"They just needed that ingredient. They had Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, etc. So this was the ingredient was missing, the guy that made the big saves. I was lucky. They picked me. You got to give them credit; they picked the right guy, I guess."
-- Tony Esposito
Every season teams hope a young player will step up and help the team improve in the standings. While it's rare someone like that can make that much of a difference, there was one player four decades ago that made a huge difference for his team.
was a 26-year-old goaltender when the Chicago Blackhawks
claimed him in the "intra-league" draft in the summer of 1969. Esposito went from juniors to Michigan Tech University in 1963, and after four years in college, he was signed as a free agent by the Montreal Canadiens
in 1967. Montreal promptly sent the netminder to the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks
in exchange for some cash; the next season Esposito played a handful of games with the Central Hockey League's Houston Apollos.
But Blackhawks General Manager Tommy Ivan must have seen something in Esposito during 1968-69. He played 13 games with the Habs, going 5-4-4 with a 2.73 goals-against average; in 19 games in Houston, he had a 2.42 GAA.
On June 11, 1969, the Blackhawks drafted Esposito after he was left unprotected by the Canadiens, who had Gump Worsley
and Rogie Vachon on the roster. Chicago had a disappointing season in 1968-69, finishing last in the NHL East Division. Chicago had some great talent, led by Bobby Hull
and Stan Mikita
, but neither Denis DeJordy
nor Dave Dryden
provided solid goaltending and Chicago finished out of the playoffs for the first time since 1957-58.
Esposito probably was not being counted upon as a major contributor for the 1969-70 season when he joined the team in training camp. But that would change.
Esposito would set a modern-day record for shutouts with 15, won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, won the Vezina Trophy as the League's top goaltender and helped engineer a major turnaround in the standings.
Twenty-six-year-old rookies are not supposed to have that kind of impact.
"I had played (13) games with Montreal the year before and I was fortunate to get over there (Chicago) and I was just ready at that time," Esposito said. "I knew I was ready to play all of the time and after that I played a lot of hockey.
"They just needed that ingredient. They had Bobby Hull
, Stan Mikita
, etc. So this was the ingredient was missing, the guy that made the big saves. I was lucky. They picked me. You got to give them credit; they picked the right guy, I guess."
"I was very lucky in that year," Esposito said of his rookie season. "I had a couple of good years after that. I think one year I had 10 (shutouts, 1973-74). Overall, I think that is one record that will be tough to break."
Chicago had Pat Stapleton
anchoring the defense and a host of talented forwards, but the Blackhawks started the season with a five-game losing streak. The team was just 15-15-5 after 35 games, but made a key trade in February when Ivan traded DeJordy, defenseman Gilles Marotte
and forward Jim Stanfield
to Los Angeles for All-Star defenseman Bill White
, forward Bryan Campbell
and goaltender Gerry Desjardins
"We got him (White) later, but Stapleton was there. Then we traded halfway through the year for Bill White
; those guys were awesome together," said Esposito. "We had a lot of stars in those days. We had Dennis Hull
, Doug Jarrett
, Pit Martin
, Keith Magnuson
, Jim Pappin
. We had a good hockey team."
Chicago had a talented team, but Esposito doesn't think the 1969-70 Blackhawks had a good defensive squad despite his netminding and two All-Stars on defense.
"We were not that tight defensively, you would be surprised," said Esposito. "We could not hold Bobby Hull
back and make him a checker. So we had to open it up. We were a very good penalty-killing team. At one stretch we went 21 games without a goal scored against us killing the penalties.
"That is where we excelled, in specialty teams."
One of the most overlooked aspects of Esposito's record is that Chicago played the majority of that season's games against Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Detroit and the Rangers as a member of the NHL East. The NHL West, which consisted of the six 1967 expansion teams (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Oakland and Los Angeles), played each other for the most part. Chicago would join the NHL West in 1970-71 after the NHL expanded to Buffalo and Vancouver. Buffalo took Chicago's place in the NHL East.
"It was a lot tougher. Naturally it was tougher to shut out the Montreal Canadiens
than in those days than the Pittsburgh team or the Philadelphia team, but that is progress," he said with a laugh.
Esposito felt being prepared was his biggest asset during his rookie year.
"I am very proud of it (the shutout record), and I must admit that when I played I had tremendous concentration," he said. "The good defensive team we had, it all worked perfectly, it really clicked."
That was one other aspect to that season that pretty much has been forgotten. Esposito helped make sure "The Curse of Muldoon" became a thing of the past. The story goes that Blackhawks coach Pete Muldoon got into a fight with team owner Frederic McLaughlin after the team lost in the first round of the playoffs to Boston in 1927. Muldoon was fired and he put a curse on the club that the team would never finish in first place.
Finishing first was a major accomplishment, but the team won Stanley Cups in 1934, 1938 and 1961. In 1967, Chicago finished with the best record in the League, although the team was beaten by Toronto in the 1967 semifinals. Toronto won the Cup that year.
In 1969-70, Chicago won the team's first ever East Division title and earned a second first-place finish overall in three years thanks to the rookie goaltender, thus lifting the curse forever.