On the 1st anniversary of his passing, we present an encore of this remembrance of the great Tony Esposito, former goalie for the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. ‘Tony-O’ played one season here, 61 games, in 1967-’68 after playing three seasons of college hockey at Michigan Tech, not far from his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Those Vancouver Canucks weren’t very good, the younger Espo’ finished 25-33-and-4 that season. He went on to win 423 NHL games, all but five of them (Montreal Canadiens as a rookie) with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It was late summer 2008. I wouldn’t say I was reeling, but I was definitely going through a transition and potentially questioning my place in the NHL and its media landscape after not having my contract renewed to be part of the NHL broadcast team on the New England Sports Network. I was always somewhat confident, but I definitely wasn’t assuming anything as to potential forthcoming opportunities. Let’s just say I’m not one of those “legends in their own minds.” I’m more of a media guy who’s a hockey person first, and I really wasn’t sure where I was headed.
NHL production exec’ John Shannon gave me a boost by hiring me to do some work for the network in the off-season. The first gig involved flying to Chicago to cover the league’s fancy press conference at Wrigley Field to announce the upcoming Winter Classic game on New Years Day, 2009.
That’s when Tony Esposito entered my life for the first time. I had just finished interviewing a very young Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews along the third baseline when strolling in from leftfield from the press conference were Stan Mikita and Tony-O.
“Simmer! What the hell happened it Boston?! I can’t believe it,” Tony shouted as he approached. I had never met him before. After we shook hands and I said hello to Mr. Mikita, Esposito continued. He may or may not have even said “That’s bullsh–“, regarding NESN, but however he said it, that’s what he intimated next. He had saved me any embarrassment or awkwardness by asking and answering his question at the same time.
So either this dude watched a lot of games on the NHL package, or maybe just knew of me through our small hockey world. I knew his brother Phil a little bit and had interviewed him a bunch of times, but that didn’t make sense. So Tony went on to bust my chops and pump my tires simultaneously, and it was remarkable how much that meant to me at that time and place. My confidence soared and not long after that I’d spend the next four years at NHL-HQ in NYC hosting on TV, radio, and at live events. Confidence for an individual or team collectively (also known as momentum) is the key to so, so much.
That was Tony Esposito.
You’ll hear similar stories often repeated about his energy and charisma. I met him three more times in our lives and I always relished chatting and laughing with him.
Unfortunately as a little kid, one of my earliest memories of him was when he muffed the Jacques Lemaire shot from center ice in Game-7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup Final. It led to the Habs comeback victory. It was a bizarre early blemish on an incredible Hockey Hall of Fame career.
I recall my brothers and I playing the Tony and Phil Esposito table hockey game where you moved little players around with magnets, the Blackhawks operated from above the plastic enclosure and the Bruins magnetized players operated from below the game board.
I remember his cool stance, his cool mask, and thanks to good friend Bob Naegele (III), I remember being at Chicago Stadium in November, 1988 for Tony Esposito and Glenn Hall night. It was my one and only trip into that building and I recall getting misty and absolutely bubbling with emotion during the national anthem and beyond. The Hawks lost that night to the Vancouver Canucks 7-4.
To read about that incredible career and hear more about that personality and energy, check out this article from the great Dave Stubbs.