Legends: Esposito always rose to occasion at every level

Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Michigan Tech goaltender Tony Esposito celebrated after his team won the 1965 NCAA title.

HOUGHTON — He was one of those rare hockey players who always seemed to rise to the occasion.

Such was the career of Tony Esposito, who starred at Michigan Tech in the middle 1960s and was later inducted into the National Hockey League Hall of Fame.

Former MTU teammate Rick Yeo said that Esposito already had a certain aura about him when he arrived in Houghton in the fall of 1963.

“Tony didn’t lack any self-confidence,” said Yeo, an All-American forward for the Huskies. “He knew he was good.”

Ironically enough, Esposito had to share netminding duties at Tech with teammate Rick Best.

Both goalies were good enough to earn All-American honors while at Tech. Esposito had a career goals against average of 2.55, while Best posted a 2.88 mark.

But the decision to alternate netminders was that of legendary Huskies coach John MacInnes, according to MTU defenseman Bruce Riutta.

“Tony wasn’t happy with it, but like all of us, he had great respect for John,” the late Riutta said in an interview in 2001.

“It worked out pretty well. They were different kinds of goaltender, Tony used a butterfly style, Rick was a standup-type. But both of them were very good.”

The Huskies captured the NCAA championship in 1965, defeating Brown, 4-0, and Boston College, 8-2, at Providence, R.I.

Esposito played in the title game, stopping 25 shots.

Tech had a strong team that season, led by Yeo, Riutta, Wayne Weller and Gary Milroy.

Tech was even better the following season, posting a 23-6-1 mark and capturing the WCHA title.

But a peculiar decision by the NCAA had them going to Michigan State for the tournament opener.

MSU scored a 4-3 upset as Hancock native Mike Coppo starred for the Spartans.

“I always believed that was our best team,” Yeo said. “But the NCAA pulled off some strange things with the draw.”

Esposito was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens after college, but never advanced past a third goalie status with the Habs, who were grooming a goaltender by the name of Ken Dryden.

He was picked up off the waiver list by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969 and had a spectacular season as a rookie.

He recorded 15 shutouts and had a 2.17 GAA to earn Rookie of the Year honors. That gained him the Vezina Cup and Calder Cup.

That was followed by a brilliant 15-year NHL career in which he built the foundation to be named to the Hall of Fame in 1988.

He was also picked to the Team Canada roster for the 1972 series against the USSR. He recorded the first win versus the Russians in that epic series.

Growing up in Sault. Ste. Marie, Ontario, Tony and older brother Phil were standouts from a young age.

Phil, a prolific scorer, starred for the Boston Bruins for many seasons and was also a Hall of Fame pick.

The two brothers were honored by the Blackhawks at the United Center just this week in a “One Last Shift” ceremony.

It was just the icing on the cake for Tony, who carted away many honors in his long career.

That includes the MTU Sports Hall of Fame and the Upper Peninsula Hall of Fame.