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AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — Tony Esposito made an immediate mark on the Chicago Blackhawks and a lasting impression on the NHL. Esposito, the pioneering Hall of Famer who spent almost his entire 16-year career with the Blackhawks, died following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, the team announced Tuesday. He was 78.
Esposito debuted with Montreal during the 1968- 69 season and appeared in 13 games. He was then left unprotected with the Canadiens deep in goalies and taken Blackhawks intraleague $25,000, an investment that paid immediate dividends for a team that was coming off a last-place finish in its division.
Esposito helped lead the Blackhawks to first place, showcasing his butterfly style to post a 2.17 goals- against average and 15 shutouts, still a modern record for an NHL goalie. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year as well as the Vezina Trophy given to the top goaltender. He also won the Vezina in 1972 and 1974.
“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise as we near its 100th anniversary,” Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said. “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.”
“Chicago felt like home from the time Tony first arrived in 1969, thanks to the Wirtz family and those 18,000 Blackhawks fans who treated him like family every night at the Stadium, win or lose or tie,” the family said in a statement.
Esposito was from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just across the St. Mary’s River from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and he helped Michigan Tech to an NCAA championship in 1965. His older brother, Phil, was a star in his own right, a Hall of Fame center who played 18 seasons in the NHL.
The younger Esposito’s first NHL start was Dec. 5, 1968, against Boston ‚ and his brother. Phil Esposito scored twice on his younger brother, but Tony made 33 saves and the game ended 2- 2.
Esposito helped lead Chicago to the playoffs in 14 seasons. The Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973, losing each time to his former team, Montreal.
He is Chicago’s career leader with 418 wins and 74 shutouts. His overall record of 423-306-151 ranks 10th in league history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, joining his brother. And in 2017, he was selected by the league as one of the “100 Greatest Players in NHL History.”