The WCHA is celebrating seven decades of college hockey excellence the same year Michigan Tech is celebrating 100 years of hockey, creating a Venn diagram commonality located between pipes of red iron: the goal crease.
The league has just rolled out its “All-1960s Team” led by Michigan Tech superstar goalie Tony Esposito. His prowess in the NHL, primarily with the Chicago Blackhawks, earned him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but you could argue that his tenure in Houghton was just as stellar. The fact that he was an All-American in each of his three seasons at Tech barely scratches the surface. In his first year of college hockey, Esposito led the Huskies to the 1965 national championship and was named to the NCAA’s All-Tournament team.
Esposito finished his college hockey career as the only WCHA goalie to win three league goaltending crowns, and he was anointed the league’s all-time best goalie by The Hockey News in 1997. The “Goofy” goalie (catching glove on his right hand) from the Canadian Soo left a legacy nearly impossible to replicate.
Two years after leaving the college ranks, Esposito had the best rookie season in the annals of the NHL goaltending. In 1969-70, Tony was the NHL’s best goaltender — by far. The Chicago Black Hawks (known today as the Blackhawks) rode Esposito’s hot hand to first place overall thanks to his 38 wins and minuscule 2.17 save percentage. He won both the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie and the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie. His astounding 15 shutouts earned him the moniker “Tony O,” a nickname that would stick to him for all time.
Helping Tony O defend the Hawks crease for 11 seasons was rugged defenseman Keith Magnuson, a University of Denver product who was also on the WCHA’s All-1960s Team. Magnuson and Esposito powered the Black Hawks to the cusp of Stanley Cup immortality, twice getting to the Finals, but neither got their fingers on the Holy Grail.
Magnuson was a rock for the Denver defense
Two of the WCHA’s legends of the 1960s, Esposito and Magnuson, became sporting royalty in Chicago in the 1970s.
“Growing up in Chicago after the great years my Dad and Tony spent together, the old Chicago Stadium was the place to be for Chicago sports,” said Keith’s son, Kevin Magnuson, who learned secondhand about the Hawks’ glory days, playoff runs that took place before he was born.
“The fact that former WCHA standouts were so vital to the team’s success made it even more special.”
Although neither Esposito nor Magnuson ever got to hoist Lord Stanley, they both took solace from having won NCAA titles, Magnuson gaining his after leading the Pioneers to the 1968 national championship. These two WCHA stars of the 1960s were trailblazers, proving that NCAA players could not only play in the NHL, but thrive in the world’s greatest league.
Tim Rappleye is the author of two books: Jack Parker's Wiseguys and Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review. You can find him on Twitter.