Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re rating 100 gamers however calling it 99 as a result of everyone knows who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we’ve got to determine. Every Monday by means of Saturday till February we’ll unveil new members of the record.

Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito is healthier often known as Tony O, with a capital “O” as a result of it resembles a zero.

That’s what the scoreboard usually learn for the opposition after a sport towards the NHL’s shutout king.

In Esposito’s rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70, he set the modern-era file with 15 shutouts, a file that also stands 52 years later.

Shutout is a particular phrase amongst goalies. Many gained’t dare converse it within the midst of 1. It’s perfection, pursued by anybody who’s ever stood within the crease, and nobody has ever performed it extra occasions than Esposito did in his first yr.

The quantity is sort of unfathomable. It was almost thrice the full of the next-closest goalie that season (Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Giacomin, with six). Many greats have gone their whole careers by no means reaching double-digit shutouts in a single season. It’s much more spectacular contemplating that Esposito performed solely 63 video games that season. That’s one shutout for each 4.2 video games.

He did it with a mode of goaltending that was uncommon on the time, leaving shooters bewildered as he dropped to his knees to show their finest pictures away with ease.

Esposito didn’t invent the butterfly method however was one in all its earliest pioneers. He grew up in an period by which goalies modeled their sport after the nice Jacques Plante’s stand-up fashion, however Esposito was an innovator. He watched revolutionaries Glenn Hall and Roger Crozier intently, tailored their butterfly kinds along with his distinctive athleticism, and took the league by storm. It ceaselessly modified the best way the place was performed.

“In my day, when you shot the puck low on the goalie’s stick side, you’d score,” mentioned Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Savard, who performed 4 seasons in Chicago with Esposito. “The goalies never went down. They’d just come out to take the angle away. In our day, that was the shot. If you could shoot low, stick side on the goalie, just a couple inches off the post, you were pretty much guaranteed a goal. With Tony, that was a routine save for him.”

How crushing it should’ve been to a shooter’s confidence to position a shot completely solely to look at Esposito nonchalantly kick the puck apart along with his leather-based pads.

“He was a smart goalie,” Savard mentioned. “He was a great teammate, a great man and he was unbelievable.”

The first shutout of Esposito’s legendary rookie season got here on Oct. 25, 1969, towards the workforce he started his NHL profession with — the Montreal Canadiens. He performed 13 video games for the Canadiens the season prior whereas two goalies have been out as a result of harm, however was ultimately claimed off waivers (identified on the time because the intra-league draft) by Chicago the next summer time.

Chicago was coming off a last-place end within the Eastern Division in 1968-69. The Blackhawks had loads of scoring punch, led by Hall of Famers Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, however commonly completed close to the underside of the league in protection and objectives allowed.

After two straight losses to open the season, the Blackhawks traveled to Montreal to tackle the defending Stanley Cup champions. Esposito shut out the Canadiens, stopping all 30 pictures he confronted. It was the beginning of what can be probably the greatest seasons by any goalie in league historical past.

“​​I don’t like the stand-up style myself because I feel you get caught out of position too much,” Esposito wrote in a ebook he co-authored in 1972 titled, “We Can Teach You to Play Hockey.”

“(In the stand-up style), instead of backing into the goal, you’re moving out of the net as the shooters approach. When you move out and they make a pass across the net, I feel you give the pass receiver an open net to shoot at.”

In the early Seventies, dropping to the ice was strongly discouraged by many coaches. Not solely was it seen as poor kind, it was extremely harmful. Goalies had restricted padding on their chest on the time, and nearly none on their arms.

“There weren’t many guys that defied the strictures of Jacques Plante’s stand-up style, and dared to be hit in the chest and head because the gear just wasn’t there,” mentioned former NHL and Team Canada Olympic goalie Darren Eliot, whose profession spanned the Seventies and ’80s. “That dictated a lot of the ways we played. You charged out. You tried to take the vertical angle away. You tried to get it on your pads before the puck got up high. As you’re charging out, what did shooters do? They shot low, because it’s hard to move your feet when you’re not set.”

