Chicago Blackhawks legend Tony Esposito passed away on Tuesday at the age of 78. Like practically every other hockey fan, I had no idea that he was ill. And like the rest of the hockey world, I was shocked, surprised, and saddened by the loss of the man known as Tony-O.
I did not know Mr. Esposito personally. I never even saw him play. In fact, Esposito was retired for nearly five years before I discovered hockey in early 1989. But he quickly became my first hockey hero — I’ll explain why in a minute — and I soon made it my mission to track down and buy a Tony Esposito rookie card, which was no easy feat in the pre-internet days.
Once I found hockey, I was hooked. I watched every game on TV that I could. I read every hockey book from my local library, including books about players from the 1970s, like Tony-O. As it turned out, my Mom and Aunt were into hockey during the 1960s and 1970s. My Mom gave me her hockey scrapbooks and a postcard autographed by Guy Lafleur. My Aunt gave me her old Blackhawks jersey, made by Gunzo’s Sporting Goods, with Esposito’s number 35 stitched on the back and sleeves. I proudly wore that jersey to school and to Blackhawks games.
And I was proud to wear that jersey. Esposito was one of the very best goaltenders in hockey history. He was named rookie of the year in 1970 and set a rookie record for posting 15 shutouts that season — and earned the nickname “Tony-O” in the process. Esposito played with the Blackhawks for 15 seasons, was named the league’s top goaltender three times and an all-star five times. He was instrumental in Team Canada’s victory against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988 and also had his jersey number retired by the Blackhawks that year.
But I witnessed none of that. I only knew Esposito from interacting with him at autograph appearances in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. The man was a legend, but he was humble. Whenever you got Tony Esposito’s signature, he made the experience about you, and not about him.
I first met Esposito when I was 15, shortly before the 1991 NHL All-Star Game in Chicago. It was at a youth hockey clinic followed by an autograph session. My family and I went to get autographs from several former NHL players, including Esposito.
I asked Esposito if he was going to play in the “Heroes of Hockey” Game, featuring retired players, that was scheduled the day before the All-Star Game. I was hoping to get the chance to see Tony-O and his iconic, white goalie mask, back in action, even if it was just for an exhibition game. He politely told me that his playing days were over, then proceeded to sign my jersey, a copy of his book, and several hockey cards for me and my family. A TV cameraman swooped in to record our interaction, and after signing everything, Tony-O reached out and shook my hand.
I could not have been more wrong.
You see, Esposito treated every fan like they mattered; like they were the Hall of Famer, and not the other way around. I learned this when I’d have the opportunity — nay, the privilege — to meet him several more times over the next few decades.
When you would meet Esposito and get his autograph, he’d ask how you were doing, or if you were enjoying the Blackhawks Convention, or if you were excited about the upcoming season — and then he’d listen for your reply, and often ask you a follow-up question.
Of course, this meant that the line for Esposito’s autograph moved very slowly, but that didn’t matter. After talking with you, Esposito would take his time with one of the nicest autographs you could ask for: a beautiful, every-letter signature, and not the half-hearted scrawl that today’s players scribble out. Then, Tony-O would shake your hand and thank YOU for coming.
And not only did Esposito’s autograph look great, but he did too. Many times, Tony-O would be dressed in a sharp-looking, three-piece black suit and red silk tie — even in the middle of summer!
One fan told me a story about Tony-O wearing his three-piece suit to sign autographs at a racetrack, outdoors and in the middle of July. From what I was told, Esposito sweated more than the horses did that day. But he probably sweated just as much back in the 1970s, wearing those old leather goalie pads in a game against the Bruins.
This detail didn’t go unnoticed to me or other Blackhawks fans. Esposito dressed up because signing autographs for the fans was important to him. The fans were important to him. And the fans loved him because of that, even 35 years after number 35 stopped his last puck. Every time you met Tony Esposito, you left the experience feeling like a million bucks. Getting his autograph was just the bonus.
Goodbye and thank you, Tony Esposito, for your 15 years on the ice as the Blackhawks’ star goalie, 37 years off the ice as a Blackhawks’ ambassador, and 52 years of making us fans feel special. ■