Tony Esposito made an immediate mark on the Chicago Blackhawks and a lasting impression on the NHL.
Esposito, the pioneering Hall of Famer who spent almost his entire 16-year career with the Blackhawks, died following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, the team announced Tuesday. He was 78.
Mr. Esposito also worked six years in Tampa with his brother Phil, the Lightning founder and former general manager who was instrumental in bringing the NHL to the bay area. Mr. Esposito played a key role in helping shape the franchise in those first few years, especially his input on trades, free agents and drafts.
The Lightning released a statement about Mr. Esposito’s value to the team:
“The entire Tampa Bay Lightning organization is terribly saddened to hear of the passing of Tony Esposito today just weeks after his diagnosis. Tony was a founding, cornerstone member of the Lightning family who was a fixture at games and, along with his brother Phil, played an integral role in laying the groundwork for a successful franchise in the Sunshine State when many thought it was impossible. His role cannot be understated.
“Tony was a true legend on the ice and off of it. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Marilyn, his family, friends and all of those he touched in the hockey community.”
Mr. Esposito debuted with Montreal during the 1968-69 season and appeared in 13 games. He was then left unprotected with the Canadiens deep in goalies and taken by the Blackhawks in an intraleague draft for $25,000, an investment that paid immediate dividends for a team that was coming off a last-place finish in its division.
Mr. Esposito helped lead the Blackhawks to first place, showcasing his butterfly style to post a 2.17 goals-against average and 15 shutouts, still a modern record for an NHL goalie. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year as well as the Vezina Trophy given to the top goaltender. He also won the Vezina in 1972 and 1974.
“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise as we near its 100th anniversary,” Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said. “Four generations of our family — my grandfather Arthur, my father Bill, my son Danny and I — were blessed by his work ethic as a Hall of Fame goalie, but more importantly, by his mere presence and spirit.”
The Esposito family called him a “Hall of Fame husband, father, and grandfather.”
“Chicago felt like home from the time Tony first arrived in 1969, thanks to the Wirtz family and those 18,000 Blackhawks fans who treated him like family every night at the Stadium, win or lose or tie,” the family said in a statement.
Mr. Esposito was from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just across the St. Mary’s River from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and he helped Michigan Tech to an NCAA championship in 1965. His older brother, Phil, was a star in his own right, a Hall of Fame center who played 18 seasons in the NHL.
The younger Esposito’s first NHL start was Dec. 5, 1968, against Boston — and his brother. Phil Esposito scored twice on his younger brother, but Tony made 33 saves and the game ended 2-2.
Commissioner Gary Bettman called him “a beloved member of the hockey family.”
“It was Esposito’s style, charisma and heart that endeared him most to hockey fans not only in Chicago but across the NHL,” Bettman said. “The hockey world will miss him greatly.”
Mr. Esposito helped lead Chicago to the playoffs in 14 seasons. The Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973, losing each time to his former team, Montreal.
He is Chicago’s career leader with 418 wins and 74 shutouts. His overall record of 423-306-151 ranks 10th in league history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, joining his brother. And in 2017, he was selected by the league as one of the “100 Greatest Players in NHL History.”
The Blackhawks retired Mr. Esposito’s No. 35 on Nov. 20, 1988, and paid tribute to him again on March 19, 2008. He was named a team ambassador in a pregame ceremony attended by franchise icons and former teammates Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard as well as his brother.
“It’s a great feeling to be on this ice again. really miss it, I’ll tell you that,” Mr. Esposito said as the crowd chanted “Tony! Tony!” “It’s a pleasure and an honor to be back with the ‘Hawks.”
Mr. Esposito also served as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Former Blackhawks defenseman Doug Wilson called the news about his friend and mentor “heartbreaking.”
“He exuded leadership and class, while being one of the most dominant players ever seen at his position,” Wilson, the San Jose Sharks’ general manager, said.
Mr. Esposito is survived by his wife Marilyn, sons Mark and Jason, Mark’s wife Kim and their children Lauren and Kamryn.