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Phil Esposito recalls 1972 Summit Series, lifting Canada to historic win

Bruins forward had four points in decisive game, 13 points in series

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Phil Esposito deserved a better souvenir of the landmark 1972 Summit Series, a historic eight-game tournament played 50 years ago this month between Team Canada and a squad of Soviet all-stars.

A half-century ago, his broken nose didn't even merit a mention.

"I was just looking forward to going home, relieved that it was over," Esposito said with a sigh, his team of NHL stars having prevailed 4-3-1 over the Russians with a dramatic last-minute Game 8 win in Moscow on Sept. 28, 1972.

"And then I remembered, 'Oh [fudge], we've got to go to Prague for Stan.'"

Indeed, a Sept. 30 exhibition game against the defending world champions had weeks earlier been organized in tribute to Czechoslovakia-born Stan Mikita, the Chicago Black Hawks icon who had skated in two games for Team Canada.

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It was planned to be a gentle farewell to Europe after Canada had completed its eight-game sweep of a sorry, rag-tag bunch of overmatched Russians.

Reality, of course, had other ideas.

"Here's what I remember about Prague," Esposito said during a recent conversation from his home in Tampa, Florida, reflecting on this month's half-century anniversary of the Summit Series. "We tied 3-3 on Serge Savard's goal with four seconds to play and I traded my sweater with (Czech Vaclav) Nedomansky.

"And I had my nose broken by a high stick."

Esposito had indisputably been Canada's best player and its inspirational leader through eight games against the Russians, the country's de facto captain even if no one wore the "C."

Phil Esposito today and in 1972. Courtesy CBC, from 2022 documentary "Summit 72"

 

He rallied and bonded his shell-shocked team, galvanizing it between Game 4 in Vancouver and Game 5 in Moscow during two games against Sweden in Stockholm.

The 30-year-old star center of the Boston Bruins skated perhaps the greatest single period by any player in the final 20 minutes in Russia, a physical, psychological, creative and even selfish masterpiece.

In sudden-death Game 8, Esposito literally willed Canada to a 6-5 victory from a two-goal third-period deficit because "there was no way I was going to lose. I was not going to let us lose. I was not going to let Canada be beaten by communism.

"I don't think about that as maybe being the greatest period of hockey by a player," he said. "I just knew one thing: we couldn't lose. I wouldn't come off the ice at the end. I'm sorry I stayed on so long. Two other guys (centers Bobby Clarke and Jean Ratelle) were supposed to jump on and if they're angry, I'm sorry. But I just trusted myself, that's the way it was. If they're angry with me, they can be that way until the end of their lives. But the bottom line is, we won."

From left: Vladislav Tretiak and Wayne Cashman watch Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov, Phil Esposito and Viktor Kuzkin battle during Game 2 of the Summit Series on Sept. 4, 1972, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Graphic Artists/Hockey Hall of Fame

 

It was the climax of Esposito's brilliant, dominant Summit Series. Forward Paul Henderson incredibly scored three consecutive game-winners, but it was Esposito who threw Canada on his broad shoulders as the team's most important player.

He was the strongest, most emotional voice as an entire country rained abuse on players who didn't so much underachieve in their four games in Canada as they were caught flat-footed by a skillful, superbly prepared Russian side, having bought into predictions of Team Canada scouts and the country's media that the series would be a rout.

Esposito's assist on Henderson's series clincher was his 13th point (seven goals, six assists). His tournament-leading 52 shots, his last fatefully kicked out by Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak to produce the game-winning goal, were almost double Henderson's second-ranked 28. Esposito's 89 shots at Tretiak by far exceeded Henderson's 38.

The 1984 Hall of Famer's shots on and at the Russian goal were miles ahead of the best Soviet, Alexander Maltsev, who had 32 shots, without a goal, and 57 at the net.

