"When Phil started playing, I would always drive down to Chicago to see him play against the Blackhawks. Glenn Hall was my idol. But the taxes in Canada were just unbearable. If I had to pick a place, it definitely would have been Chicago."
-- Tony Esposito
Living in St. Pete Beach, Fla., Chicago Blackhawks legend Tony Esposito has enjoyed a first-hand glimpse of the revitalization of a professional sports franchise.
The nearby Tampa Bay Rays, who competed on baseball's biggest stage last season against Philadelphia in the World Series, experienced years of futility. The Rays play at Tropicana Field –which was once known as the ThunderDome, a venue with which Esposito and his brother Phil are very familiar. The two brothers from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, brought the Lightning to the ThunderDome in 1993.
Now, as an ambassador for the Blackhawks, Esposito is ready to witness another worst-to-first rejuvenation for the franchise where he famously manned the net for 15 seasons.
"I have played all over the place," Esposito said. "But there is no place like Chicago. It is loud, there is a lot of fan participation, and it is fun. I am glad to see that they are getting competitive again.
"(The Blackhawks) have a lot of young talent. They really could do it soon," Esposito said.
In order to best understand Esposito's legendary career in Chicago, it helps to know his roots.
Esposito starred at Michigan Tech, where he led the Huskies to the 1965 national championship as a three-time All-America selection. Esposito left Tech after his junior year to turn pro, playing for the Vancouver Canucks in the old Western Hockey League and the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League.
"It was a strange time. The League, with expansion, was just starting to turn to college players," Esposito said. "I don't know why it took them so long. (Red) Berenson and (Lou) Angotti came in right before me and Phil."
Unfortunately – or fortunately, for Esposito –Montreal was stacked with goaltenders when everyone was healthy. In fact, Gump Worsley and Rogie Vachon had been manning the pipes for Montreal before the injuries began taking their toll, opening the door for Tony Esposito.
On Dec. 5, 1968, at the age of 25, Tony Esposito finally got his shot. It just happened to be against his brother Phil and the Boston Bruins.
"I distinctly remember the game," Esposito said. "We played against Phil and it was a 2-2 tie. But Phil scored both of their goals against me. That Boston team was very good. (Bobby) Orr was incredible."
Esposito played 12 more games with the Canadiens that season. He also dressed for all four games of the Stanley Cup Final, which Montreal swept 4-0.
Cup or not, Esposito did not want to stay in Montreal.
"I just wanted to be in the (United) States," Esposito said. "I was thankful for the opportunity Montreal gave me. But it was a lot of pressure there; you were always under a microscope."
Usually a player would not be happy about being left unprotected in a waiver or expansion draft, but not Esposito. He said that being selected by Chicago in the 1969 Intraleague draft was the best thing that ever happened to him. The Blackhawks took him with the second pick, right after Minnesota selected Rick Sentes.
"When Phil started playing, I would always drive down to Chicago to see him play against the Blackhawks," Tony said. "Glenn Hall was my idol. But the taxes in Canada were just unbearable. If I had to pick a place, it definitely would have been Chicago.
"I had gotten to know a few of the people there, and the Blackhawks were a great team. They were hot. They had a lot of scoring and the only thing they were missing was a goaltender. It was the greatest feeling."
The Blackhawks sprung to life with Esposito in net.
Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull took care of the scoring, and Esposito kept the puck out of the net.
Esposito's first season in Chicago is the definition of legendary. The Blackhawks went from sixth in the division to first, and Esposito, as a rookie, set an NHL record with 15 shutouts. Since he had only played in 13 games with the Canadiens, Esposito qualified for and won the Calder Trophy and also took home the Vezina Trophy.
"That first season was wonderful," he recalled. "We went from worst to first. It was something you only dream of doing."
With the 15 shutouts, Esposito earned the moniker "Tony O." Esposito said it originated from one of the 'Hawks beat writers, using it as a play on both his Italian-rooted last name and his ability to shut teams out.
"I still hear it a lot," Esposito said. "Everywhere I go, someone always says something about it. A lot of the people that remember it are 40 or 50 years old now."
In Esposito's 15 seasons in Chicago, the Blackhawks finished first in the division nine times. They went to the Cup Final twice, but Esposito never got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup again after that first season in Montreal.
"We came up short," Esposito said. "We were ready to win. I think we definitely would have won if (Bobby) Hull didn't leave for the WHA. He was only 31 years old, in his prime. That's just how it goes sometimes."
Some of Esposito's fondest memories came from playing against his brother, Phil.
"It was fun because we weren't rivals," Esposito said. "We weren't both forwards. We each had our own position and we each played in a different area of the country. We wanted each other to do well."
After his career was complete, Esposito took the first chance he had to work with Phil. His older brother led a group of investors that paid $50 million for an expansion team in South Florida. Phil installed himself as president and general manager, and Tony was named the chief scout.
"It was a tremendous opportunity," Esposito said. "It was our first time working together. He and I really started organizing the whole thing, but he put that franchise together from scratch. Phil really got things going."
The Espositos started the Lightning, and, to this day, still bask in the South Florida sunshine. Tony does appearances and speaking engagements, but his primary work is still with the Blackhawks.
He will fly back and forth to Chicago four times in the next month alone, especially to celebrate the retirement of the No. 3 for Keith Magnuson and Pierre Pilote.
Esposito had his own No. 35 retired last season.
"It was easily the classiest night I have ever seen," he said. "They really spared no expense. It was the nicest night I have had in my life, to be recognized by my peers and teammates."
"I have known Rocky Wirtz since he was a teenager. Wirtz and John McDonough are doing an unbelievable job at making Chicago a hockey city again. They are a first-class organization."
Author: Frank Seravalli | NHL.com Correspondent