The hockey world has lost a legendary goalie. The Chicago Blackhawks announced Tuesday that Tony Esposito has passed away following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Esposito was 78. Here’s the Blackhawks’ statement from chairman Rocky Wirtz:
The Blackhawks released this statement on the death of Tony Esposito from Rocky Wirtz: pic.twitter.com/HM0TFuDqQq
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) August 10, 2021
Esposito, the younger brother of famed forward Phil Esposito, was born in and grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He played NCAA hockey at Michigan Tech, and was named a first-team All-America selection all three years he lettered. He helped the Huskies win the 1965 NCAA title and earned a first-team All-Tournament nod that year, then started his professional career with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks (in 1967-68), the Central Hockey League’s Houston Apollos (in 1968-69), and then the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens (later in 1968-69). However, his playing opportunities were limited behind Gump Worsley and Rogie Vachon, with most of his time that year (13 appearances) coming when those goaltenders were injured. The Blackhawks went on to claim him on waivers in 1969-70, and that started an incredible partnership.
In 1969-70, Esposito set a modern-day record with 15 shutouts in 63 games, posting a 38-17-9 mark with a 2.17 goals-against-average and winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie (at that time, that award was usually given to the main goalie on the team who allowed the fewest goals). He followed that up with another great campaign, leading the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final (where they lost in seven games to the Canadiens). Esposito would play for the Blackhawks from 1969-84, and while the team wasn’t often very good during that time, he certainly was. His overall NHL stats include a 423-306-151 record, a 2.92 goals-against-average, and a .906 save percentage (both quite good considering the time and the teams he played behind), plus three Vezina Trophies (one shared with backup Gary Smith in 1971-72, and one shared with Philadelphia’s Bernie Parent in 1973-74). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player in 1988.
Esposito also was notable for what he did on the international stage. He played for Team Canada in the famed 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, splitting goaltending duties with Ken Dryden across the eight-game series and going 2-1-1 with a 3.33 GAA and a .882 save percentage. His GAA was the best in the series, ahead of Dryden and Soviet legend Vladislav Tretiak, and his save percentage tied with Tretiak for best. Beyond that, he also played for Team Canada at the 1977 world championships (they finished fourth) and for Team USA (he had just become a naturalized American citizen) at the 1981 world championships (they finished fifth). Here’s a NHL piece on him from 2017, part of a Molson Canadian sponsored series on the league’s 100 greatest players:
Esposito was also notable for his key role in innovating on and popularizing the “butterfly” style of goaltending, which is still seen in the NHL today. Most earlier NHL goalies used the “stand-up” approach, staying upright against shooters a majority of the time, but Glenn Hall (who played in the NHL from 1952-71) was the first to really regularly drop to his knees in the butterfly. Esposito and Roger Crozier were two key NHL figures who used the style in the 70s (Tretiak did as well, and his success in international play helped promote it), and it then took off even further following Patrick Roy’s 1984 debut. Today, some version of the butterfly is used by most goaltenders.
After his playing career, Esposito continued his involvement with hockey. He was the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1988-89 through the first part of the 1989-90 season, and the team drafted Mark Recchi and traded for Tom Barrasso under his leadership. He then went on to be chief scout of the Tampa Bay Lightning (which his brother Phil helped to found and served as general manager for) from 1991-98, and he later served as a Blackhawks’ ambassador. He’ll certainly be missed by many hockey fans.