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FRUSTRATED ESPO WANTED TO FINISH THE JOB SOVIET RED ARMY RELEASES THREE STARS TO NEGOTIATE WITH NHL TEAMS

Now that he's out of work, Phil Esposito may have a future as a fortune teller.

"I told my wife this morning when I left, 'I may be home without a job.' I'm pretty intuitive," Esposito said Wednesday after the New York Rangers fired him as coach, general manager and vice president.

That intuition didn't help Esposito in many of the 43 trades he made in his three years as general manager; his regime included the Rangers' first non-playoff season in 12 years and two first-round defeats.

The firing left him "in some ways relieved, in other ways frustrated. . . . The frustration is I didn't get the team as far as I could. As a player, I got the team to the finals (in 1979)," said Esposito. "But here, I wasn't able to finish what I started.

"I have no idea why they fired me and I didn't ask. When I first took this job, I told them I would need five or six years to have a contender who contended every year. It's three years and we still have some holes to fill. I thought I did a pretty good job and wish I was leaving on my terms."

Esposito, 47, had one year remaining on his $240,000-a-year contract.

John Diller, Madison Square Garden Sports' vice president, said: "It is our belief that new leadership is necessary in order to achieve the goals we have set for the franchise."

3 get army release

MOSCOW -- Three Soviet hockey stars, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, have been released from the Red Army, the final hurdle they needed to clear in order to play in the NHL, Tass announced today.

The announcement ended months of public squabbling. All three were members of the team which won the World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden earlier this month.

Tass did not refer to the disputes in its terse announcement that the three were let go "owing to reduction of staff" in the Red Army and "are now free to sign contracts with NHL or any other foreign clubs."

Last year, Larionov spoke out against the methods of national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, complaining in a long article in the weekly Ogonyok about rigorous training, inadequate compensation and a lack of debate and discussion in the team.

Fetisov then quit the national team after an argument with Tikhonov over the treatment of players. The two patched up their quarrel before the World Championships. However, immediately after, one of the Soviet's best young players, Alexander Mogilny, defected to the United States.

The loss of Mogilny, who is negotiating to play with the Buffalo Sabres, triggered some speculation in Moscow that the Soviets would block other players from joining foreign teams.

Today's announcement did not make clear whether the three would continue to play for the Soviet national team.

New Jersey has contract rights on Fetisov, Vancouver on Larionov and Calgary on Makarov.

Yzerman wins award

TORONTO -- Detroit's Steve Yzerman was named the winner of the Lester B. Pearson Award, presented to the outstanding player in a vote by the NHL Players Association.

Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and L.A. Wayne Gretzky finished second and third, respectively.

Jets hire Murdoch

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- The Winnipeg Jets have reached agreement with former Chicago Blackhawks coach Bob Murdoch on a two-year contract to coach their NHL club. Murdoch spent last year away from hockey after being fired by Chicago at the end of the 1987-88 campaign.

In his only season behind the Blackhawks' bench, Murdoch took the club to a third-place finish in the Norris division with a 30-41-9 record.

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