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Hockey Hall of Famer Tony Esposito dies at 78 of pancreatic cancer

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 8/11/2021 Ben Sumner
Mr. Esposito guarded the Black Hawks net against his brother Phil Esposito (center) and Wayne Cashman of the Bruins in a 1975 game. © Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff Mr. Esposito guarded the Black Hawks net against his brother Phil Esposito (center) and Wayne Cashman of the Bruins in a 1975 game.

Tony Esposito, the longtime Chicago Black Hawks goaltender whose acrobatic saves made him one of the top netminders of the 1970s, died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer, the team said. Mr. Esposito, the brother of Bruins legend Phil Esposito, was 78.

When most goaltenders were standing up to face low shots on net, Mr. Esposito dropped to the ice with his leg pads extended on both sides, what came to be known as the “butterfly” technique. He was credited with popularizing the technique, which became standard for goaltenders.

In addition, he tried to gain a competitive edge by stuffing his leg pads, wearing baggier jerseys and piling ice shavings in the crease. At one point, he put webbing between his legs (which he didn’t get away with for long). The National Hockey League eventually instituted stricter rules about equipment.

“We were always suspicious of Tony Esposito,” said former NHL referee Bryan Lewis in an episode of the A&E show “Biography” about Esposito. “And he would be the master.”

While his older brother Phil was already a star with the Bruins, Mr. Esposito entered the NHL in 1968 with the Montreal Canadiens, playing only 13 games. He was soon let go, and he signed with Phil’s former team, the Black Hawks, joining an outfit that included established superstars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

Still technically a rookie in the 1969-70 season, Mr. Esposito had a year for the ages, as he earned the nickname “Tony O” by posting a rookie record of 15 shutouts. He also led goaltenders in victories with 38, won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year and the first of three Vezina Trophies, given to the goalie of the year, and he finished second in Most Valuable Player voting to Boston’s Bobby Orr.

“I want the shutout,” Mr. Esposito told “Biography.” “I don’t want to win 5-3. I want to win 5-0. If you compete at that level, you want to win. In fact, I want to win when I play checkers, for crying out loud. At any cost.”

For 15 seasons, Mr. Esposito was a star with the Black Hawks, leading them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1971 and 1973, losing both times to the Canadiens.

Anthony James Esposito was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on April 23, 1943. His father worked in one of the city’s steel mills.

Growing up on the eastern tip of Lake Superior, parts of which froze for much of the winter, the Esposito brothers gravitated naturally to hockey. Phil made Tony play goalie so he could practice his shooting. They brought their equipment to the ice using a toboggan.

The brothers faced each other many times over the years, with the media promoting Bruins-Black Hawks games as “Esposito vs. Esposito.” In Tony Esposito’s first full game as a starter with the Canadiens, Phil scored twice in a 2-2 tie.

“Tony’s wife, Marilyn, and our mother said the same thing: ‘How could you do that to your brother? You’re going to ruin his career before it starts,’ ” Phil Esposito recalled in an interview with NHL.com in 2017, when he and Tony were named two of the top 100 NHL players.

Unlike many hockey stars of that era, Mr. Esposito went to college, helping Michigan Tech win the 1964-65 NCAA championship. He received a bachelor’s degree in business in 1967.

Mr. Esposito married his childhood sweetheart, Marilyn Mezzone, in 1966. She survives him, in addition to their two sons, Mark and Jason, and two grandchildren.

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.

After he retired from playing in 1984, Mr. Esposito briefly served as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. While his time with the team was short, he added two key players who would help the team win two Stanley Cups in the early 1990s: forward Mark Recchi and goalie Tom Barrasso.

In 1992, Phil Esposito founded the Tampa Bay Lightning and promptly hired Tony as the head scout. The brothers worked for the team until they were fired a few months after it was sold in 1998.

Mr. Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, the same year his jersey number, 35, was retired by the Blackhawks (who had changed the team name from Black Hawks two years earlier).

The brothers grew closer over time and continued to live near each other in Florida after their time with the Lightning.

“We used to fight,” Phil Esposito said in the NHL.com interview. “I remember, we went through the wall in our bedroom with my shoulder. We didn’t know what to do ‘cause the old man comes home and he sees that hole in the wall, all hell’s gonna break loose, right? We got a picture of Jesus, and we put it over the hole.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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