Esposito sprawled into the butterfly, flaring his legs out vast to remove the underside of the online and forcing shooters to seek out different methods to attain. Hockey sticks of that period weren’t designed to shoot excessive. They didn’t have the dramatic curves usually seen on the blades of immediately’s sticks. Perhaps extra importantly, gamers didn’t develop up studying to focus on the highest corners of the online — and Esposito took benefit.

“I don’t remember anybody else playing that way,” Savard mentioned. “Today, you watch all of the kids play and they all shoot up high. They’re taught from a very young age to shoot top corner because the goalies play that style.”

Esposito posted shutouts on back-to-back nights on three separate events that season. As the tip of the common season neared, and with the Blackhawks battling with the Bruins for the highest spot within the division, Esposito elevated his play. From March 22-29, he led Chicago to a 3-0-1 file with three shutouts in 4 video games, stopping 109 of the 110 pictures he confronted.

Of the 15 clear sheets Esposito posted in 1969-70, the 2 towards the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins have been in all probability most spectacular. In enjoying Boston, Esposito wasn’t simply going through the highest-scoring offense within the NHL. He was going through his older brother — and Hall of Famer — Phil Esposito, who additionally occurred to steer the league in objectives that season.

The season earlier than, whereas enjoying for Montreal, Tony Esposito gave up two objectives to his older brother in a loss to the Bruins. Going again additional than that, Phil Esposito wrote within the ebook, “The Brothers Esposito,” that the explanation his youthful brother performed goalie within the first place was the 2 would usually compete towards one another, and whoever scored fewer objectives must play goalie. According to Phil, Tony at all times misplaced.

It labored out for Tony in the long run. On Jan. 17, 1970, he stopped all 36 pictures he confronted — together with 4 from his older brother — to steer Chicago to a 1-0 win over the Bruins. He’d shut the Bruins out once more two months later in a 0-0 tie on March 11.

“When I was younger, I was a stand-up goaltender,” Tony Esposito wrote in his ebook. “I feel I could still play that way, but I think I’m more effective playing my up-and-down style. I call this aggressive goaltending. You attack the puck.”

Esposito’s attacking fashion was efficient however it didn’t come with out its dangers and required braveness with the shortage of protecting tools.

“Some of it was self-survival, the stand-up style,” mentioned Wayne Thomas, who performed purpose within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s for the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Rangers earlier than retiring and turning into one of many first-ever goalie coaches, and ultimately an govt with the San Jose Sharks.

“I can remember my first year in the pros in the minors, where guys could really shoot but didn’t know where it was going. I couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders because I had so much bruising. My lymphatic system was so full of blood, trying to remove all this bruising, that I couldn’t lift my arms.”

Esposito was as modern along with his tools as he was making saves. Perhaps most recognizable to followers have been the steel bars he had fixed to his white masks so as to add extra safety after a shot nicked his eye early in his profession.

Tony Esposito’s well-known masks. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

The steel bars that framed his masks — mangled by pucks, sticks, and Esposito’s pliers that he’d usually use to make his personal changes — have been his most seen tools innovation, however they weren’t essentially the most impactful. Esposito is believed to have invented what’s sometimes called a “cheater” on the catching glove with a do-it-yourself creation of tape and plastic.

At that point, most goalies wore the Cooper GM 21 mannequin glove, which wasn’t far more than a baseball mitt with a small collar across the wrist.

“You’d get hit in the wrist a lot and it would hurt,” Thomas recalled. “Especially (Esposito), because he was blocking a little bit more than just catching. He, and others, started taping pieces of sponge fiber on top to protect it. Self-made cheaters.”

Esposito didn’t cease there. Because there have been no outlined guidelines on how huge the tools could possibly be, he taped a big piece of plastic to his wrist space. It really regarded much like modern-day catching gloves with the prolonged blocking space that protrudes over the wrist.

“He added protection, and he was smart enough to make not just protection but also blockage,” Thomas recalled. “He used to have a huge piece of plastic taped on that glove that made it twice as big. Plus, who knows what he had under the sweater, but no one really checked or thought about it.”

“I never saw it, but I’ve heard the story quite a few times that he put netting between his pants so you thought you’d scored but the puck would get caught in the netting,” Savard mentioned with a chuckle. “He got caught, supposedly, in the All-Star Game.”

