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.

 

 

espo in la la land

SpokesPhil: Born on a Friday of this date in 1942 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Phil Esposito is 77 today. In 1981, when he laid himself out in the name of Sasson and their slacks, knit tops, and luggage, it was in the company of New York Rangers teammates Don Maloney, Barry Beck, Ron Greschner, and Anders Hedberg. The campaign included TV commercials, too, and if haven’t seen those (here they are), they’re worth the wince.

backbencher

Say It Ain’t Joe (It Is): Joe Klukay won four Stanley Cups as a left winger for the Toronto Maple Leaf through the late 1940s and into the ’50s. (He played a couple of seasons for Boston, too.) Renowned as a penalty-killer, the Sault Ste. Marie native was lauded for his stickhandling — broadcaster Foster Hewitt said it was some of the best he ever saw in his years of watching the NHL. Klukay explained that he’d had no choice, as a kid, but to learn how to hold on to the puck. “Twenty or 30 of us would jam together on the Bayview rink and play from eight o’clock in the morning until it got dark,” he once told a hometown paper. “I can remember falling asleep with my skates on at the supper table. With 12 or 15 kids on each side, you had to learn how to stickhandle or be happy watching the others.”

for faster and flashier hockey: building a better, oilier skate

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Skateguard: King Clancy, circa 1953, strikes a pose in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room — with a plain old unimproved skate. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, R11224-2910-X-E, Walter Curtin, Liberty Magazine)

In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”

Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.

That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.

Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.

Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.

Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.

Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.

Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.

That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.

It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.

Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading