Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mr. Zero remains my favorite Blackhawk

Somewhere buried in a box stacked in a downstairs closet, a cardboard tribute to my ex-idol sits untouched for years. It's a Tony Esposito hockey card, a ragged-edged memento of my youth.

I always wanted to be a goalie. But not just any goalie – I wanted to be Tony Esposito. Thanks to that card, which I got when I was around 5 or 6, I noticed he held his goalie stick in the same hand I did – the left.

That was pretty uncommon then. So uncommon the community rink I played for in the late '70s (Woodland) didn’t even have a left-handed blocker pad. So I had to use a regular hockey glove to hold my stick. The catcher glove for my right was this mangled piece of leather that could barely be opened and closed. Thankfully, I played for a great team and wasn’t called upon to make many saves. But man, would my feet get cold standing back in the crease for what seemed like hours at a time.

I watched Espo on TV and saw how he would scrape the snow from his crease and pile it up on the sides of the net, creating a nice inhibitor to the wraparound. I would do the same thing, sometimes piling it so high a puck would get lost in it on those rare times the puck came that close to my net.

I carried Espo’s hockey card around with me all the time. The bottom became pretty tattered because I used it to play marble hockey on the upstairs hallway floor of my parents’ house. All my hockey cards bear the marks of those games, but especially Espo’s, which also had a piece of Scotch tape holding it together after it got torn in half.

Esposito played for the Chicago Blackhawks, a team I came to despise as I got older. Living in northern Minnesota, we were all North Stars fans. And the Blackhawks were our No. 1 rival, at least in the late '70s and '80s.

It was a classic rivalry, highlighted by the battles between Dino Ciccarrelli and Al Secord. So hated was Secord that North Stars fans still cheered “Secord sucks” when the Hawks were in town long after he retired. I've posted YouTube videos of the bench-clearing brawls that punctuated the teams' meetings.

Tonight the Blackhawks are honoring Esposito, as they have with many of their former superstars in the past couple of seasons. I've converted to the Dark Side by cheering for the Hawks now, but I turned away when Bob Probert, Denis Savard and Steve Larmer were given their Heritage Night honors.

It's different with Esposito, even though he played on some of those teams I hated. When he was toward the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career we used to heckle him through the TV. He had a habit of going down for a puck and then just staying on the ice. We laughed and said he was too old to get back up to his feet, or that the Chicago Stadium needed to install a crane to help him.

But I always had a hard time getting into the jeering. I wanted to fit in with my older brothers and their friends, so I pretended I also hated Esposito. Yet, deep down he remained one of my all-time favorite goalies, second only to Cesare Maniago of the North Stars.

So later today I will go digging for my old Espo playing card, the one with a 35-year-old piece of Scotch tape holding it together.* I will scour the Internet looking for articles about Esposito like this one from ex-Tribune writer Bob Verdi.

And I will watch on TV as the Hawks honor the goalie I emulated above all others. Maybe I'll even pile snow on either side of my recliner, you know, just to capture the spirit of the thing.

* -- UPDATE: I found the card, and it turns out I was confused. My Ken Dryden card from the same year is the taped-up one. The Esposito one is in one piece, though the edges are pretty ragged.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, you just provided me with a wonderful tour down Norris Division memory lane w/ your recollections of Tony O and Cesare Maniago (I always thought of Maniago first when I thought of the North Stars and have his hockey card...not tattered, I don't believe. :) I idolized goalies, too, growing up). I always wanted to be the goalie when we played floor hockey in junior and senior high during gym.
    I also remember those wonderful Secord/Ciccarelli battles, some during Hawks/North Stars playoff games.
    Back to Esposito...on my most recent birthday, my son and wife gave me a cherished gift...an old-school Chicago Blackhawks jersey with Espo's name and number on the back. If it's a cold night for walking the dog out here in Reno, the hooded jersey is perfect for keeping warm and stirring memories of Chicago Stadium as I walk. Hope to someday have the pleasure of wearing it at a Hawks game.

    As an aside, thought you might get a kick out of this story about the Hawks' official nickname (found it on Wikipedia):

    "In 1986, while going through the team's records, someone discovered the team's original NHL contract, and found that the name "Blackhawks" was printed as a compound word as opposed to two separate words ("Black Hawks") which was the way most sources had been printing it for 60 years and as the team had always officially listed it. The name officially became "Chicago Blackhawks" from that point on."

    Thanks again for your well-written recollection.