Blackhawks to honor Tony Esposito before game with Capitals

 

Bob Verdi | Sunday Column
11:17 PM CDT, March 18, 2008

Inasmuch as Tony Esposito has been gainfully retired for years, it would be too much to ask him to steal another game for the Blackhawks, who face another must-win assignment Wednesday night at the United Center.

But when the legendary goalkeeper is honored before the match against Washington, any fans with a little age on them will remember how he arrived here in 1969, brother of the more famous Phil, and almost instantly transformed this franchise into a National Hockey League force.

Despite posting a record above .500, the Hawks had finished last the previous season, so general manager Tommy Ivan looked for help where they desperately needed it. In a transaction that cost $25,000, speaking of robberies, he acquired Tony Esposito from the Montreal Canadiens.

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"I had played against Chicago and thought they had the makings of a real competitive team," Esposito recalled. "It seemed like a great opportunity—and it was."

Esposito authored 15 shutouts, and infused by fellow rookies Keith Magnuson and Cliff Koroll, the Hawks went from worst to first. The rest, as they say, is history, which is precisely what the team's suddenly enlightened front office wants to capture by designating icons Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Esposito as official ambassadors.

The notion of the Hawks exploring a brave new world involving ambassadors—let alone goodwill ambassadors—still feels a bit revolutionary. But this gesture is not about living in the past, only appreciating it in proper context. That's what makes Chairman Rocky Wirtz and President John McDonough so different. They're contemporary throwbacks.

"It's not only their ideas that are good, they're good people," Esposito said. "What's exciting for me, besides being a small part of the Blackhawks again, is how the team is getting better, along with the crowds. Detroit used to be a terrific hockey city. Then it went down for a while but came back big. Well, it feels like Chicago is back."

Esposito was in town a couple of weeks ago for a game, during which he was a guest with radio analyst Troy Murray. As usual, Esposito brought his rapier wit, a trait not always evident to the public. After all, when he did his best work, he never even showed his face.

Before games he was single-minded and insular, alone with his thoughts and that glazed look. After games he unwound slowly, deliberately. Every goal was his fault, and even when his body was a mosaic of bruises and welts, he never yielded to injuries or migraines.

The guys in the locker room admired that ethic, and also the fact that Esposito and wife Marilyn were always there for the extended Hawks family. Their home was open to all, especially if you were a young player trying to figure out the big city.

"We had a lot of fun," Tony-O said. "I just wish we could have won it all for these fans."

Esposito served executive roles with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Both franchises earned Stanley Cups. It has been 20 years since Tony-O's induction into the Hall of Fame, yet in many ways the Hawks still are searching for a replacement. But at least he'll be more than a flag in the building, hanging coldly from the ceiling.

McDonough talks of running what feels like an 80-year-old expansion team. Actually, it's more complicated. Expansion teams don't carry scars and don't have to say they're sorry.

The task now is to fill 21,000 seats, and create demand for thousands more who can't find tickets, just like when Tony-O rocked back and forth between the pipes, saving the day.