Skip to main content
100 Greatest Players

Tony Esposito: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Three-time Vezina Trophy winner holds Blackhawks records for shutouts, victories

by Bob Verdi / Special to NHL.com

When Tony Esposito was obtained by the Chicago Black Hawks on June 15, 1969, it merited only small print in the Windy City. The Black Hawks finished last the previous season, he was a spare part for the Montreal Canadiens and, besides, the Cubs were in first place. 

But when training camp convened in September, Tony O seized the No. 1 goalie job, led the Black Hawks to a miraculous turnaround and became a bastion of stability throughout a Hall of Fame career.

 

Video: Tony Esposito won Vezina, Calder in 1969-70

 

"I was behind two veterans in Montreal, Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley," Esposito said. "So I was anxious to go to a place where I might have a chance to play more. Plus, I had played a game against the Black Hawks the previous season. Even though they were struggling a bit, they had a lot of talent. I thought they had a strong upside, good possibilities."

Evidently, the Black Hawks felt the same about him. Esposito was made available by the Canadiens in the intraleague draft, and general manager Tommy Ivan grabbed him for a mere $25,000. The Black Hawks had their franchise goalie for the next 15 years.

Although enriched by stars such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, the Black Hawks landed in sixth place during the 1968-69 season, albeit with a winning record (34-33-9) in an East Division comprised of Original Six teams while the West contained six teams from the 1967-68 expansion.

 

TONY ESPOSITO CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 886 | Wins: 423 | Losses: 306 | Ties: 151 | GAA: 2.92

 

The Black Hawks could score -- they had 280 goals, second most in the NHL -- but they yielded 246. Ivan and coach Billy Reay were intent on stressing a tidier style the following season, and Esposito became a key part of that. He was among an excellent crop of rookies that included Keith Magnuson and Cliff Koroll, but Esposito was chiefly why the Black Hawks staged a reversal for the ages.

It did not begin well. Esposito was raked 7-2 by the St. Louis Blues in the season opener. The Black Hawks started 0-5-1 and fans were restless. But the Black Hawks went to Montreal, Esposito shut out his former team and the transformation in Chicago began to gain traction. The Black Hawks, just a .500 team by early January, embarked on a remarkable streak, losing three games in February and only one in March.

On the final night of a frenetic regular season, the Canadiens visited Chicago Stadium in a state of desperation. They had to either win or score five goals to secure the last playoff berth via the tiebreaker. After the Black Hawks opened a 5-2 lead, Montreal coach Claude Ruel sporadically pulled Vachon for a sixth skater. But it was the Black Hawks who feasted, scoring five empty-net goals for a 10-2 romp to complete an unprecedented worst-to-first finish.

The story of the winter, however, was Esposito. He was superlative, registering 15 shutouts -- still a record for any masked or unmasked man since the 1920s. He earned the Calder Trophy as best rookie and Vezina Trophy with a 2.17 goals-against mark. The Black Hawks had found a worthy successor to Glenn Hall.

Although not to the extent of Hall -- who logged an amazing 502 consecutive starts -- Esposito was an ironman. He toiled despite a variety of injuries, his body routinely a mosaic of welts and bruises. He was fastidious about equipment, sewing his own pads. He was famously focused: his wife Marilyn joked that during car rides to the rink she might as well brought a book because there was no conversation.

But Tony O endeared himself, not only to fans but especially teammates, by accepting blame for every goal. It was his fault, even if it really wasn't.

Esposito grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a cradle of hockey. He wore glasses as a youth, abandoned hockey for a year in his late teens to play football, then returned to the net. At Michigan Tech, he was a three-time first team All-America selection. When he made it big with the Black Hawks -- along with Denver University products Magnuson and Koroll -- it represented unchartered territory. College campuses were not a pipeline to the NHL.

Esposito was also among the pioneers of the butterfly style. It was unconventional, but especially effective for him. He was athletic, up and down, side to side. He was cerebral, studying opposition shooters. And he was a ferocious competitor who entered his own zone on game days. Hall unwound by regurgitating. Esposito harbored a glazed look. He would be unshaven and best left alone, his fertile sense of humor at an undisclosed location.

Tony and his brother Phil had some spirited jousts even before the Black Hawks and Boston Bruins grew into a rivalry. On Dec. 5, 1968, shortly after his NHL debut with the Canadiens against the Oakland Seals, Tony was given his first NHL start, against the Bruins in Boston. Vachon and Worsley were hurt, so it was Tony and Ernie Wakely dressed for the Canadiens. Phil scored on his brother at the eight-minute mark, Tony later joking that it was a lucky shot, banking off the post. Phil scored a second goal and the game ended 2-2.

"Marilyn wasn't there and she couldn't get ahold of me, so she called Phil," Tony Esposito said. "He told her what happened. She took it OK. But when my mother, Frances, found out Phil had scored twice on me, she wouldn't talk to him for two weeks."

Tony won two more Vezina trophies, sharing it with teammate Gary Smith in 1972 when Esposito's GAA was 1.77, and 1974, when he tied with Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers. Esposito was a three-time First Team All-Star (1970, 1972, 1980), a Second All-Star Team twice (1973, 1974), appeared in six NHL All-Star Games (1970-74, 1980), won at least 30 games in seven consecutive seasons (1969-76), and compiled a regular-season record of 423-306-151, with a goals-against average of 2.92. When he retired in 1984, Esposito stood as the Black Hawks' all-time leader in shutouts (74) and victories (418), marks that still stand today.

In 1972, Esposito was selected to play for Canada in the epic eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union, and he and Montreal's Ken Dryden wound up splitting the duties. After the Soviets shocked Canada 7-3 in the opener in Montreal, Esposito started at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and Canada achieved its first victory, 4-1. He also was in goal for the third game, a 4-4 tie in Winnipeg, and helped win the crucial seventh game, a 4-3 triumph in Moscow.

Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, after which his No. 35 jersey was retired by the Blackhawks during a ceremony at Chicago Stadium, where his legion of admirers chanted "TO-NY! TO-NY! TO-NY!" one more time. Esposito, who won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1969, was instrumental in two Black Hawks trips to the Final, in 1971 and 1973, but they lost to the Canadiens on both occasions.

A decade after he debuted in Chicago, Esposito was still a fixture in net, playing 63 of 80 games in 1978-79. Shortly after Rocky Wirtz took over as Chicago's chairman in 2007, Esposito was named a team ambassador along with Hull, Mikita and Denis Savard.

In 1988, Esposito was named general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. They finished a strong second in the Patrick Division, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a six-year absence. Esposito is credited for engineering a trade with the Buffalo Sabres that brought Tom Barrasso to Pittsburgh, where he excelled in goal for consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992.

The Esposito brothers held key positions with the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, Phil as president and general manager and Tony as chief scout. Tony Esposito pushed for the selection of forward Brad Richards, and he was selected in the third round (No. 64) in the 1998 NHL Draft. Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004.

In fact, Tony was more than just a scout.

"My brother handled a lot of the details," Phil Esposito said. "After all, Tony is the one who went to college. I didn't."

 

For more, see all 100 Greatest Players

View More