Tony Esposito, the pioneering Hall of Fame goaltender who played almost his entire 16-year career with Chicago, has died following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, the team announced Tuesday. He was 78.
Esposito debuted with Montreal during the 1968-69 season and appeared in 13 games. He was then left unprotected, with the Canadiens deep in goalies, and taken by Chicago in an intraleague draft for $25,000 US, an investment that paid immediate dividends for a team that finished last in its division.
Esposito helped lead Chicago to first place, showcasing his butterfly style to post a 2.17 goals-against average and 15 shutouts, still a modern record for an NHL goalie. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, as well as the Vezina Trophy given to the top goaltender. He also won the Vezina in 1972 and 1974.
“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise as we near its 100th anniversary,” Chicago chairman Rocky Wirtz said. “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.”
We are heartbroken to have lost a legend in Tony Esposito, who passed away today after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/TonyO?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#TonyO</a> ❤️
Esposito was from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., just across the St. Mary’s River from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and he helped Michigan Tech to an NCAA championship in 1965.
His older brother, Phil, was a star in his own right, a Hall of Fame centre who played 18 seasons in the NHL.
The younger Esposito’s first NHL start was Dec. 5, 1958, against Boston — and his brother. Phil Esposito scored twice on his younger brother, but Tony made 33 saves and the game ended 2-2.
‘Tony left an indelible mark’
In a statement, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman extended his condolences to the Esposito family.
“The National Hockey League … and the city of Chicago lost a beloved member of the hockey family earlier today with the passing of Tony Esposito,” 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.
“The hockey world will miss him greatly.”
Esposito’s legacy in Chicago
Esposito helped lead Chicago to the playoffs in 14 seasons. Chicago reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973, losing each time to his former team, Montreal.
He is Chicago’s career leader with 418 wins and 74 shutouts. His overall record of 423-306-151 ranks 10th in league history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, joining his brother.
Chicago retired Esposito’s No. 35 on Nov. 20, 1988, and paid tribute to him again on March 19, 2008. He was named a team ambassador in a pre-game ceremony attended by franchise icons and former teammates Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. In 2017, he was selected by the league as one of the “100 Greatest Players in NHL History.”
Esposito is survived by his wife Marilyn, sons Mark and Jason, and grandchildren Lauren and Kamryn. His brother, Phil, is 79 and does radio work for the Tampa Bay Lightning, which he helped found.