tony o in the soo: of sock-hockey, smelts, and dandelion greens

Tony Esposito got his first pair of skates, used, from a cousin, when he was five years old. “I really thought they were something,” he would later recall, as a tender of nets for the Chicago Black Hawks. Older by a year, brother Phil had started off tying double-runner skates strapped to his boots. Phil’s first proper skates were several sizes too big — he’d remember, with chagrin, having to wear three pairs of woolen socks to find a fit.

This was in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, decades before the Espositos got to the NHL to launch their respective Hall-of-Fame careers. Tony, younger by a year than Phil, turns 76 today. Born on a Friday of this date in 1943, he would start his big-league career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Understudying Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley, Esposito got first start in December of 1968 against his brother’s Boston Bruins. Phil scored twice in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie; Tony made 33 saves. Backing up Vachon, he didn’t play a game in the playoffs that year, though he did get his name on the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the St. Louis Blues in four games in the spring of ’69.

Chicago claimed him on waivers that same year, and while the Stanley Cup would elude his grasp in his 15 seasons there, his personal excellence was rewarded over the years. Starting his Black Hawks’ career in style, he won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as the NHL’s best rookie, along with the Vézina Trophy and a place on the First All-Star team. He’d claim two more Vézinas, in ’72 and ’74, and he was an All-Star again in ’74 and 1980.

In 1971, Tony and Phil collaborated with writer Tim Moriarty to publish a memoir, The Brothers Esposito, that offers first-person glimpses of their early years, indiscretions, and hockey formation. To kick off chapter three (“Mother Plays Goalie”), Phil recalls that he ran a little wild in the early 1950s as a teenager in the Soo. Nothing too serious, he says — mostly staying out late, stealing his father’s car, getting “nailed by the police” for “minor violations like disturbing the peace.”

Domestically, Phil summons up the family’s move from the city’s west end to a somewhat fancier eastern neighbourhood. The new house, he remembers, “had everything — an inter-com system, stereo and hi-fi, and large rooms, including a recreation room that must have measured 30 by 40 feet.” He goes on:

We used to hold some great practice sessions in that rec room. Instead of using a puck, we’d get an old sock, a big one, and roll it up and tie it with a ribbon. Then Tony and I would take turns shooting with the sock, which would slide very easily across the floor.

Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees and we’d shoot at her. After beating her a couple of times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.

My mother couldn’t play goal too well, but she was a great cook. One meal I loved then, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, was a special dish consisting of smelts and dandelion greens. We’d have them with fresh Italian bread from the bakery. Man, than was a feast. Tony, though, didn’t like the greens. He said they tickled his throat.

 

 

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