In the fall of 1969, a hockey renaissance was taking place on the West Side of Chicago.
Its narrator was the great Lloyd Pettit.
“A shot, and a save by Esposito. ANOTHER SHOT AND ANOTHER SAVE BY ESPOSITO!” Pettit would belt out from his perch at the first balcony of old Chicago Stadium.
Oftentimes, Lloyd’s voice would go hoarse by the end of Hawks games as Tony made another save.
We learned Tuesday that Tony-O, as he would come to be known, died at the age of 78 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.
Along with newcomers Keith Magnuson, Cliff Koroll and Gerry Pinder and veteran stars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito helped lead the Blackhawks from last to first during the 1969-70 season. During that magical year – when road games were televised but only the last two periods of home games were available on radio – rookie Esposito piled up an unheard-of 15 shutouts as the Hawks went from last in the NHL East in 1968-69 to first in 1969-70, giving them only the second first-place finish in their history at the time.
The 15 shutouts stand as an NHL record.
The Blackhawks plucked the younger brother of Phil Esposito from the Montreal Canadiens in the intra-league draft on June 11, 1969 after Tony had played in 13 regular-season games for the Habs.
It was one of the biggest steals in NHL history.
From 1969-84, Esposito went 418-302-148 with 74 shutouts in a Hall of Fame career. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in ’69-70. He was a five-time all-star, and he won the Vezina Trophy three times.
Tony Esposito was different. In an era when most goalies wore either No. 1 or 30, Tony wore No. 35 for the Hawks.
He also was a rarity in that he held his (Northland) goalie stick in his left hand.
Tony also was a butterfly-style goalie, going down and stopping shots left and right.
Unfortunately, Tony never won a Stanley Cup with the Hawks. They fell agonizingly short in 1971, taking a 2-0 series lead in the Final against the Canadiens only to fall in seven games. Tony unfairly gets blamed for the series loss, as he gave up a goal on a long shot by Jacques Lemaire in Game 7 at the Stadium, with the Hawks leading in the game 2-0. The Canadiens stunned the Hawks and the capacity crowd by winning 3-2 and skating off with the Cup the Hawk and the fans thought was theirs.
Tony may have lost Lemaire’s long shot in the fog created by the day’s heat, or the puck may have risen or taken a dip. We’ll never know, but Tony made so many key stops in that series and in he semifinal against the Rangers that he can hardly be blamed for the Final loss.
The Hawks reached the Stanley Cup Final again in 1973, but the Canadiens clearly were the better team, and they prevailed in six games, again winning the Cup at the Stadium.
Over the next several years, the Hawks declined, but Tony Esposito kept the franchise afloat and relevant, almost all by himself.
The Blackhawks paid tribute to Tony on Tuesday.
“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise as we near its 100th anniversary,” Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said in a statement. “Four generations of our family—my grandfather Arthur, my father Bill, my son Danny and I—were blessed by his work ethic as a Hall of Fame goalie, but more importantly, by his mere presence and spirit.
“Likewise, four generations of hockey fans grew to love Tony. We were lucky enough to draft him from the Montreal Canadiens on June 15, 1969, for a sum of $25,000. The Blackhawks had finished in last place of the East Division the previous season. Tony immediately took over as the No. 1 goalie, and led the Blackhawks to an unprecedented leap to first place in his first season while recorded 15 shutouts, still a modern record.
“He was tireless, reliable and a great teammate. If you were a new player in Chicago, Tony and Marilyn always made you feel welcome and comfortable. Rookies were invited to their home for countless dinners, and when the Espositos held their annual Christmas party, everybody associated with the Blackhawks was there. Everybody, whether you were an established veteran or an awed rookie.
“Tony’s number 35 has long been retired, but his career with the Blackhawks actually encompassed two marvelous chapters. After all those years of making spectacular saves and hearing chants of “TO-NEE!! TO-NEE!!” throughout the Stadium, he joined the Blackhawks as an ambassador. He was born for that role, too, as he reached out—whether by request or on his own—to fans, sponsors, and friends of our team. He rejected thousands of pucks in his first job, he never said no in his second job.
“It is a sad day for the Blackhawks and all of hockey. But with his wonderful family, let us celebrate a life well lived. Tony Esposito’s banner will be part of the United Center forever, as will his legacy as a superstar, on and off the ice.”
Here’s hoping the Hawks do right by Tony on Opening Night and that the chants of “TO-NEE, TO-NEE” come cascading down from the rafters at United Center.