Esposito did something and every part he may to maintain the puck out of the online. His aggressive fireplace and innovation outlined his Hall of Fame profession. Esposito was forward-thinking and forward of his time in some ways. Not solely in his method and tools concepts, but in addition in the best way approached the sport mentally.

Jacques Caron’s enjoying profession spanned 1959–74, however he’s most well-known for the goalie teaching he did afterward. He coached Devils legend Martin Brodeur all through his whole profession. Caron knew Esposito properly, and remembers a selected dialog between the 2 in a bar within the ’70s.

“I told Tony, ‘I don’t understand how you stop all of those pucks. I really don’t,’” Caron recalled. “’You don’t have a style I can copy, or teach somebody else, because it’s your own.’

“He told me, ‘It’s my secret.’”

After a number of extra beers, Caron informed Esposito he aspired to be a goalie coach, and needed any recommendation he may move on to his future pupils. Caron mentioned ultimately Esposito cracked.

“‘It’s my preparation,’” Caron recalled Esposito telling him. “’They call it the five-minute segment. I look at the clock and I say to myself, they’re not going to score in the first five minutes. I feel it, I know it in my mind, and I see the puck better because I believe it. You do this the whole game. The game will become shorter and you’ll challenge yourself.’”


Tony Esposito in 2017. (Chase Agnello-Dean / NHLI by way of Getty Images)

Caron handed that lesson onto a younger Brodeur, and whereas Brodeur by no means broke Esposito’s single-season shutout file, he did put up essentially the most shutouts in NHL historical past over his profession, with 125.

In immediately’s sport, excessive preparation and focus previous to video games are the requirements within the NHL. Most goalies don’t carry out interviews on sport days, and infrequently want to be left alone by teammates as they sharpen their focus main as much as puck drop. Esposito had an analogous routine.

“I remember during my rookie year, seeing Tony lay all of his equipment out in front of him at his locker stall,” Savard recalled. “I was walking through the room and I kind of jumped over his equipment and somebody yelled at me. The guys were telling me you can’t do that. You have to go around it. Don’t even think about jumping over his equipment.

“That was his space. On game day there was no talking. No dialogue at all. He was getting ready. That was one thing that impressed me the most was his preparation.”

Esposito believed strongly in visualization and constructive ideas, not solely to assist his personal sport however his teammates as properly. Savard recalled one in all his favourite tales from his time enjoying with Esposito, within the fall of 1983.

“We were on the road in St. Louis,” Savard mentioned. “I’m going through a little slump, and really having a tough time. I’m not finding the net and not making things happen. At the time we all flew commercial, and as we landed Tony said ‘Hey, Denis, when we check in drop your bag and you’re coming with me. We’ll go for a beer and talk about life, and everything else.’”

Savard was solely 22 on the time, coming off a 121-point season the place he torched the NHL however had but to attain that yr.

“I went with him for a beer and we talked about what was going on in my head,” Savard recalled. “I told him I feel bad because I’m not playing well, and I went on and on. He told me I need to relax. This isn’t a sprint, this is a marathon. I remember those words. We take it one shift at a time, one period at a time and one game at a time. He told me, ‘You’ll break through this. You’re too good not to,’ and kind of built me up.”

Over the subsequent three video games, Savard scored seven factors, together with the primary hat trick of his profession Oct. 15 in Toronto.

“He was a pretty good talker,” Savard mentioned. “He just pumped me up. He was one of those teammates that I was lucky to have.”

In 1969-70, Esposito led the NHL in wins (38) and save proportion (.932). His unimaginable 39.62 objectives saved above common paced the league, with Bernie Parent’s 19.05 a really distant second. Esposito’s heroics earned him an All-Star choice, the Calder Trophy, the Vezina Trophy and he completed second in Hart Trophy voting to Bobby Orr.

It was some of the spectacular seasons by a goalie in league historical past, and probably the greatest by a rookie no matter place.

Esposito did it his means. A number of it labored so properly it will definitely grew to become the means.

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(Top picture: Steve Babineau / Getty Images)

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