Former NHL goaltender Tony Esposito died on Aug. 10, 2021. The Hall of Famer was a hero of cartoonist and Watertown-native James DeMarco, who wrote the following piece.
by James DeMarco
When I heard the news I just stopped in my tracks. I knew what I heard, yet I was hoping I was mistaken. I just sort of sat down and stared straight ahead.
Tony Esposito was my goaltending idol. He was a huge part of my childhood. Pictures of him making the “inverted Y”, or butterfly style as it’s now called, hung in my room. When he was on TV, I was glued. When my grandfather bought me my very first hockey jersey, a red Blackhawks shirt with the number 35 on the back, I was beyond elated! I became Tony Esposito! When his games were televised, I made sure I put that jersey on—along with all my goalie gear. With my plastic mask, I’d stand in front of the TV. There, I’d mimic him as the national anthem played. Tucking my mask into my pads, I’d rock back and forth, chewing on imaginary gum.
As I grew older, I came to adopt his style. While I wished I had his skills and talent, watching him was how I learned to stop pucks.
As a young adult, I had the honor of meeting him at a signing. I had drawn a collage of all the greatest netminders—of which he was one of. I had it framed and was quite proud of it. When he saw it, he was so happy, asking if I wanted him to sign the artwork for me. My reply was that it was for him. My “thank you” for inspiring the goaltender in me to come forth and play. He stopped the signing, held it up, and said, “He gave this to me!” He then told me he was going to hang it on his office wall. He made my year!
Years later in an interview, they took a photo of him in his office… and once again I turned into a child as I spied the drawing in the corner!
While I only met him once, I feel like he spent part of my life with me. When I started drawing Small Saves, it dawned on me that if I had never seen “Tony-O” playing on TV, I may never have become a goalie… and there would be no Small Saves. So, I’d always say with a smile that Tony Esposito was kind of like Small Saves’ grandfather.
Seems like just yesterday I was a youngster, blinking my eyes for the first time in astonishment at this phenomenal goaltender. And now, I blink again, staring at the date of his passing. The world becomes so quiet when it loses what helped make it great. But then, out of the silence, an outpouring of all who he inspired come forth. Goaltenders, as far as the eyes can see, gather as one and look up to the heavens. Once more, Tony-O has moved us all.
Somewhere out there, a newspaper or TV broadcast will dedicate a page or a segment about the passing of a legend. At that very moment, there will be a young child looking on, eyes fixed on this masked guardian. Their eyes will widen, mouths open in astonishment—drawn to the fascination of him and all he represented. In that very instance, Tony-O’s magic continues … Once more, another goalie is born.