposito earned second-line minutes and power-play time as a sophomore and really rounded into an impact player as a junior and senior. He kept his third-line mentality as a two-way player, but with more physical ability, he was able to become more of a playmaker and offensive threat.
As he got to the point of having conversations with college coaches, Esposito realized that he would need to play a year of junior and considered the USHL and the BCHL. His discussions led to the thinking that the BCHL was more suited to his style of play, more creative and freelance. And his grandfather, Doug Messier, had coached in Western Canada and had coached Smyl. Between the style, the connection and the success Smyl had, Chilliwack was the choice. A good one, it turned out.
The Chiefs finished in second place in the Mainland Division and reached the second round of the playoffs. Individually, Esposito had great success.
“At spring camp (last) April, he excelled in that environment,” Smyl said. “I felt he could step in and play. I didn’t think he would put up the numbers he did, but I knew he could handle it. To see his commitment off the ice to work on his physical strength, I believed he would be very capable.
“He’s got a fantastic hockey sense. He thinks the game very well, both offensively and defensively. A lot of kids who play junior hockey know how to put up numbers, but don’t know the defensive part of the game. He knows it and wants to play it.”
Off the ice, Esposito relished the Canadian junior hockey experience in Chilliwack, a city of 75,000 people 60 miles east of Vancouver.
“In the community, people knew who you are by face,” Esposito said. “You go for an ice cream cone and kids are asking for your autograph. Coming from prep school, I loved every minute of it. You’re essentially a pro. Growing up with my uncle, seeing the way he handled everything like that, you try to do the things you saw him do. But going off your own emotions, you don’t want it to be a distraction, but I tried to embrace it.”
Esposito was planning on staying in Chilliwack for a couple of extra weeks before embarking on a cross-country trip with three teammates. As he goes to Harvard, he will be joined by teammate Phil Zielonka, a Quebecer whom Esposito also played with on a Mid-Fairfield Midget team and faced off against when he was at Salisbury. Two other Chiefs will be playing at St. Lawrence next season and another will be suiting up for Cornell.
“It will be fun the next four years all playing each other,” Esposito said.
After tweeting the hashtag notreadytogohomeyet and saying he wished it could have gone on forever, Esposito will have pieces of Chilliwack with him going forward.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.