Tony, who died Tuesday at age 78, earned a place beside his brother in the Hockey Hall of Fame by winning more than 400 games with the Chicago Black Hawks and having perhaps the greatest season of any rookie goalie in NHL history.
“The Blackhawks and the National Hockey League have lost a legend in Tony Esposito, who passed away today after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer,” Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said in a statement. “As we mourn with his wife Marilyn, sons Mark (Kim) and Jason, and grandchildren Lauren and Kamryn, we celebrate Tony’s life and contributions to the Blackhawks and the community.”
Esposito was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on April 23, 1943, 14 months after Phil. Unlike his older brother, who took the conventional route of playing junior hockey before coming to the NHL, Tony opted to play college hockey in the United States, spending three seasons at Michigan Tech before signing with the Montreal Canadiens in 1967. The Canadiens brought him to the NHL during the 1968-69 season; he went 5-4 with four ties in 13 games and was a backup on Montreal’s fourth Stanley Cup championship team in five seasons.
But in June 1969, the Canadiens had to choose between keeping Esposito or veteran Gump Worsley in the intraleague draft. They opted to protect Worsley; the Black Hawks took Esposito and solved their goaltending problems into the 1980s.
Esposito became an instant hit in Chicago by going 38-17 with eight ties, a 2.17 goals-against average and 15 shutouts, still the modern-day single-season record for an NHL goalie. He was voted winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year, won the Vezina Trophy for helping Chicago allow the fewest goals, and joined Phil, a center with the Boston Bruins, as NHL First-Team All-Stars.
Tony helped the Black Hawks reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973, though they lost to the Canadiens each time. He also played for Canada against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series.
“The National Hockey League, the Chicago Blackhawks and the city of Chicago lost a beloved member of the hockey family earlier today with the passing of Tony Esposito,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “From his arrival in the Windy City in the late 1960s through an illustrious playing career and decades as a franchise icon, Tony left an indelible mark — both on the ice and in the community — over the next 52 years. Beyond the individual awards — and there were many, including a Calder Trophy, numerous All-Star and Vezina Trophy recognitions, and ultimately election to the Hockey Hall of Fame — it was Esposito’s style, charisma and heart that endeared him most to hockey fans not only in Chicago but across the NHL. ‘Tony O’ was a fierce competitor who also took great pride in being an entertainer, whether it was with his pioneering butterfly style during his playing days or interacting with fans across the League as one of this game’s great ambassadors.”
Esposito got Chicago to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of his first 14 seasons, though they didn’t win a series after 1974. He ended his NHL career as a 40-year-old in 1984 with a career record of 423-306 with 151 ties, a 2.93 GAA and 76 shutouts, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, four years after his brother.
Tony was the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins for 19 months before being fired in December 1989, then served as chief scout of the Tampa Bay Lightning, founded by Phil, from the franchise’s NHL debut in 1992 until October 1998. His final drafts included centers Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, two cornerstones of the Lightning’s Stanley Cup-winning team in 2004.
The Blackhawks retired his No. 35 on Nov. 20, 1988, then honored him again on March 19, 2008, by staging “Tony Esposito Night,” at which he was named a team ambassador.