Phil Esposito argues with an official during a 1972 Summit Series game in Moscow with teammate Brad Park and Russia's Alexander Ragulin looking on. Melchior DiGiacomo, Getty Images

 

And Esposito was the only player on either team with a four-point game, which came in Game 8; he scored Canada's first goal in the first period, then scored again at 2:27 of the third period to pull his team to within one, at 5-4. Assists followed on Yvan Cournoyer's equalizer at 12:56, then Henderson's winner with 34 seconds left to play, making Esposito the only Summit Series player with a three-point period.

Today, at 80, he still remembers the busted beak with which he boarded Team Canada's chartered DC-8 jet in Prague, bound for London, then Montreal and finally Toronto.

"I guarantee you, if we'd lost that series, they wouldn't have sent a Piper Cub to fly us home," Esposito said, and he even might have been joking. "I have no proof of it, but that's how I feel."

Phil Esposito shrugs off the check of Russia's Vladimir Petrov. Melchior DiGiacomo, Getty Images

 

Like every one of his teammates, and virtually his entire country, Esposito figured he'd been plucked from his summer to pull on a red-and-white sweater for what was going to be a pleasant exhibition series.

"It was going to be like the way the NHL All-Star Game is played now, but not as competitive," he said, laughing.

No one thought this series would instantly be thrown onto a toxic political stage, capitalism versus socialism, a player named "Ideology" suiting up on both sides. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev might as well have laced up skates.

In mid-session in August, Esposito reluctantly shut down the hockey school he was running in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, with his late brother, Tony, the goalie who would play a huge role in Canada's ultimate Summit Series victory.

Phil Esposito shakes hands with Canada's prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, after a ceremonial Game 1 face-off at the Montreal Forum on Sept. 2, 1972. Graphic Artists/Hockey Hall of Fame

 

The Espositos had rebuffed the come-play requests of Alan Eagleson, then head of the NHL Players' Association, a player agent and a Summit Series co-organizer, and Team Canada coach Harry Sinden, Esposito's coach with the 1970 Stanley Cup-champion Bruins who in October 1972 would become his general manager. Finally, the brothers relented.

"We had to give all the money back to our campers for the last three weeks and we never got it back," Esposito said. "We agreed to play for our country, but absolutely never at the start did we think this series would be about politics."

At training camp in Toronto, the 1971 and 1972 Art Ross Trophy winner as the leading point scorer in the NHL -- who also would go on to win it in 1973 and 1974 -- enjoyed becoming friendly with his League rivals, especially with Montreal Canadiens enemies who now were his teammates.

Phil Esposito and his younger brother, Tony (left), share a word during Game 2 of the Summit Series at Maple Leaf Gardens on Sept. 2, 1972. Graphic Artists/Hockey Hall of Fame

 

"(Forward) Yvan Cournoyer, I think the world of him to this day," Esposito said. "(Defenseman) Guy Lapointe, a great guy. (Defenseman) Serge Savard wanted to win no matter what. I can see why the Canadiens won a lot of Cups.

"And 'Clarkie' (Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke) … I'd have him on my team anytime, anyplace, anywhere."

Twenty years ago, Henderson was publicly scornful of Clarke's Game 6 ankle-fracturing slash of Russian forward Valeri Kharlamov.

By then, the Soviets were giving as good as they got in a poorly officiated series that at times was being played well outside the rules. Perhaps in retaliation for Clarke's slash (Kharlamov missed Game 7 but returned for Game 8), forward Boris Mikhailov bloodied Canadian defenseman Gary Bergman in Game 7, twice kicking him in the leg.

Phil Esposito breaks the tension in Moscow before Game 5 on Sept. 22, 1972, having slipped on the stem of a flower during pregame introductions. Melchior DiGiacomo, Getty Images

 

"You know what I've said," Esposito said of the Clarke slash. "I wish Clarkie had done that in the first game (Canada lost 7-3). Paul Henderson has made a very good living out of this for 50 years and God bless him. If I was living in Canada, I'd have milked it until the cows came home, the way Mike Eruzione has with the goal he scored in 1980 (to propel the United States toward its 'Miracle on Ice' Lake Placid Olympic gold medal).

