Tony Esposito, who played goaltender for my favorite Chicago team, hockey’s Blackhawks, from my childhood until I was almost 21, died on Aug. 10 of pancreatic cancer. My father and I saw five Blackhawks games together at Chicago Stadium, one a year through high school and my first year at Valparaiso University. I carefully selected the teams I wanted to see, except when I gave in to Dad’s idea that we see Gordie Howe (still playing past age 50, which I understand better now) and the Hartford Whalers.
But there was no negotiating one thing: I figured out which end of the rink would be “Tony’s net” for two periods, because I wanted to be able to watch him closely. He was beyond a favorite — maybe a constant was a better word. (The ritual in hockey is that the goaltenders change ends every period, supposedly to keep them from building snowy obstacles or other things that might help them keep the other team from scoring.)
I was interested in seeing the Hawks score, of course, but I was more fond of seeing Tony stop the other side from scoring. When that didn’t happen, I usually knew just exactly what other players to get mad at, of course! But eventually, following the teamwork around Tony taught me a lot. At the first game Dad and I attended, the Hawks beat the St. Louis Blues, 3-1. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see one of the shutouts for which Tony Esposito was justly famous. (I keep seeing a career total of 74, but I clearly remember listening and celebrating in my college dorm room when I heard shutout no. 75 on the radio.)
So that single goal against stung, but I learned to understand it. In gym classes, I played goalie in floor hockey because (a) I understood it more than most girls and (b) I’d face few shots on goal and get few sticks over my shins. And when a plastic puck or a much-taped, nearly cubic ball got past me, suddenly I was ready to be a bit more forgiving that night when it happened to Tony Esposito. I also learned a lot about working together and trying to defend against mistakes. (From goalie to copyeditor?)
I still have my VCR, and I have some of Tony’s play on tape — but I’m going to wait and play those tapes when I can see straight again. I’m not so sure of my eyes right now. I might just settle for a DVR moment, Tony and his brother Phil in their Blackhawk uniforms (which they didn’t wear otherwise at the same time) for the franchise’s touching “One More Shift.” That’s a ritual in which great former Hawks are invited back for one last appearance on the ice, one last chance to hear the cheers and greet their successors. Phil was one of the great scorers in league history — probably because he grew up trying to get pucks past Tony. No doubt Phil’s ability was part of what developed Tony’s, too.
Since they had their “One More Shift” before the pandemic, seeing the brothers with the Hawks who were to play that night won’t be without an ache of its own… but some of the players will still be around when the next season begins in September.
My earlier post today about quiet as self-care can close out the voting as my biggest piece of irony for the year. I certainly don’t want anything stronger. My mind’s ear is reeling as my heart tries to stop the dizzying memories.
I just want to go for a walk, but I know what my heels would sound like on the pavement; They would echo the old cheer, “TO-NY, TO-NY, TO-NY!”