Can there be any questions that Tony Esposito takes his business seriously indeed? Ever seen him on the day of a game, when you greet him in the hotel lobby, and he merely nods as he looks through you? Ever seen him before the National Anthem, rocking back and forth from skate to skate as though to settle a stomach taut with anxiety? Ever seen him after a puck escapes his efforts and becomes a goal: how the head dips, and he turns toward the net to confirm his fears, and even though he hides behind the mask, the total look of disgust? Ever seen him after a loss, when he drip-dries before his locker room cubicle, unshaven and pale and tired, unraveling pounds of equipment as he faces the wall?
Oh, does Tony Esposito take his job with the Chicago Black Hawks seriously. There have been the goaltenders that wear the carefree veneer while inside they churn, there are others who seem cool no matter what the crisis, there are others who want no part of anyone or anything except solitude.
The Goalie. Toughest position in sports. They are truly a breed a part, these men who never show their faces while they work. No two the same, except for unavoidable occupational hazard they all face. Pressure.
"The way I look at it," says Esposito, "no matter what happens in front of you, no matter who might have made a mistake on your side, or who might have made a great play on their side, the goalie has last call. He has the chance to stop it, and if he doesn't, it's his fault. Period."
And so, while brother Phil and his ilk almost gaily dart around putting pucks away, brother Tony and his fraternity suffer trying to keep them out. It is agony. "What I try to do," says Tony, "is concentrate. On the morning of a game, we'll have a meeting. Then I go back home or back to the hotel and eat, all the time getting myself mentally ready for the game. I'll try to relax if I can in the afternoon, but you really can't. I like to get to the rink fairly early and be thinking all the time about the game that's coming up." His constant companion: one set of nerves, well agitated.
" I actually worry more about Tony's mental well-being than his getting hurt," said his stunning wife, Marilyn. "He knows what he's doing, and he's strong, so there isn't so much concern over injury. "It's his nerves. Before a game, he's very quiet around home. After a game, it takes him a few hours before he really winds down, though he really never relaxes. He'll get in the car and always say the same thing: 'what did you think?' And I'll tell him-I'm his worst critic. Then we'll go out maybe with a few other couples to some place quiet, and gradually he'll ease up. But never completely. He's a different person in the off season, more cheerful and talkative. But during the season, he's thinking about the game."
Last year, there was the shortest of off-seasons for Tony Esposito, and it created some problems. By mid-August, he was toiling with Team Canada for its September happening against the Soviet Union. Esposito was a big reason why the Canadiens rallied to win the eight-game series but, on returning to the NHL wars, he suffered a common malady-the post-Russian "blahs." Said Tony; "There was tremendous pressure in that Russian series. When I got back, I was emotionally drained, and it was difficult to get up for a full season of games."
Esposito struggled. There was a late October match on Long Island, when the Black Hawks had every right to beat the Islanders, but instead tied 4-4 as Esposito was shaky, fighting the puck, the mind wandering. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he said afterward. "I've never had such a bad streak as now. But I'll be back."
For a couple of more weeks, Tony-O played more like Tony-3 or Tony-4. And then came Thanksgiving Eve in Chicago, and the Tony Esposito Chicago knew and loved returned. He was sharp and alert in beating the Canucks, and the Black Hawks gave thanks.
"I was never worried," said coach Billy Reay. "Everybody has a slump. Some sulk about it, other like Tony just keep working. He's a real man, I'll tell you. Indeed, the idea of Esposito issuing any sort of excuse is unthinkable. He thrives on work, and will never back out of an assignment, even if he's hurt. And every goal is his fault. Never will he say he was screened, never will he say that a teammate kicked one in by mistake, never will he accuse anyone of a misplay besides himself. One awaits the day when he'll shoulder the blame for an empty-net goal.
"He's just that way, and everybody respects him for it, most of all me," says Reay. "Last year, our goals-against-average went up from 166 to 225. With the exception of his bad start, Tony played just as well as he had the year before. We just weren't playing as tight in front of him. Other teams were getting more good shots at him than ever before, but you'll never hear him complain about that."
Nor will you hear the Black Hawks bemoan the day they shelled out $30,000 to draft Tony-O from the Montreal Canadiens. June 11, 1969, just a couple months after the Chicagoans had finished sixth and last in the East Division. They had collected a healthy 280 goals, and they had actually won more games than they lost, but the problem was in the nets. The rest is a story of stinginess. Esposito authored an NHL record 15 shutouts in 63 games, and his parsimonious 2.17 goals against mark was the reason the Hawks made an unprescendented vault to the top in 1969-1970. In subsequent winters, the Esposito log reads 2.27, 1.76, and 2.51. Totals, 2.23 for 237 games. Not bad.
They say the man has no style, but he stops the puck, doesn't he? They say he blows a soft one here and there, but show me a goalie that doesn't. They say he doesn't win the big games, but the Hawks haven't been Stanley Cup finalists in two of the last three years by winning only the small ones. (Photo by Dennis Wood)
By Bob Verdi
Chicago Tribune - 1973
One of Tony's Closest Friends
Copyrightę2004 Esposito's Legends of Hockey
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