Denis Savard on Tony Esposito: 'A great man'
The past two years haven't been easy on Denis Savard.
The former Blackhawks great sadly lost his mother-in-law to COVID-19, and also watched his brother lose his mother-in-law.
Just recently, former teammate and buddy Troy Murray was diagnosed with cancer. And then, on Aug. 10, Savard learned Hawks goalie Tony Esposito passed away from pancreatic cancer.
Savard was in Canada attending dual Life Celebrations for his mother-in-law and his brother's mother-in-law when he found out the sad news about Esposito.
"It was pretty shocking," Savard said last week, just a few days after coming home to the Western suburbs. "If there's a guy that I thought would live for quite a few more years, it was him. He's always a health freak, worked out and had lots of energy."
So what made Esposito such a fantastic teammate, ambassador of the Hawks and a friend to so many? We'll let Savard, who played with the Hall of Famer from 1980 to 1984, tell you by unveiling some wonderful examples.
Esposito was 37 years old when a fresh-faced Savard was drafted third overall by the Hawks in 1980. Savard wasn't sure what to expect from the veteran, who was an idol to so many Canadian kids.
But he quickly found out why Esposito was such an amazing leader.
"I always include (wife) Marilyn when I talk about Tony because behind a good man is always a great woman," Savard said. "She is such a great lady. She took under her wing my wife and the young girls that came along.
"Tony always had a Christmas party at his house for the team. They made sure we all went there and we went there with our wives. Marilyn would cook, we'd have a few beers. That's what great leaders do -- they bring you in, they take care of you and make you feel good."
They also lead by example, and Savard credits Esposito with showing everyone what it meant to prepare for a game. The focus, determination and competitive drive Esposito exhibited went a long way in helping Savard understand what it took to excel at the highest level.
"I asked him one time, 'What's your thinking?'" Savard recalled. "He said, 'I just focus on the opponents, the shooters. I just want to make sure I'm not distracted by anything. It's my job. I have to perform. When you're the goalie, you're the last man standing.'"
That laserlike intensity was a big reason why Esposito won 423 games, a total bettered by only nine others in league history.
Another reason? Well, some might point to Esposito's superstitious nature -- something Savard found out about in a hurry.
"I sat to the right of him, about three stalls down," Savard said. "Well, when we went to the training room I had to go toward Tony. His pads were laid out in front of him and I kind of went over his pads. Not on them, but over them.
"Somebody says, 'Hey. No, no, no -- don't do that.'
"I didn't understand at first because my English was still so bad, but I figured out I couldn't step over his equipment. After that, I always went around."
Another thing Esposito was known for was to pull slumping guys aside. Savard recalled going to a bar with Esposito before a game in St. Louis for a little pep talk. Between beers, Esposito offered a few words of encouragement, then told Savard: 'OK, now go back to the hotel and get ready for tomorrow.'"
"And I did," Savard said. "I played good. Scored."
Little things go a long way
As ambassadors of the Hawks, Savard and Esposito were often together at fundraisers or events. Esposito always made sure he knew the name of someone he was about to meet.
Even if he was quite confident, he'd double check.
"Classy," Savard said. "Everybody has a different M.O. Some are takable. Some are flashier. Tony was always respectable with everybody.
"As an ambassador what's important is to try and remember names. That's one thing he always wanted to make sure. He'd say, 'This is Bob, right?' I'd say, 'Yeah, that's right.'
"He knew. But sometimes you forget. You meet so many people. He always shook their hands and said, 'Hi. Tony Esposito.' They would say, 'Tony, I know you.' Who doesn't know Tony Esposito?
"You always pick things up from other people and I liked that part of him. So I make sure when I meet somebody that I remember their name. ... He was right -- make sure you know the name of the person you're going to meet. It's important."
Bounce in his step
One thing that will remain etched in Savard's mind is how Esposito would literally bounce from suite to suite to greet fans.
He loved seeing faces light up. To shake people's hands. To talk with them just for a moment. To make their evening just a little more special.
The last time Savard saw Esposito was in this environment, at a Hawks game before the pandemic began to wreak havoc on the world.
"I'll miss him dearly, walking to suites," Savard said. "He loved the Blackhawks fans. He loved to go around to suites to say hi to people.
'Let's go, Savvy! Bobby (Hull), let's go!'
"He never changed. I'll miss that. I can still see him going from suite to suite -- he bounces around. The way he walks, you know?
"He was a great man, no question."