85 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers: Tony Esposito
In this edition of the "85 Years" series, Murray Bannerman discusses former teammate and "the consummate Blackhawk" Tony Esposito.
By the time I first met Tony Esposito, he was already a legend in Chicago. It was during my first training camp with the Blackhawks in 1978. I was a kid just trying to make it in the league, and he was on his way to the Hall of Fame. But even as a young guy, Tony was always good to me.
In celebration of the Blackhawks’ 85th anniversary, Blackhawks Magazine and chicagoblackhawks.com will profile some of the greatest players to ever don the sweater, with essays written by the people who knew them best: teammates, rivals, broadcasters and other members of the NHL community.
Check chicagoblackhawks.com every Wednesday for another entry in the "85 Years" series.
Recent "85 Years" entries:
> Keith Magnuson, by Cliff Koroll
> Steve Larmer, by Chris Chelios
> Chris Chelios, by "Doc" Emrick
> Patrick Sharp, by Eddie Olczyk
> Joel Quenneville, by Marc Bergevin
> Glenn Hall, by Scotty Bowman
> Al Secord, by John Wiedeman
Of course, being number two to a player like Tony could be pretty difficult at times. Not only would he play game after game, but the more he played, the better he felt. During my first year I think I only played around 15 games, which is hard for a goaltender; when you’re not seeing game action, it’s hard to stay sharp. As a kid, I was used to playing almost every game – most if not all NHL players have a similar experience – and I got the majority of the starts in juniors. The year before in Moncton (QMJHL), between the regular season and playoffs, I played close to 80 games. So it was a bit of an adjustment for me.
But of course the reason why I saw limited ice time was because Tony was phenomenal. When you’re playing other teams, they have a certain amount of respect for you, but when you faced a guy like Tony, it only adds to that respect. When the puck was dropped, the other team would do whatever they could to beat him. But they knew that they had to be at their best in order to do so.
While Tony may be best remembered for his “butterfly” technique, what will always define Tony in my mind is his focus. Some goalies tend to get riled up before a game, but he was very much the opposite. Tony had a singular focus on the day of a game, and he didn’t engage in a lot of conversation or trivial things.
So much of goaltending is about your focus. As the starting goalie on a game night, there’s usually a lot of nervousness; you want to perform well and to not let your team down. With some guys, it’s close to the surface, but Tony knew he had one mission that night and he was always prepared and never flinched. We just left him alone and let him get ready.
He was also one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever met. I remember one night, I think we got beat 2-1 or 1-0 and we really shouldn’t have even been close, and Tony was just excellent. In the locker room after the game, guys were telling him what a great game he played, but he wasn’t willing to listen. “We lost, so what does it matter?” he said, and that was about it. He was all about the team and all about winning. It’s why he was so good for so long.
Tony was a leader by his actions. He always worked hard every practice and I never saw him take a night off. The team knew he was going to be there when they dropped the puck. He played through injuries - to play as many games as he did for as long as he did, you would have to.
Later on in my career as he got closer to the end of his, I started getting a few more starts than Tony; it’s the nature of the business that things change. As he was right from the beginning, Tony was very helpful and very good to me.
It was somewhat difficult for me as well; he was such a legend that he set a very high standard. If you had a game where you might not have played as well, they were chanting for Tony to be back in there pretty quickly. But as far as our relationship went, it never changed. It was a business, and we both wanted to play. At the end of the day, it was always about winning, and we both wanted to see the Blackhawks succeed.
These days, Tony is still around the team, now serving as a Blackhawks Ambassador, and I can’t think of a better fit. Tony loved the Indian Head above all else, and having him around, as well as many other alumni, is an asset for any organization, especially one with as rich a tradition as the Blackhawks. The impact he makes in the community and for fans is immeasurable, and having him around the younger generation of players can only be a good thing.
It’s a fitting tribute for the consummate Blackhawk.