After all their Hall of Fame hockey feats, the Esposito brothers cherish measured steps in their golden years.
"The object was not to fall," said Phil. "And I didn't."
"Been a while since I've laced 'em up," added Tony. "Very nice affair, especially now that we're both safe."
The Blackhawks have done themselves proud with their "One More Shift" celebration of past icons. Wednesday night, before the United Center match against the St. Louis Blues, another sellout crowd got a double scoop when two of the greatest players in National Hockey League history snowshoed into view.
Phil was attired in the No. 7 he wore here, too briefly. Tony, as is his style, cut no corners. He dusted off his No. 35 sweater, retired in 1988, along with retro pads, vintage skates, gloves - also, for the first time in memory while appearing in his work clothes, a smile!
Mind you, he stood beside Cam Ward, but otherwise steered clear of the cage. Only after the National Anthem did Tony don a mask, but just for display purposes. As Glenn Hall once said, you'll never meet a former goalie who regrets quitting or yearns to have pucks fired at him at the speed of sound.
"I miss the competition," confessed Tony. "Sometimes."
The Esposito brothers grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. They played youth hockey, then took separate paths. Tony became a star goalie at Michigan Tech. Phil left high school, early and happily.
As a young member of the Blackhawks, Phil hit it off with his wingers, Bobby Hull and Chico Maki. Phil did not endear himself to General Manager Tommy Ivan or Coach Billy Reay. They wanted to see more drive and discipline.
"They kept getting on me about my weight," rued Phil. "So I would go into the sauna to try to shed a few pounds. But I kept running into "Moose" Vasko, who always brought a case of beer with him. And he shared it. So I would wind up heavier after leaving the sauna than I was before I went in."
Phil was traded to the Boston Bruins in a massive - some would say, infamous - deal after the 1967 season. With Bobby Orr on board, he exploded into a scoring machine. In December 1968, Tony made his first NHL start with the Montreal Canadiens in Boston. The game ended 2-2 with Phil scoring both goals.
"I was on the phone with our mother, Frances, after the game," Phil recalled. "She was furious with me. How could I do that to my brother?"
The Canadiens were well-fortified in goal, so Tony was plucked by the Blackhawks in the 1969 intra-league draft for a mere $25,000. In his rookie season, "Tony O" was sensational, authoring 15 shutouts - still a modern NHL record - in 63 games and won the Calder Trophy. He backstopped the Blackhawks to an unprecedented revival, from last place the previous season to first, and crafted a Hall of Fame career with 423 victories and 76 shutouts before retiring in 1984.
The end was not as proper as Tony deserved, another story for another day. But he took the high road, where there's always less traffic. Put it this way: when President & CEO John McDonough took over the Blackhawks front office and implemented enlightened concepts such as renouncing grudges, one of his first calls was to offer Tony a role as a Blackhawks ambassador.
"Tony O" played through a litany of injuries and bruises, was fastidious about his equipment, blamed himself for every goal against even when not at fault, and famously approached every game with an acute sense of focus.
Or as Phil suggested, "tell the truth… he was miserable to be around. He would drive to the Stadium with (wife) Marilyn and never say a word to her. I used to yell at him when we played against the Blackhawks. 'Hey, Tony, let's go for a drink after the game.' He wouldn't even look at me."
Phil, a more extroverted sort, won two Stanley Cups in Boston, where he scored prodigiously. In 1975, he was sent to the rival New York Rangers - another seismic transaction - and continued to produce. In 1979, he was informed of a possible move that would return him to the Blackhawks, but it never materialized.
Phil later became general manager of the Rangers, and Tony took a similar role with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the NHL expanded to Tampa Bay in 1992, Phil was installed as president/general manager while Tony assumed the mantle as chief scout. He was more than that. "Phil didn't have time for details," said Tony. "I handled the BS."
The Lightning suffered its share of entrepreneurial and financial travail in a new market. The team debuted in a makeshift rink at a fairgrounds with a 7-3 rout of the Blackhawks, whose President Bill Wirtz stormed out in dismay. When Chris Kontos registered his third goal, some fans threw hats onto the ice, only to be reprimanded by a security force unfamiliar with hockey customs. The Lightning tried various promotions to sell the sport, including employing a woman, Manon Rheaume, in goal.
The Lightning moved to a cavernous dome, still home of baseball's Rays, before settling into Amalie Arena, a first-class facility. There's a statue of Phil beside the building, where the Lightning now sell out every night and thrive under solid ownership. He and Tony filmed a humorous clip before the Blackhawks met the Lightning in the 2015 Final.
By that time, "Tony O" was back in the Blackhawks' family. On a night at the United Center in 2008 to celebrate his designation as ambassador, Phil showed up as a surprise guest. He wore his old sweater, but passed on a visit to the sauna. Tony, who lives with Marilyn near Tampa, is a ubiquitous presence with the Blackhawks. He is not around for show. Phil is a radio analyst with the Lightning, but only for home games.
"Too busy playing golf," scoffed Tony.