Tony Esposito grew up old-school when it came to hockey.
As a youth in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., he got to see one game a week on TV: Hockey Night in Canada with Foster Hewitt on Saturday night. By the age of 12, he began to notice something. “I was watching the goalies,” he said. “The guy would shoot from the blueline and the goalies would be standing up. How did they see through all the players in front of them?”
So when Esposito got into the crease, he started dropping down and spreading out. On deflections, he found he could cover more of the net. Although he wasn’t the first netminder to experiment with what would become today’s dominant style, the “butterfly” became synonymous with Esposito, one of the best goaltenders of the 1970s and a Hall of Famer once his tenure with the Chicago Black Hawks ended in 1984. “I watched the best goalies and picked things up,” he said. “I tried to blend them together.”
From Terry Sawchuk, he learned intensity and preparation, while Johnny Bower was the man to watch for pokechecks. Fellow Chicago alum Glenn Hall taught Esposito that a goalie didn’t have to stay on his skates to make a save, even if there were a lot of skeptics back then. “Reporters would say you couldn’t flop as a goalie,” Esposito said. “They’d say, ‘Shoot high on Esposito.’ But I’d only go down when the puck was in tight. I was very fortunate to be agile. I was up and down in a hurry.”
Some modern butterfly goalies, even young netminders, are developing nagging injuries because of the physical demands associated with the highly technical style. That was never a problem for Esposito. He played a variety of sports growing up, including football and baseball, and didn’t focus on hockey until junior. “We only played hockey three or four months a year when we were kids,” he said. “Then you played football or baseball. When you’re doing it at a young age, I would think it would hurt your joints eventually.”
Esposito carried that multi-sport mindset into his NHL career. One of the first players to actually take the off-season seriously, he’d play racquetball four or five times a week in the summer. He believed all the running and stopping helped with his reflexes. He also lifted weights, eschewing the critics who believed it would make him too bulky.
Amazingly enough, at what is usually a crucial time for development, Esposito wasn’t even playing hockey. At 16, he was playing high school football in the Soo when his father became part-owner of a new junior hockey team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The squad needed a goaltender and Tony was pressed into service. “They coaxed me into it,” he said. “I played every game that season, never a day off.”
Not that he lacked passion for hockey. Esposito’s older brother, Phil, is one of the best goal-scorers in NHL history. Like Tony, Phil is a Hall of Famer and the two helped Canada win the 1972 Summit Series. Always having someone to play with made childhood fun. “It was perfect,” Esposito said. “We’re only 14 months apart. There was no one else around, so we’d play all the time. We got to skate every day, and that was a big plus, because some days you wouldn’t want to go out and your brother would say, ‘C’mon, let’s go.’ ”
Esposito’s success with the Greyhounds led to a scholarship offer from Michigan Tech, four hours west and over the border. It was great that a team wanted him for his netminding, but Esposito was more concerned with school at the time and was just as intrigued by the scholarship itself.
Back then, not a lot of NHLers came out of college hockey, but Esposito made first-team All-American three seasons in a row after playing zero games as a freshman. He also led Michigan Tech to the national title in his sophomore season.
He started in the NHL with the Canadiens, getting his name on the Stanley Cup in 1969. But after one season in Montreal, he was claimed off waivers by Chicago, where he joined an exciting core led by Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. He won the Calder Trophy in 1970 and also picked up the Vezina Trophy that year.
Although Chicago had trouble making the playoffs in the Original Six era, the Hawks never missed when Esposito was between the pipes. Those Chicago teams had a lot of talent but never quite got to the top of the mountain, losing in the Cup final to Montreal in 1971 and 1973. Perhaps a title would’ve come if Hull hadn’t left for the WHA in 1972, but Esposito has no regrets from those halcyon days in Chicago. His Hawks never hit the heights they achieved early in his career, but he continued to shine for many years, eventually retiring at 40. “What I like was being able to play into my 30s at a high level,” he said. “It took a lot of extra effort to stay at that level. As you got older, you had to dedicate yourself more. Game preparation was important. If I wasn’t ready for a game and failed, it bothered me.”
Esposito and Hull remain good friends, and the two still pal around as ambassadors for the Hawks. Esposito splits his time between Florida and Chicago, attending the majority of the Blackhawks’ home games in the process. He still loves the game, and maintains the same outlook in life that carried him through 15 seasons in Chicago. “Everybody fails at times,” he said. “But you dust yourself off and start over.”
Born: April 23, 1943, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
NHL Career: 1968-1984
Teams: Mtl, Chi
Stats: 423-306-152, 2.93 GAA, .906 SP, 76 SO
All-Star: 5 (First-3, Second-2)
Trophies: 4 (Vezina-3, Calder-1)
Stanley Cups: 1
DID YOU KNOW?
While Esposito was tending goal at Michigan Tech, he earned a bachelor of science in business, which helped him in his post-playing days. Esposito was GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins for two seasons (1988 to 1990) before joining his brother Phil in Tampa Bay with the expansion Lightning. Tony was Tampa Bay’s chief scout for the first six seasons, during which time the Bolts selected Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Pavel Kubina (Roman Hamrlik was the team’s first-ever pick at the entry draft). Tony wasn’t around for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship in 2004, but some of the most important members of that squad came from his time with the team.