Tony Esposito, a legend in Blackhawks history as the franchise’s all-time winningest goalie, died Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
He was 78.
“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,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
“Beyond the individual awards…it was Esposito’s style, charisma and heart that endeared him most to hockey fans, not only in Chicago but across the NHL.”
Esposito won 418 games across 15 seasons with the Hawks, starting in 1969 and lasting until his retirement in 1984. Seventy-four of those wins were shutouts, which also stands as a franchise record.
He was a three-time Vezina Trophy winner (in 1970, 1972 and 1974), a five-time NHL All-Star (in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974 and 1980) and also earned the Calder Trophy as a rookie in 1970.
“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise,” Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said in a statement. “Four generations of our family…were blessed by his work ethic as a Hall of Fame goalie, but more importantly, by his mere presence and spirit. Likewise, four generations of hockey fans grew to love Tony.”
Named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, Esposito — fondly known as “Tony O” — remained involved with the Hawks organization in recent years, becoming an official team ambassador in 2008. His No. 35 is retired and hangs in the United Center rafters.
“‘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,” Bettman said. “The hockey world will miss him greatly.”
Esposito — who grew up alongside his older brother and fellow NHL legend Phil Esposito in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario — remains the all-time Goals Against Average leader at Michigan Tech, where he won the NCAA hockey championship in 1965.
But he bounced around several minor leagues early in his career and arrived in Chicago without much initial fanfare. Wirtz, in his statement, recalled claiming Esposito off waivers from the Canadiens for a mere $25,000 payment.
That quickly changed. Few goalies have ever produced a better season than Esposito did in 1969-70: a 38-17-8 record, .932 save percentage, 2.17 GAA and 15 shutouts.
That spectacular performance established him as a Hawks centerpiece of the 1970s. He helped the team reach the Stanley Cup Final the following season and do so again two years later, playing in total 99 career postseason games — in addition to 873 career regular-season games — with the Hawks.
His off-ice kindness and humility further cemented his reputation in the city.
“If you were a new player in Chicago, Tony and [his wife] Marilyn always made you feel welcome and comfortable,” Wirtz said. “Rookies were invited to their home for countless dinners, and when the Espositos held their annual Christmas party, everybody associated with the Blackhawks was there.”
Esposito is survived by Marilyn as well as two sons, Mark and Jason, and two grandchildren.
“[Tuesday] is a sad day for the Blackhawks and all of hockey. But with his wonderful family, let us celebrate a life well-lived,” Wirtz said. “Tony Esposito’s banner will be part of the United Center forever, as will his legacy as a superstar, on and off the ice.”