Espositos first of record 15 shutouts for Black Hawks began 52 years ago

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The game 52 years ago at the Montreal Forum was the first shutout of the historic 1969-70 season for Tony Esposito, the rookie goalie bound for 15 and the NHL modern-day single-season record that still stands.

Yvan Cournoyer, the Canadiens’ jet-propelled forward, sustained the only broken nose of a 968-game NHL career that would see him win the Stanley Cup 10 times, hit flush by a puck that accidentally was kicked into his face by Esposito. A newspaper photo shows Cournoyer wincing immediately after having been struck, the puck landing in front of the goalie and Canadiens forward John Ferguson.

In his penultimate season, Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau played just one period, pulling himself after 20 minutes because of fatigue that had plagued him since the season opener five games earlier.

Tony Esposito signs his 1969-70 rookie card during a game at United Center in Chicago in December 2017. He wears his Blackhawks 1969-70 NHL regular-season championship ring on his right hand, a Stanley Cup ring given to him by the team on his left.

Rugged Black Hawks rookie defenseman Keith Magnuson picked up his first of 72 fighting majors, having racked up 18 penalty minutes with four minors and a misconduct one game earlier against the New York Rangers.

Magnuson, who trained in karate during the offseason, battled Canadiens rookie forward Marc Tardif late in the third period. Each proudly declared victory after the bout, even as Magnuson needled his foe by saying, “You know something? I don’t even know [Tardif’s] name.”

Chicago captain Pat Stapleton directed his team for eight minutes in the second period when coach Billy Reay left the bench to seek medical attention after having nearly fainted because of stomach cramps.

“Everybody coached, the guys went on their own,” said Stapleton, a defenseman who had two assists in Chicago’s first victory in seven games to start the season.

And the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Canadiens, winners of the NHL title four times in the previous five seasons, were booed lustily through the third period by many among the 17,107 fans as Chicago sat on its 5-0 lead. It mattered little to the crowd that Montreal had not lost on home ice in 26 games (23-0, three ties), the final 16 of the 1968-69 season, seven in the 1969 Stanley Cup Playoffs and three to begin 1969-70.

The 1969-70 Chicago Black Hawks. Rookie goalie Tony Esposito is in the front row, far right.

Esposito, who died Aug. 10 of cancer at age 78, had no idea that night how his magical season would play out. He would be a workhorse for the Black Hawks, playing 63 of Chicago’s 76 games and going 38-17 with eight ties, a 2.17 GAA, .932 save percentage and 15 shutouts. He was voted the winner of the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and won the Vezina Trophy as the League’s best goalie based on statistics.

His 30-save shutout at the Forum came against the team with whom he had begun his NHL career the previous season; Esposito had been claimed from goalie-rich Montreal in the 1969 intraleague draft after having gone going 5-4 with four ties, a 2.75 GAA, .919 save percentage and two shutouts in 13 games for the Canadiens.

“Nothing special,” Esposito said in the moments following the 5-0 win, still wearing the brown fiberglass mask he’d worn with the Canadiens, his familiar white model having been molded in Montreal but still a few weeks from delivery. “I just tried to work hard, and I guess whenever you get a shutout your team worked hard too.”

In March 2020, on the 50th anniversary of his 15th shutout that season, Esposito recalled the 5-0 game wasn’t a picnic.

“It was tighter than that,” he said of the score. “The Canadiens were tough in their building. You knew you had to play your best.”

Tony Esposito in his 1968-69 Montreal Canadiens portrait, and his Canadiens action figure on Bell Centre ice in 2020.

Esposito would blank the Canadiens again the next time they met, in Chicago on Nov. 16, making 29 saves. It wasn’t until 16:02 of the second period Dec. 4 that the Canadiens finally would beat him, forward Jacques Lemaire threading a 65-foot shot through his pads for a 1-0 Montreal victory, Esposito’s shutout streak against the Canadiens ending at 156:02 after 73 consecutive saves.

Cournoyer would miss four games with his broken nose, returning Nov. 5 to score the game-tying goal at home against the Minnesota North Stars with 1:22 remaining in the third period.

For the first time in his career, Cournoyer’s head was covered. He wore a contraption fashioned by a trainer using the Cooper-Weeks helmet of defensemen J.C. Tremblay or Jacques Laperriere, a single bar similar to those on football helmets of the day bolted on the front to protect his surgically repaired nose.

“I think I wore it for two or three games,” Cournoyer said Sunday in vague recollection.

Wearing a helmet with a bar taken from a 1960s football helmet, Canadiens forward Yvan Cournoyer and captain Jean Beliveau, battle with Toronto defensemen Brian Glennie (24) and Jim Dorey in a game at Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 26, 1969.

Photos from Nov. 26, 1969, the Canadiens playing Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, show Cournoyer in the helmet, suggesting he wore it for about a dozen games.

But he was spot-on when he joked that he thinks he holds an NHL record of sorts. Indeed, Cournoyer is one of three players in NHL history to have scored a goal in his team’s first game six consecutive seasons, scoring seven goals in six season openers from 1973-74 to 1978-79. He shares the feat with Mud Bruneteau of the Detroit Red Wings (eight goals in six openers, 1940-41 through 1945-46) and Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets (six goals in six openers, 2014-15 through 2019-20).

Fifty-two years ago, Cournoyer had scored two goals through five games and was about to pounce for a third when Esposito spoiled the plan and his nose.

“What I remember most about that play,” he joked, “is that I was there for a rebound and I didn’t get it.”

Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame (Graphic Artists; Macdonald Stewart); Montreal Canadiens; Dave Stubbs

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