Esposito guarded the Chicago Blackhawks’ net for 15 seasons and was an early pioneer of the butterfly style of goaltending.
Tony Esposito, who as a rookie in his first of 15 N.H.L. seasons as the Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender recorded an astonishing 15 shutouts, earning the nickname Tony O, died on Tuesday. He was 78.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, the Blackhawks said. The team did not say where he died.
Esposito, who played all but 13 games of his 16-season N.H.L. career with Chicago, joined the Blackhawks for the 1969-70 season. He went on to win the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year and the first of three Vezina Trophies as the league’s best goaltender. He was an early practitioner of the butterfly style of goaltending — dropping to the knees and spreading out the leg pads — in an era when stand-up was prevalent.
Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, four years after that honor was given to his older brother Phil, a forward who was one of the most prolific scorers in N.H.L. history with Chicago, the Boston Bruins and the Rangers. In 2017, as the N.H.L. approached its 100th anniversary, both Tony and Phil Esposito were named among the league’s 100 greatest players.
Tony Esposito’s 423 wins rank 10th on the N.H.L.’s career list for goalies. Chicago retired his uniform number, 35, in 1988, and he had worked as a team ambassador since 2008.
Esposito, who won a Stanley Cup as the backup goalie with the Montreal Canadiens in 1969, was instrumental in Chicago’s two trips to the finals, in 1971 and 1973. But the Blackhawks lost to Montreal on both occasions.
In the 1969-70 season, Esposito recorded 15 shutouts, an unrivaled mark for the N.H.L.’s modern era. The record for most shutouts in a season is 22, recorded by George Hainsworth during the 1928-29 season with the Canadiens. Two other goalies from the 1920s share the mark of 15 in a season.
“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise as we near its 100th anniversary,” Rocky Wirtz, the team’s chairman, said in a statement. “Four generations of our family — my grandfather Arthur, my father Bill, my son Danny and I — were blessed by his work ethic as a Hall of Fame goalie, but more importantly, by his mere presence and spirit.”
Gary Bettman, the N.H.L. commissioner, said in a statement, “From his arrival in the Windy City in the late 1960s through an illustrious playing career and decades as a franchise icon, Tony left an indelible mark — both on the ice and in the community — over the next 52 years.”
Anthony James Esposito was born on April 23, 1943, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the son of Patrick Esposito, a manager for a steel company, and Frances (DiPietro) Esposito.
He wanted to be a hockey player for “as long as I can remember,” he recalled, and after school and on weekends, the two brothers — Phil is 14 months older — would shuffle to the rink with their gear loaded on a toboggan.
Tony Esposito attended Michigan Tech, where he was a three-time first-team All-America selection and helped the team win the 1964-65 N.C.A.A. championship.
With a bachelor’s degree in business, he tried his luck as a professional hockey player and succeeded, reaching the N.H.L. at a time when playing in college was not generally seen as a path to the pros. “I’ll give it three years and see what I can do,” he recalled thinking in an interview for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After two seasons in the minor leagues with Vancouver and Houston, he started his first N.H.L. game with the Canadiens against his brother’s Boston Bruins. The game ended in a 2-2 tie, and Phil Esposito scored both Boston goals. His mother accused him of trying to ruin his brother’s career before it had even started, but Phil assured her that Tony had done well.
The next season, Tony Esposito was claimed on waivers by Chicago.
During the years when he commanded the Blackhawks’ net, playing behind future Hall of Famers like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard, he become one of only three goalies to win more than 400 games with a single team. (The others are Martin Brodeur with the Devils and Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers.)
After retiring as a player in 1984, Esposito was named the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988. In his first year with the Penguins, he led the team to the Stanley Cup playoffs, ending a six-year postseason drought.
In addition to his brother, the Blackhawks said, his survivors include his wife, Marilyn; two sons, Mark and Jason; and two grandchildren.
Esposito later became a scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning, which Phil Esposito helped found. In a statement on Tuesday, the Lightning said Tony Esposito had played an “integral role in laying the groundwork for a successful franchise in the Sunshine State when many thought it was impossible.”
In 2017, Phil Esposito told NHL.com that Tony “handled a lot of the details” as a Tampa Bay scout.
“After all,” he said, “Tony is the one who went to college.”