'He was tireless, reliable and a great teammate': Legendary Blackhawks goaltender Esposito dies at 78
Tony Esposito -- one of the best goaltenders in the history of the NHL -- died Tuesday at age 78 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.
Esposito played all but one of his 16 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie in 1970, 1972 and 1974.
Just the third American college player to be selected by an NHL team, Esposito was one of the pioneers of the now-popular butterfly style in net.
A Hall of Fame inductee in 1988, he is considered by many to be the greatest netminder in the history of the Blackhawks.
"To the Blackhawks and the National Hockey League, Tony Esposito was a Hall of Fame goalie," the Esposito family said in a statement. "To us, he was a Hall of Fame husband, father, and grandfather. Chicago felt like home from the time Tony first arrived in 1969, thanks to the Wirtz family and those 18,000 Blackhawks fans who treated him like family every night at the Stadium, win or lose or tie.
"As we mourn Tony's passing, we cherish the memories and the affection, when he was a player and later as an ambassador. We are forever grateful for your support, and we feel blessed now to have your prayers at a difficult time. Tony was a private person, but he felt your love and he loved you back."
Esposito is the all-time Hawks leader in victories (418), shutouts (74) and games played (873). His career total of 423 wins ranks 10th all-time.
Those other 5 victories came during the 1968-69 season with Montreal. The Hawks acquired Esposito for $25,000 after the Canadiens put him on waivers to protect veterans Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley. It is considered the best waiver move in the history of the league.
"I was behind two veterans in Montreal," Esposito told Bob Verdi in 2016. "So I was anxious to go to a place where I might have a chance to play more. Plus, I had played a game against the Black Hawks the previous season. Even though they were struggling a bit, they had a lot of talent. I thought they had a strong upside, good possibilities."
Esposito lost his first two starts with the Hawks, yielding a whopping 7 goals in the 1969 season opener at St. Louis and four more to Detroit four days later.
Finally -- with the Hawks floundering at 0-5-1 -- Esposito shut out his former team, earning a 5-0 victory at Montreal on October 25. It was the first of Esposito's 15 shutouts that season -- a record that stands to this day. The 45-22-9 Hawks became the first team to go from last place to first.
The next season, Esposito and the Hawks had a chance to claim the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 10 years as they took a 2-0 lead over Montreal in Game 7 of the Final at the Chicago Stadium.
The championship was a tantalizing 30 minutes away.
But disaster struck when Jacques Lemaire rifled a shot from center ice that somehow beat Esposito.
"The puck dove like a knuckleball and unfortunately Tony didn't see it dropping," Stan Mikita told the Daily Herald in 2007. "I never blamed Tony for missing it because he put us in the Finals like most good goaltenders do."
Minutes later, Henri Richard made it 2-2, then hit the game-winner early in the third period.
Esposito's only other Stanley Cup Final appearance came two years later, when the Hawks fell to Montreal in six games.
Esposito was a true iron man between the pipes, averaging a whopping 67.5 appearances per season from 1973-81.
Esposito was named one of the NHL's greatest 100 players in 2017. His brother, Phil, is also a Hall of Famer after a sparkling 18-year career.
He was very superstitious, getting upset by crossed hockey sticks and lining up his sticks in a particular fashion.
"From his arrival in the Windy City in the late 1960s through an illustrious playing career and decades as a franchise icon, Tony left an indelible mark -- both on the ice and in the community -- over the next 52 years," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "Beyond the individual awards ... it was Esposito's style, charisma and heart that endeared him most to hockey fans not only in Chicago but across the NHL."
The Hawks named Esposito a team ambassador on March 19, 2008. He was honored at the United Center in a pregame ceremony with Bobby Hull and Mikita at his side.
"He was tireless, reliable and a great teammate," said Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz in a statement. "If you were a new player in Chicago, Tony and (wife) Marilyn always made you feel welcome and comfortable. Rookies were invited to their home for countless dinners, and when the Espositos held their annual Christmas party, everybody associated with the Blackhawks was there ...
"Tony's number 35 has long been retired, but his career with the Blackhawks actually encompassed two marvelous chapters. After all those years of making spectacular saves and hearing chants of "TO-NEE! TO-NEE!!" throughout the Stadium, he joined the Blackhawks as an ambassador. He was born for that role, too, as he reached out -- whether by request or on his own -- to fans, sponsors, and friends of our team. He rejected thousands of pucks in his first job; he never said no in his second job.
"It is a sad day for the Blackhawks and all of hockey. But with his wonderful family, let us celebrate a life well lived. Tony Esposito's banner will be part of the United Center forever, as will his legacy as a superstar, on and off the ice."
Esposito is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He is survived by his wife, two sons Mark (Kim) and Jason, and grandchildren Lauren and Kamryn.