Tony Esposito in 1973.
Hockey was part of the fabric of Tony Esposito’s childhood. Born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, both Tony and his older brother, Phil, played the sport from an early age. Their father, Pat, worked at the Algoma steel plant in town. Younger sister Terry and mother, Frances, rounded out the Esposito household.
In his early years, Tony showed flashes of his natural talent. Despite quickly earning a reputation as a talented goalie, a 10-year-old Esposito let in two easy goals from long distance during a local game. After his brother suggested he was “blind,” an eye exam shortly thereafter revealed that he needed glasses. In his first action with his new glasses, Esposito made 77 saves across three games during a school tournament and was named most valuable player. “His eyes are too weak for goaltending,” his father once said, “but he won’t even let me bribe him to play up front.” Esposito would go on to wear contact lenses throughout his career. “After he got the glasses nobody could beat him,” Phil later said.
The Esposito brothers were teammates in bantam hockey, although Tony established himself as a multi-sport athlete, excelling in hockey, football, softball and track and field. In 1962, he was named most valuable player of the football team at his high school, St. Mary’s College.
After playing Junior A for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1962–63, Esposito earned a scholarship to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, and began playing for the hockey team in the 1964–65 season. He went on to be named a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) All-American during each of his three seasons. In 1965, he led his team to a national championship.
His collegiate success didn’t exactly put him on a fast track to the NHL, where brother Phil was already establishing himself as a rising star with the Chicago Black Hawks. Tony Esposito joined the Vancouver Canucks, then of the Western Hockey League, for the 1967–68 campaign. The following year, he played for the Houston Apollos in the now-defunct minor-pro Central Hockey League.
It was with the Apollos that Esposito would catch the biggest break of his career. In November 1968, the Montreal Canadiens were left scrambling when Hall of Fame goaltender Lorne “Gump” Worsley took a medical leave of absence due to his fear of flying. The mighty Canadiens — in the midst of a run that saw them appear in five consecutive Stanley Cup Finals — called upon Esposito, who promptly left Houston for Montreal. On 29 November 1968, he made his NHL debut versus the Oakland Seals. He then made his first start on 5 December against brother Phil and the Boston Bruins. Playing backup to established veteran Rogie Vachon, Esposito appeared in just 13 games for the Canadiens. Montreal won the Stanley Cup that season, and while Esposito didn’t appear in the playoffs, he began his career a champion and got his named etched on the iconic trophy.
With the Chicago Black Hawks
On 11 June 1969, Esposito was claimed by the Chicago Black Hawks for the fee of $30,000. He joined a talented-if-underachieving roster that featured future Hall of Fame forwards Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull but had missed the playoffs the season before.
Esposito started in net for Chicago’s opening game on 11 October 1969, stopping 36 of 43 shots in a 7–2 loss to the St. Louis Blues. The Black Hawks were 0–5–1 to start the season until Esposito stopped all 30 shots in a 5–0 win on 25 October 1969 against Montreal, helping to turn Chicago’s season around. Playing in his first full NHL season, Esposito played 63 games and led all NHL goaltenders in wins with 38. His 15 shutouts not only led the league but remain the most recorded in a single season since George Hainsworth tallied 22 in 1928–29.
After missing the playoffs the season before, the Black Hawks finished in first place with a league-best 45 wins. The 26-year-old Esposito was named the 1970 Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goaltender — the first rookie to win the award since Frank Brimsek in 1939. He was also awarded the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
The following season, 1970–71, Esposito again led the NHL in regular season wins (35). He also posted a career-best playoff save percentage (.928 ) and goals against average (2.20) while helping lead his team to the Stanley Cup Finals against Montreal. The best-of-seven series went to a deciding seventh game, where Chicago took an early 2–0 lead. With a little more than five minutes remaining in the second period, Canadiens defenceman Jacques Lemaire fired a shot from centre ice that found its way past Esposito into the back of the net.
“Tony was notorious for not being able to see the puck from long distances,” Chicago’s Stan Mikita said years later. “I was in the [penalty] box on that end when he took the shot — I might have had a better view than Tony.” Esposito took blame for the goal and his team’s eventual loss, 3–2.
In 1971–72, Esposito responded with his strongest statistical season, earning him the 1972 Vezina Trophy, an award he would win for the third time in 1974. Esposito returned to the championship stage in 1973, losing once again to the Canadiens. Chicago reached the playoffs in each of Esposito’s 15 seasons with the team — but the 1969 title with Montreal remains the only one of his career.
