Esposito looks back on 50th anniversary of record-setting rookie year

“I’m going to sit in front of the TV, put my feet up, and watch reruns,” Esposito said with a laugh from his Florida home. “Whatever might be on.”

On March 29, 1970, Esposito set an NHL record for rookie goalies with his 15th shutout, making 23 saves in a 4-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Chicago Stadium to break the record previously set by George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens in 1926-27.

Esposito, now 76, still holds the modern-day NHL shutout record for the 15 he earned that season. Hainsworth had 22 for Montreal in 1928-29, and Ottawa’s Alec Connell (1925-26, 1927-28) and Boston’s Hal Winkler (1927-28) each also had 15, but those came in a very different era when rules gave a huge advantage to the goalie.

Video: Tony Esposito won Vezina, Calder in 1969-70

The 50th anniversary Sunday was Esposito’s second milestone in a few days; 40 years ago on March 26, he became the NHL’s first goalie to win at least 30 games eight times. 

Signed by the Canadiens as a free agent in September 1967, the native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, broke into the NHL with Montreal in 1968-69, going 5-4-4 with a 2.73 goals-against average and two shutouts in 13 games.

But with Gump Worsley, Rogie Vachon and Ernie Wakely in the system, and Ken Dryden on his way up, Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock left Esposito unprotected in the 1969 intra-league draft, and he was plucked by the Blackhawks, who had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1968-69 with Denis DeJordy, Dave Dryden and Jack Norris dividing the workload in net.

“The Canadiens had to make a decision between protecting me or Gump,” Esposito said. “Gump was a proven goalie, a nice guy. I liked him. And he was underrated, you know? He was a lot better than many people think.”

Tony Esposito’s 1969-70 Topps rookie card, heralding his promise a couple of months into the season.

At season’s end, Esposito remembers sitting in Pollock’s office in the Montreal Forum for a talk.

“I didn’t take any (nonsense) and you know what Sam was like,” he said, laughing again. “I was pretty outspoken and vocal in those days. Sam sat me down and told me what I had to do and I said, ‘What do you know about it?’ Let’s just say that Sam and I didn’t see eye to eye.

“I knew the draft was coming. I don’t know why Chicago chose me, but they picked me up. When I went to training camp, the other goalies were Dryden and DeJordy. I was a very competitive guy. It might be a terrible thing to say, but I knew I could beat them for the No. 1 job.”

And that he did. Esposito played 63 of Chicago’s 76 games in 1969-70, going 38-17-8 with a 2.17 GAA and his 15 shutouts, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender.

Over the next 12 seasons, the workhorse played as many as 71 regular-season games (1974-75), and never fewer than 48 (1971-72). Esposito would go on to win the Vezina again in 1972 and 1974, and he played in 886 games with Montreal and Chicago, posting a lifetime 2.93 GAA with 76 shutouts before retiring in 1984.

Esposito, who was also a standout for Team Canada in the historic eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union in 1972, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988.

Tony Esposito in Montreal Forum action on Oct. 25, 1969 during his first shutout of that season, seen here with Canadiens forward John Ferguson and Chicago defenseman Gilles Marotte, and in 2017 with his more familiar mask.

Esposito says his historic rookie season really got rolling with his first shutout, when he made 30 saves in a 5-0 win against the Canadiens at the Forum on Oct. 25. He was still wearing the brown fiberglass mask he’d worn with Montreal, his familiar white model having been molded but still a few weeks from delivery. 

“It was tighter than that,” Esposito said of the score. “The Canadiens were tough in their building. You knew you had to play your best.”

His second shutout came at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 9, a 9-0 blowout. The third came in Chicago against the Canadiens again, 1-0 on Nov. 16. It was after that one that the Topps chewing-gum company produced his rookie card, No. 138 in the set, declaring that two shutouts against the Canadiens before the season was two months old put him “on the threshold of a brilliant career in the N.H.L.”

Four of Esposito’s 15 shutouts came in 1-0 nail-biters. His 12th, on March 11 at home against Boston, was a 0-0 duel against the Bruins’ Eddie Johnston. Three were laughers: 9-0, 7-0 and 6-0.

“I don’t think it’s any easier to get a shutout when you’re up by a lot,” he said. “When you’re up by six or seven goals, you play looser. You might take a chance. With a 1-0 game, you’ll tighten up, especially in the third period.”

Tony Esposito posed for a photographer with his 1969-70 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, joined by his brother, Phil.

In total through his 15 shutouts, Esposito made 375 saves, an average of 25 per game. The most saves he made in a shutout was 36, with 21 being the fewest. He blanked Montreal, Toronto, Boston, the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues twice each, with his other three coming against the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals and Philadelphia Flyers. Three times Esposito had shutouts in consecutive starts, and twice he had three over a four-game stretch. Nine shutouts came at home, six on the road.

One shutout came in October, three each in November and December, and four each in January and March.

“Don’t ask me what happened in February,” Esposito said. “How the heck would I know?”

In a normal world, Esposito and his wife, Marilyn, would be in Chicago today, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame ambassador having been booked to visit United Center suites during the team’s final four scheduled home games of the regular season.

“It’s hot down here in Florida, so people are out for walks or on their bikes,” he said, like everyone else in a holding pattern with the NHL season paused. “But I miss hockey. Tonight, it’ll be reruns. Anything but the news.”

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