You didn’t have to be from Sault Ste. Marie to know who Tony Esposito was.
But if you knew hockey, you knew who Esposito was. And if you knew hockey, you knew that Esposito was from Sault Ste. Marie.
One of the greatest goalies in the history of the National Hockey League, Esposito passed away recently at the age of 78 after a bout with pancreatic cancer. As he passed away, Sault Ste. Marie and the NHL lost an absolute legend.
I first saw Esposito as a blossoming goalie during the 1962-1963 season when he was playing for the Soo Greyhounds, who were then members of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. He was already a big deal in Sault Ste. Marie and as a 10-year old kid playing road hockey — and as a goalie no less — on Maple Street in the Sault’s downtown area, I was naturally star struck by Esposito, who was already a legend in the making in his home town.
So, along with my dad, I got to head down to Memorial Gardens to see Esposito play a number of games for the Greyhounds before he went on to Michigan Tech University to star for the Huskies.
From there it was off to his first NHL stop in Montreal. Imagine me being a Canadiens fan and Esposito actually playing goal for my favourite NHL team!
But the Canadiens had proven veterans Gump Worsley and Rogatien Vachon in the nets ahead of Esposito and in 1969, Montreal left Esposito unprotected in the waiver draft and he was picked up by the Chicago Blackhawks. In his first season in Chicago, all Esposito did was lead all NHL goalies with 38 wins and be named the league’s rookie of the year.
In all, Esposito — aka Tony O — played 15 seasons for the Blackhawks and became a Chicago legend, winning the Vezina Trophy three times as the NHL’s top goalie, and making the all star team on four different occasions.
The Blackhawks retired Esposito’s No. 35 in 1988, which was the same year that the Italian kid from the Sault’s west end went into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Along the way, Esposito played for Team Canada, including the famous Summit Series against the Soviet Union. Later, he became an American citizen and played for Team USA in the 1981 Canada Cup.
But despite all of his accolades and accomplishments as a legendary NHL goalie with the Blackhawks and notable executive and player personnel director with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lighting, Esposito to many of us will always be known as someone who made Sault Ste. Marie proud and someone who was equally proud to be from the Soo.
What stood out about Esposito to me what his modesty.
I remember getting to interview him one off season when he was home for a visit and while I was a sports caster for CJIC Television. I was in awe of him — but he did not act like a super star in any way, shape or form. Rather, he was down to earth, reflective and quiet, while engaging me in a casual conversation in the basement studio of venerable CJIC.
Tony was almost the exact opposite of his older brother Phil, another NHL legend as a scoring star, mainly with the Boston Bruins. While Phil was loud and somewhat of a show boat, Tony came across as smart and studious — and someone who thought before he spoke.
At any rate, Tony is gone and Phil lives on.
What a story they became. What a story they will always be — two siblings from the Sault’s west end who went on to become two of the greatest players in the history of the National Hockey League.