Summit Series and International Competition
Having established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the game, Esposito was selected to represent Canada during the “Summit Series,” an eight-game exhibition tournament against the Soviet Union in September 1972. He joined an esteemed Canadian roster that included Bobby Clarke, Paul Henderson, Frank Mahovlich and Phil Esposito, the series’ points leader. Tony Esposito began the series playing backup to Ken Dryden.
The series, which was split between Moscow and four Canadian cities, began on 2 September 1972 in Montreal, a 7–3 victory for the Soviet Union with Dryden between the pipes. Two days later in Toronto, Team Canada coach Harry Sinden started Esposito in net and the goaltender stopped 20 shots to secure a 4–1 win for Canada. “They came out hard in that first period and got eight or nine shots on my brother, Tony, and he stopped them all,” recalled Phil. “That got us going.” Esposito played in four games, posting a 2–1–1 record for Canada.
In 1977, he started in goal for Canada at the World Ice Hockey Championships in Vienna, where he tied Summit Series foe Vladislav Tretiak for most games played (9). Esposito made his final appearance in international competition in 1981 at the Canada Cup. Left off Canada’s roster, the 38-year-old played for the United States, where he officially gained citizenship just hours before training camp.
Tony Esposito (far right) and the rest of Team Canada stand during the national anthems at the start of the final game of the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow.
Retirement and Records
Esposito retired 18 games into the 1983–84 season. At age 40, he was the league’s oldest player. Four years later, in 1988, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. On 20 November 1988, the Chicago Blackhawks retired Esposito’s No. 35 during a ceremony at Chicago Stadium. He joined Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and goalie Glenn Hall as the only Blackhawks players to have earned the honour at the time. “Tony was the backbone of our team,” Hull said. “He won many games for us. He was fearless.”
Known for carrying a heavy workload, Esposito led the NHL in saves during five seasons and ranks fourth all-time in both career saves (24,761) and shots against (27,324). As of the 2018–19 season, Esposito ranks in the Top 10 in NHL history in career wins (423), shutouts (76) and games played (886).
The Butterfly Style
Esposito brought a unique style of play to the goaltender position. He is credited with being one of a few players to pioneer the “butterfly” technique, which was later perfected and popularized by Patrick Roy.
The style, which sees goalies flop to their knees and flair their ankles out to use their body and pads to cover as much of the lower part of the net as possible, is considered to have been introduced by another former Black Hawk goalie, Glenn Hall. It was controversial in Hall’s era when goalies didn’t yet commonly wear masks, making the butterfly a particularly dangerous style, given the risk of a puck to the face. Esposito, who famously wore the same distinct white mask throughout his career, ushered in a new era for goaltenders and found success with the unique approach.
“In contrast to such hockey ballerinas as New York’s Eddie Giacomin or Toronto’s Jacques Plante, Tony is a flop-down goaltender, a tarantella of arms and pads and elbows,” sportswriter Jack Olsen once observed in Sports Illustrated. “Son of a buck, I can’t score on him,” Hall of Famer Bobby Orr once said. “I’ve got two goals on him in my whole career.”
Tony Esposito in 2010.
Esposito was named general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the 1988–89 season. Although he had no team management experience, Esposito had served as president of the NHL Players’ Association from 1981 to 1984 and remained a respected figure on and off the ice. The Penguins reached the playoffs in his first season at the helm, but after a slow start to the following season he was removed from the position on 5 December 1989.
One year later, Phil Esposito co-founded the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise and brought Tony onboard as chief scout. However, Phil has claimed that Tony’s role was much bigger than advertised. “I called Tony and told him that I needed him to run hockey operations,” Phil Esposito recalled. “He just said, ‘Sure.’ When we got the team, Tony basically ran the hockey and what I did is try to sell tickets.” Tony remained with the team until 13 October 1998, eventually serving as director of hockey operations and assistant general manager.
Honours and Legacy
In 2005, Tony Esposito was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, where his mask from the Summit Series is displayed. On 6 February 2008, it was announced that Esposito would return to the franchise he spent 15 years with. He was named an official “Blackhawks Ambassador.” On 19 March, the team honoured him with a “Tony Esposito night” and a ceremony to mark the occasion. “In my heart, I have always been and always will be a Blackhawk,” he said.
In 2015, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in Esposito’s honour. In 2017, he was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in history, as part of the league’s 100th anniversary celebrations.