As one half of perhaps the most colorful brother act in NHL history, Tony "0" revolutionized goaltending in the NHL with his legs-open "butterfly" style and his spectacular flop-on-the-ice saves during the 16 years he spent in the league, all except one with the Chicago Black Hawks.
As the younger brother of scoring star Phil, Tony had something to prove when he entered the league in 1968. After a collegiate career with the Michigan Tech Huskies and the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League, he spent time with Houston of the Central Hockey League. His first partial year with Montreal was unspectacular - the Canadiens had Gump Worsley and Rogie Vachon ahead of him - but after being traded to Chicago, he was impressive in his first full season, recording a Calder and Vezina Trophy-winning year in 1969-70 with a 2.17 goals-against average and a modern-era record of 15 shutouts.
Fans of the game were quick to point out that the Hawks under coach Billy Reay were a defensive-minded squad and that at 5'11" and 190 pounds, Esposito was a stocky, very mature 26-year-old rookie. But more important, he was fast gaining a reputation as having the quickest glove hand in the game and an unorthodox style that was confounding but nevertheless extremely effective. The Vezina win in his first year made him the first rookie to win the trophy since Frank Brimsek in 1939.
Even so, Tony was good enough between the pipes to win a scholarship to Michigan Tech, graduating in three years with a business degree and attaining all-American status each year. As a pro, he quickly gained a reputation as an emotional, vocal goalie who would yell regularly at his defensemen and stay well back in his crease except when he came out to poke-check skaters. He added to his rookie Vezina win by sharing the trophy with Gary Smith in 1972 and tying Bernie Parent in 1974. In his career, he totaled 76 regular-season shutouts.
Incredibly, the Black Hawks never failed to make the playoffs while Esposito was on the team. Internationally, he was a standout as well. In 1972 he shared the goaltending role with Ken Dryden on Team Canada in the Summit Series. And in 1981 he tended goal during the Canada Cup, but this time for Team USA, his country of residence.
Later in his career, Esposito began to gain a reputation as one of the grand old men of the NHL. But it wasn't always easy. By the early 1980s, he'd become dissatisfied with the way his teammates were performing in Chicago. But by 1982, with Tony's help, the Hawks turned their game around again. As the oldest player in the league, Tony started to play like he was a decade younger in the 1982 playoffs, with a goals-against average under 2.00.
By 1983-84, Tony was the oldest player in the league and the only one over 40 years of age. Observers started to notice that while he was once the type of player who insisted on playing every minute of every game, he wisely realized that, at his age, he had to pick his spots and he happily shared the goalie's duties with backup Murray Bannerman.
But it was eventually time for Tony "0" to hang up the big pads and he was released by the Hawks in 1984. He wasn't long out of the pro game, though, before the Pittsburgh Penguins made him director of hockey operations.
After his time in Pittsburgh, Tony joined brother Phil in the front office of the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988. But he will be best remembered as one of the true pioneers among netminders in the NHL.