Tony Esposito enjoyed Hall of Fame life

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There were thoughts of Tony O’s iconic fiberglass mask, something he was always proud of – scratched, dented and chipped for a decade and a half with the Chicago Black Hawks. Made in 1969 on the workbench of a Quebec factory owned and operated by the great Jacques Plante, it has been creatively modified by Tony’s hands with a carpenter’s file, screwdriver, bolts and bars to put the caged eyes.

There were Tony’s cufflinks he wore on his monogrammed shirts, tiny silver replicas of his mask.

It was Tony at the United Center, where we arrived not at the entrance to the luxury suites, but at the employee door, a legend greeting long-time friends by name – parking wardens, police officers. security, popcorn vendors and bailiffs.

One of Chicago’s hugely popular ambassadors, Tony was heading to the corporate suites, where for the night he signed autographs, posed for photos, and told decades-old stories, a new take on each tale. for each listener.

“I’m going to work, so we use the employee entrance,” he said, adjusting his tie as he went through security unnecessarily. “Besides, they’re my kind of person.”

The legendary Chicago Blackhawks ambassadors in a 2012 game at the United Center. From left to right: Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Tony Esposito.

There was Tony’s stunning home office in South Florida, a personal museum assembled and curated by his wife, Marilyn – dozens of priceless photos, a collection of historic equipment worn by the game, all kinds of memorabilia. and dozens of different colored Sharpie markers in a desk drawer for fan mail that was still arriving 35 years after his last game.

Tony’s repair stitched leather pads and untangled chest protector and one-extension Cooper GM12 gloves weren’t talking, but what stories they could tell, with its owner having folded, tweaked, donned and stretched various pieces probably well beyond- beyond the rules, but still staying one step ahead of the equipment police.

I will remember each of these things because I will never forget Tony standing a few lengths of Northland’s goalie stick in front of his desk in front of his Seeburg Stereophonic Model 222 jukebox from the late 1950s. title, it was changed – by Tony or someone else – to play without coins.

This vintage machine contained about 60 records, according to Tony’s hypothesis, 120 songs in all. But one afternoon in May 2018, he only had one he wanted to play before he, Marilyn and I left for dinner.

The jukebox came to life, a disc fell into place and began to spin; a needle scraped the vinyl, then Tony smiled with the sultry opening bars of Frank Sinatra’s 1966 classic “Summer Wind”, one of the chairman of the board’s sweetest tunes.

Tony nodded in the direction of his patio door, overlooking the bay, and the selection was more than perfect, even if a month or two too early: ominous clouds gathered over the water as Sinatra began: “The summer wind has come to blow, across the sea …”

Hockey lost an icon with the death of Esposito, who suffered pancreatic cancer at age 78. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn; sons Mark and Jason; Mark’s wife, Kim, and their two children, Lauren and Kamryn; Tony’s legendary brother, Phil; and countless fans who have seen one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders in action and / or enjoyed a few moments with him in retirement.

You’ll read a lot about Tony O’s career – his 1969-70 Calder Cup, NHL Rookie of the Year; three victories at the Vézina Trophy, voted best goaltender in the NHL; 15 shutouts in 1969-70, which remains an NHL rookie record; and his starring role on Team Canada in the historic 1972 Summit Series against a Soviet Union All-Star team.

But allow these words to celebrate the quiet gentleman I had the privilege to call a friend.

From my regular calls over many years to tap into Tony’s memory for stories, especially in the celebration of the NHL’s centennial in 2017, we have developed a bond that has developed on trips that have taken us back. brought together in Canada and the United States, around good meals, breakfasts, burgers and beer that Tony helped himself. Always.

In the Hockey Hall of Fame gift shop a few years ago, I found a souvenir puck from Tony Esposito’s Class of 1988. I called him from the screen to ask if he had one, sending him a photo over the phone.

“I’ve never seen it. Buy one for me, I’ll pay for it!” he has answered.

I bought two pucks that day and sent him one to Florida, but didn’t take any of his money. I did, however, gratefully accept an autographed Tony O bobblehead that he had for me when I visited his home, and the Blackhawks metal lunchbox that he scored for me at the United Center and that Marilyn sent to Montreal, where he is in my home office with his Topps 1969-70 rookie card which he signed for me while I was not looking.

Tony and Phil Esposito seated for a fellowship conference in 2017 in Tampa.

I had sat down with Tony and Phil, the famous Boston Bruins scorer, for a few magical hours at a Tampa restaurant in January 2017, with the brothers agreeing to share a story or two about careers that would take them to the Hall of Fame, Phil four years before Tony.

Fourteen months younger than Phil, Tony remembered their youth in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

“We’re so close in age that we’ve been able to do things together,” he said. “We had someone to play with all the time. We went to the only outdoor rink in town, early in the morning or late at night. We were using a flashlight to light our way.

Our breakfast served as a sort of confessional for Phil. A quarter of a century after working together at the Tampa Bay Lightning reception, Phil finally confessed to Tony that he was the one who snuck into his brother’s office to regularly steal the red licorice from his desk.

The brothers finished each other’s sentences, especially enjoying the thigh kick from their teenage ride in the Soo – two teenagers, neither without a driver’s license, roaring up and down the main street in their father’s nearly new 1956 Mercury Monarch, girls’ sailing with their baby sister, Terry, screaming in the backseat because Phil accidentally pinned his cloth diaper to his skin.

The gloves Tony Esposito wore in his record-breaking NHL rookie season with 15 shutouts in 1969-70, and the signature of a puck, wearing a Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup ring and his Canadiens championship ring of Montreal from 1968-69.

Tony pulled his classic mask out of a shopping bag and acted as a tour guide, pointing out nicks and bumps, fiberglass chipped from flying washers and sharp sticks.

This story would erupt five months later when it became known that Montreal Garage League goaltender David Britt had been the face used to mold Tony’s mask. The two had never spoken until I sat down with David at his house, called Tony and hooked them up, almost 50 years after they bonded without ever having met. .

Tony’s name is on the Stanley Cup once – A. Esposito with the 1968-69 Canadiens, with whom he broke into the NHL. I joked with him two years ago that he had to play another shift in Montreal to celebrate half a century.

“That won’t happen,” he replied, until I photographed his McFarlane Canadiens action figure on the ice at the Bell Center with a vintage puck from the 1960s.

We called and we texted for news and nothing at all, Tony often coming from the summer spot that he and Marilyn had in Wisconsin, or during the season, when he wanted to discuss the science of goalies and the hybrid butterfly style he advanced in the 1970s after adopting it from Glenn Hall, another legendary Hall of Fame goaltender.

We last spoke at the start of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Tony wondering if the Canadiens were real as they made their way to the final against the Lightning.

“Montreal could play until July,” I dared.

“Well if they play Tampa [Bay], come down and I’ll play the song back to you, “he replied.

The trip never took place, but on Tuesday I performed Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” in memory of a lost friend, and I had never heard her melancholy beauty like it.

Pictures: Studios David Bier, Montreal Canadiens; Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images; Dave stubbs


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