Tony Esposito enjoyed Hall of Fame life

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

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

It was Tony at United Center, where we arrived not at the entrance for the luxury suites, but at the employees’ gate, a legend greeting long-time friends by name — parking-lot attendants, security guards, popcorn vendors and ushers.

One of Chicago’s hugely popular ambassadors, Tony was headed up to the corporate suites, where for the night he would sign autographs, pose for photos and tell decades-old stories, a fresh spin on each tale for every listener.

“I’m going to work, so we use the employees’ entrance,” he said, straightening his tie as he needlessly cleared security. “Besides, these are my kind of people.”

Legendary Chicago Blackhawks ambassadors at a 2012 game at United Center. From left: Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Tony Esposito.

There was Tony’s breathtaking home office in south Florida, a personal museum assembled and curated by his wife, Marilyn — dozens of priceless photos, a collection of historic game-worn equipment, all sorts of memorabilia and dozens of Sharpie markers of different colors in a desk drawer for the fan mail that was still arriving 35 years after his final game.

Tony’s repair-stitched leather pads and unraveling chest protector and uniquely extended Cooper GM12 gloves weren’t talking, but what tales they could tell, its owner having bent, tweaked, threaded and stretched various pieces probably well beyond the rules, but remaining always one step ahead of the equipment police.

I will remember each of these things, as I’ll never forget Tony standing a few Northland goalie stick-lengths outside his office, in front of his late-1950s Seeburg Stereophonic Model 222 jukebox. Fittingly, it was modified — by Tony or someone else — to play without coins.

This vintage machine contained about 60 records, by Tony’s guess, 120 songs in all. But on a May afternoon in 2018, he had just one that he wanted to play before he and Marilyn and I headed out to dinner.

The jukebox whirred to life, a disc moved into place and began to spin; a needle scratched the vinyl and then Tony smiled with the first few sultry bars of Frank Sinatra’s 1966 classic “Summer Wind,” one of the sweetest tunes by the Chairman of the Board.

Tony nodded toward his patio door, looking out across the bay, and the selection was more than perfect, if a month or so too early: Threatening clouds were gathering over the water as Sinatra began, “The summer wind, came blowin’ in, from across the sea …”

Hockey lost an icon with the death of Esposito, who was claimed by pancreatic cancer at 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 saw one of hockey’s greatest goalies in action and/or enjoyed a few moments with him in retirement.

You will read much about Tony O’s career — his 1969-70 Calder Cup, voted as the NHL rookie of the year; three Vezina Trophy wins, voted as the best goalie 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 an all-star team from the Soviet Union.

But allow these words to celebrate the quiet gentleman I was privileged to call a friend. 

From my regular calls throughout many years to tap Tony’s memory for stories, especially during the NHL’s 2017 Centennial celebration, we developed a bond that grew in travels that brought us together in Canada and the United States, over fine meals, breakfasts, burgers and the beer that Tony poured for himself. Always.

In the gift shop of the Hockey Hall of Fame a few years ago, I found a Class of 1988 Tony Esposito souvenir puck. I called him from the display to ask whether he had one, sending him a photo of it by phone.

“Never seen it. Buy one for me, I’ll pay for it!” he replied.

I bought two pucks that day and mailed one to him in Florida but took none of his money. I did, however, gratefully accept an autographed Tony O bobblehead he had for me when I visited his home, and the metal Blackhawks lunch box he scored for me at United Center and had Marilyn mail to Montreal, where it sits in my home office with his 1969-70 Topps rookie card that he signed for me while I wasn’t looking.

 

Tony and Phil Esposito sitting for a 2017 brotherly talk in Tampa.

I’d sat with Tony and Phil, the Boston Bruins’ famed scorer, for a couple of magical hours in a Tampa restaurant in January 2017, the brothers having agreed to share a story or two about careers that would take them to the Hall of Fame, Phil four years before Tony.

Fourteen months Phil’s junior, Tony remembered their youth in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

“We’re so close in age that we were able to do things together,” he said. “We had somebody to play with all the time. We’d go down to the one outdoor rink in town, early in the morning or late at night. We’d use a flashlight to light our way.”

Our breakfast served as a confessional of sorts for Phil. A quarter-century after they’d worked together in the front office of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Phil finally confessed to Tony that it was he who snuck into his brother’s office to regularly steal the red licorice out of his desk.

The brothers finished each other’s sentences, particularly enjoying the thigh-slapper of their adolescent joyride in the Soo — two teenage boys, neither with a driver’s license, roaring up and down the main drag in their father’s nearly new 1956 Mercury Monarch, cruising for girls with their baby sister, Terry, howling in the back seat because Phil had accidentally safety-pinned her cloth diaper to her skin.

The gloves Tony Esposito wore during his NHL modern day-record 15-shutout rookie season in 1969-70, and signing a puck, wearing a Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup ring and his 1968-69 Montreal Canadiens championship ring.

Tony pulled his classic mask from a shopping bag and played tour guide, highlighting the nicks and dents, the fiberglass chipped away by flying pucks and slashing sticks.

That story would spawn another five months later when it was learned that Montreal garage-league goalie David Britt had been the face used to mold Tony’s mask. The two men had never spoken until I sat with David in his home, phoned Tony and connected them, almost 50 years after they’d bonded without ever having met.

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

“Not going to happen,” he replied, until I photographed his McFarlane Canadiens action figure on Bell Centre ice with a 1960s vintage puck.

We called and we texted about news and about nothing at all, Tony often checking in from the summer place he and Marilyn had in Wisconsin, or during the season, when he wanted to discuss the science of goaltending and the hybrid butterfly style he had advanced through the 1970s after having adopted it from Glenn Hall, another legendary Hall of Fame goalie. 

We last spoke early in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tony wondering whether the Canadiens were for real when they were marching toward the Final against the Lightning.

“Montreal might be playing into July,” I ventured.

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

The trip never happened, but on Tuesday, I played Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” in memory of a lost friend, and never had I heard its melancholy beauty quite like this.

Photos: David Bier Studios, Montreal Canadiens; Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images; Dave Stubbs

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