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Revisiting Verdi: On game day, Esposito was silent, focused

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

In celebration of Bob Verdi's selection as the 2016 Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award winner for excellence in hockey journalism, will revisit his best work throughout the summer. Below is Verdi's piece on Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito's extreme focus on game days, originally posted on Feb. 8, 2010.

On game day, from the moment he arose at dawn until he removed his mask after another evening tending goal for the Blackhawks, Tony Esposito might as well have worn a “Do Not Disturb” sign around his neck. He treated passers-by as invisible, and you were wise to return the favor. Conversation was non-negotiable, even with his wife, Marilyn.

“Not even small-talk,” she recalls with a chuckle. “He would come home from the morning skate and have his meal at 1 p.m. sharp. Steak, baked potato, diet pop. Same thing, always. Table for one. He’d go rest, then we’d drive to the Stadium. Dead silence. If our sons, Mark and Jason, were in the car, and they wanted to poke each other like young boys do, they never said a word. I didn’t understand when I first started dating Tony way back in high school. But I caught on quickly.”

That work ethic, complemented by extraordinary talent and a ravenous desire to win, propelled Esposito to the Hall of Fame. Now, as one of four Blackhawks Ambassadors, Tony O has departed the “no smiling” section. When he visits the United Center from the family residence in Florida, Esposito lights up the office with his banter.

At his Heritage Night before the Blackhawks play host to the Dallas Stars, Tony-0 will be outwardly relaxed, although he admits that even after all these years, he feels that itch and perspires ever so slightly when he hears the National Anthem. But take it from Marilyn—he’s enjoying his role now immensely, as if it is a delayed and rewarding reaction for winters of stress, rocking back and forth in front of that net.

“Were you always so miserable?” Tony O is asked. He smiles, then replies, “Do you have to use that word, miserable? Couldn’t you say focused? That was the way I got myself ready to do my job. That was how I was brought up to prepare. That was how my Dad did his job. I didn’t so much fear losing my job as I feared failing.

"I gave up a bad goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 1971. We’re up on Montreal 2-0. Jacques Lemaire scores from the blue line. Past the blue line. I never picked the puck up. They win 3-2. When do you get over something like that? I don’t know if you ever do.”

As a rookie in 1969-70, Tony O turned 15 shutouts with the Blackhawks. For the next decade-plus, he was their undisputed number one goalie, a workhorse who toiled even when his body was a mosaic of multi-colored bruises or when those cursed migraines struck without warning.

“Oh, those headaches,” he grouses. “First your vision flutters, then the pounding. Torture.”

Yet in nine regular seasons, he played 60 or more games, and in two of those seasons, 70 or more. He logged 99 playoff assignments. When you were number two behind Esposito, you really were a distant sidekick. There was nothing quite as limited as a limited partnership with Tony O.

Denis DeJordy, Gerry Desjardins, Gilles Meloche, Ken Brown, Gary Smith, Mike Veisor, Michel Dumas, Gilles Villemure, Eddie Johnston, Murray Bannerman, Warren Skorodenski. They all served a little; they all watched a lot.

“Good guys, all of them,” Espo says. “Smitty was quirky. When he played, he would take off all his equipment between periods, go take a shower, then put his equipment back on. I don’t know how he did it in such a short time. A beauty, he was. We all got along. On those teams, we had some great players and great guys.”

Indeed, despite his ritualistic devotion to duty, Esposito was a popular and admired teammate. He took those backup goalies under his wing, often as road roomies, and mentored them. Fellow Blackhawks, particularly the young kids, always were welcome at Tony and Marilyn’s place in Elmhurst, especially around Christmas. Superstars blended with grinders, and the spirit of togetherness extended beyond, as Marilyn discovered when summoned to the office of Arthur M. Wirtz, renowned as baron of the bottom line.

“I thought we’d been traded,” she recalls. “But why would the owner call me in? Well, he’d heard about a fashion show a few of us wives were holding to benefit Maryville Academy. Mr. Wirtz said his son, Bill, would be at the fundraiser with a check to cover all our expenses. That’s a side of the Wirtz family nobody saw.”

In 1984, Tony O left the Blackhawks. No dinner. No gold watch. No nothing.

“I just went my own way,” he says. “Retired without a word. I never had a problem with Bill Wirtz. But there were people in charge of the team... Look at how many guys left here. It didn’t end well. Stan Mikita, Doug Wilson, Steve Larmer. It was embarrassing for a while.

"But it’s so different now. Management treats everybody so well, so classy. You’re expected to work and work hard. That’s the way it should be. But this franchise, it’s become the envy of professional sports. I’m happy to be part of it, and really happy for the fans.”

Tony O chats freely now, unlike one memorable night he drove to the Stadium for another stint as bullseye in target practice. The Eisenhower Expressway was a sheet of ice, and Esposito saw cars skidding everywhere before him. He was going maybe 50 miles per hour and the brake was useless. A collision seemed inevitable, at least until Tony O miraculously zigged away from one out-of-control vehicle and zagged away from another.

“It was scary and amazing we didn’t get in a wreck,” says Marilyn. “But still, there wasn’t a word spoken. We went to the Stadium, he played, then afterward I waited in the car by Gate 3 1/2 as usual. Tony shows up, looks at me and says, ‘I still have my reflexes.’ It had been maybe six hours since we were on the Eisenhower, sure we’d hit someone or be hit, and finally he talked about it.”

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