Tony Esposito was hesitant to take part in the Series of the Century


The challenge of being part of a team made up of the best players in the NHL, of facing a mysterious Soviet team, of playing four games in Canada and then four others in Moscow did not particularly motivate him.

READ ALSO : Memories of the Series of the Century: Yvan Cournoyer | Dryden looks back on the Series of the Century 50 years later

“Without my brother, we wouldn’t have won this series,” said Phil Esposito, who was arguably Canada’s best player and leader in this series.

The stats tend to back the former forward up, especially since the Canadiens narrowly won, 4-3-1.

Tony Esposito posted better stats than the other two goaltenders who saw action in the eight-game series, teammate Ken Dryden and Soviet Vladislav Tretiak.

Esposito won two games, lost one and earned a draw. His goals-against-average was 3.25 and his save percentage was .882. Dryden was 2-2 (4.75; .838, 19 goals against on 117 shots), while Tretiak was 3-4-1 (3.87; .882, 31 goals against). 267 shots).

At the age of 80, Phil Espostio is still mourning the death of his brother. The Chicago Blackhawks legend passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 10, 2021 at the age of 78.

« I still think a lot about Tony, » Esposito said this week. I miss chatting with him, debating about hockey.

« Right now, I wouldn’t let him go about the decisions his Blackhawks made, » he continued in a happier tone. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that he absolutely would not have wanted to participate in the celebrations of the anniversary of the Series of the Century. He hadn’t enjoyed the experience.

« I’ve spoken to him a few times over the years, before he got sick, about the birthday coming up, and he was like, ‘don’t include me in that. I said, « Tony, we have to organize something for some of the guys. » He retorted: « You know what Phil? I’ve already done what I had to do for some of the guys ». I didn’t bother him with that anymore.

“I don’t think Tony ever forgave me for forcing him to play. But if I was to play, it was certain that he had no choice. But what is certain is that without Tony, we would talk about Canada as the team that lost the series. »

10 years ago, 14 members of Team Canada were in Russia to celebrate, with the members of the Soviet team, the 40 years of the duel. Phil was in that group, but Tony wasn’t.

« I was invited this time, and I’ve been invited to other events in the past, » Tony said at the time. “Phil had been there in the past, and he is there now. They wanted me to go there too, to take part in activities, to visit the arenas, but there is no question of that. I’m not going to Russia. I don’t plan to go there anytime soon, probably never. »

The one who was nicknamed « Tony O » was going to keep his promise. The goalkeeper left Moscow with his teammates on September 29, 1972, and he never set foot there again.

Tretiak played all 480 minutes of the series for the Soviets. Esposito and Dryden split the work equally for Canada, with coach Harry Sinden picking his goalie based as much on instinct as on strategy. Dryden was automatically Game 1 and Game 4 in Canada, two losses, as well as Game 6 and Game 8 in Moscow, two wins. Esposito defended the net in Games 2 and 3 in Canada, a win and a draw, as well as in Games 5 and 7 in Moscow, a win and a loss.

Tapping into his memories, Esposito doesn’t feel like he felt much pleasure.

Both brothers were very happy while running a hockey school in their hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., when they received a call from Alan Eagleson, director of the NHL Players’ Association and co-host of the Century Series.

“At that time, Phil and I had no intention of participating in another hockey tournament,” Tony said in 2002. “We didn’t think it would be a major competition. But after talking to them, we realized that it would be quite important, and we let other people run our school so that we could leave in August and be training camp in Toronto. »

Phil Esposito was going to be one of four players to wear an « A » on his jersey (Frank Mahovlich, Stan Mikita and Jean Ratelle were the others), while Sinden and assistant coach John Ferguson chose not to name of captain. As the series progressed, however, it became increasingly clear to everyone that Phil was the true captain, the leader in his actions on the ice and in his words off it.

Both brothers were obvious choices to be part of the roster.

Phil had just won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 1971-72, claiming the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer. Tony, who won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as NHL Rookie of the Year, had just won the Vézina Trophy in 1971-72, which was then given to the goaltender, or goaltenders, whose team allowed the fewest goals in the regular season. He led the league with a 1.77 goals-against average, .934 save percentage (unofficial at the time) and nine shutouts.

“No matter how they were going to manage the net, it was okay for me,” Tony said of the possibility of sharing the work in this series with Dryden, who had just won the Calder Trophy with the Montreal Canadiens. , a season after lifting the Stanley Cup and winning the Conn-Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

“Kenny and I got along pretty well, and still do. He doesn’t tell me anything. You know how he always seems « cool » with everyone. It wasn’t like that with me.

“But the funny thing is Kenny didn’t want you to know anything. He always skirted the subject. »

Two Canadian scouts were sent to the Soviet Union, and according to their reports, the Soviets were not going to be strong. The fact that they only saw Tretiak play in one game, the day after his bachelor party when he played horribly, receiving only about two shots, doesn’t matter. didn’t help.

“We didn’t train like we should have,” admitted Tony of the camp, which was held Aug. 13-Sept. 1 in Toronto. “We didn’t know enough ahead of the Russians. The guys who spied on them told us it wouldn’t be a problem. »

A 7-3 loss in Game 1 at the Montreal Forum on September 2 quickly snuffed out that possibility.

Canada’s backup goalie that night took mental notes from the end of a bench where the players were in shock.

« What I noticed was that you couldn’t have an old-school style in front of the net – coming out of the semi-circle to cut shooting angles, » said Esposito, who has been a of the first to practice the butterfly style. “From this series, the concept of challenging the shooter changed drastically. »

In his book « Face-Off At The Summit » published in 1973, Dryden candidly detailed how Esposito’s butterfly style was more suited against the Soviets than his own standing style, which sought to cut corners and to challenge the shooters.

Esposito received Sinden’s confidence in the all-important Game 2, a 4-1 win in Toronto, and again in Game 3, a 4-4 draw in Winnipeg. Dryden came back in goal for Game 4 in Vancouver, a 5-3 loss, which moved the series to Moscow with the Soviets up 2-1-1.

Esposito was in goal for Game 5, which was to see a monumental collapse. Canada led 4-1 after nine minutes in the third period, but the Soviets scored four straight goals at even strength to win 5-4. Canada now needed to win the next two games, just to force Game 8, which would then serve as the ultimate game.

Dryden won 3-2 in Game 6, then Esposito delivered his best performance of the series, stopping 28 shots to help Canada win 4-3 in Game 7. Esposito didn’t is not shaken by a shot received in the neck during this game.

« The pressure was huge on us, » he said, noting that the two teams were tied 2-2 after two periods in Game 7. « I’m proud to have put our team in a position to win the game. »

Dryden held off the Soviets and Canada won a frenzied Game 8 by a score of 6-5. After the celebrations, what Esposito remembers best, as does his brother, is the joy he felt when he returned home, “to where everything was normal”.

“Everything was gray or beige in Russia. There were no colors – all the cars were neutral. It was a very repressive society. You had no right to express yourself. »

If there are places and landscapes that were worth seeing as he traveled by bus or walked through historic Moscow, Esposito did not take the time to look at them, as if he wore blinders, he who was only concentrating on his game. He was almost counting the days that separated him from his flight home. He said it took him a while to come to his senses at the start of the 1972-73 NHL season with the Blackhawks, when he won just three of his first 10 games.

A three-time Vezina Trophy winner, Esposito was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, four years after Phil. His 15 shutouts in his rookie season with Chicago still stands as a modern-day league record.

Esposito’s passing last year added to a sad, sadly long list of players who competed in the 1972 Series of the Century and have passed away. He joins the late Canadian forwards Rod Gilbert, Stan Mikita, Bill Goldsworthy, JP Parise and Richard Martin as well as defensemen Gary Bergman, Pat Stapleton, Bill White and Brian Glennie, as well as assistant coach John Ferguson.

Among the imposing Soviet delegation, 21 members also died, including coach Vsevolod Bobrov, assistant coach Boris Kulagin, attackers Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov and Vladimir Shadrin as well as defenders Valeri Vasiliev, Alexander Gusev and Alexander Ragulin.

10 years ago, Tony Esposito looked back on the Series of the Century, seeing its importance if not celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“The Canadiens were the ultimate force in hockey, we knew that. And we have been tested. Maybe we weren’t so supreme, people thought to themselves as the show went on. Everyone had their doubts.

“But I think we won because of how we were brought up. Of the kind of people we are – we don’t give up. When the going gets tough, we fight even harder. I think that was the difference between the two companies at the time. »

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