"The truth is, after Game 4 (a 5-3 loss in Vancouver leaving Canada in a 1-2-1 hole), my dad had a rock thrown through his window in [Sault Ste. Marie]. People were yelling at Tony and me that we were traitors. I mean, can you imagine had we lost?"

Esposito considered Ken Dryden, who was in goal on his Montreal Forum home ice for the stunning Game 1 loss, then again for the nationally demoralizing, nearly backbreaking Game 4 defeat in Vancouver.

"If we'd lost the series," he said, Dryden in goal for Game 6 and 8 victories, "Kenny would have been hated. He would have been ridiculed to this day."

Phil Esposito was indisputably Canada's best player in the 1972 Summit Series, its heart and soul during the eight-game tournament against the Russians. Melchior DiGiacomo, Getty Images

 

The series result wouldn't have been as close, Esposito insists, had this truly been Team Canada, and not in fact Team NHL. Players had to be under NHL contracts to be considered for the roster, thus excluding forward Bobby Hull, who had just signed with the Winnipeg Jets in the fledgling World Hockey Association, and goalie Gerry Cheevers, who had signed with the Cleveland Crusaders.

Bruins superstar defenseman Bobby Orr was considered but was unfit to play following surgery on his left knee and a lack of training. Brilliant forward Gordie Howe was entering the second year of a two-year retirement before his comeback in the WHA with the Houston Aeros.

"Our problem was preparation," Esposito admitted, "and terrible scouting of the Russians. Game 1, it was 93 degrees in the Forum, no air-conditioning, there was fog on the ice. We were shot.

"People have said to me, 'How could you not be prepared?' and I reply, 'Very easily.' We didn't know anything about the Russians, how fit they were, how they played. Nowadays, you'd have video and all that. But back then, come on. …

"We might have lost Game 1 no matter what, but if we'd had Bobby Orr, or Bobby Hull, or even Gordie. Imagine Gordie after Game 1. He'd have had steam coming out of [his] nostrils and that would have been it.

"I believe that we could have played the Russians another five or six times that series and not lost another game. I feel that, I do. I've said that to my friend Yakky (Russian forward Alexander Yakushev) and Boris Mikhailov and they disagree, but I say to them, 'It doesn't matter, we won. I can say what I want, you can say what you want.'"

From left: Russia's Vladimir Shadrin, Yevgeny Poladjev, Vladislav Tretiak and Yuri Lyapkin, and Canada's Phil Esposito in goal-crease action during Game 2 of the 1972 Summit Series. Graphic Artists/Hockey Hall of Fame

 

In October 1972, back in Boston a few days after returning to North America, Esposito considered the what-ifs.

"Bobby Orr is the greatest hockey player in the world," he told reporters. "Bobby Hull is the greatest shooter. Give us either one, and see what we would do against this (Russian) team. I don't think they're tougher than the [New York] Rangers or the Canadiens but I can't really rate them. I do feel that if either Bobby Orr or Bobby Hull had played, it would have been no contest."

Phil Esposito in his 1972 Summit Series portrait, and with Harry "Red" Foster, receiving the Lou Marsh Memorial Trophy as Canada's athlete of the year for 1972. Hockey Hall of Fame

 

Esposito says there is little trace of the Summit Series in his Tampa home.

"I've got my Lou Marsh Award (in 1972 he was voted Canada's athlete of the year)," he said. "I've got my two Lester Pearsons (from 1971 and 1974, today the Ted Lindsay Award, most outstanding player voted by NHLPA), my two Stanley Cups somewhere, some pucks and a couple of etchings of Tony and me."

Not a big memorabilia collector, Esposito says there might be other things "in an air-conditioned shed." He jokes about a Russian samovar he was given years ago by Summit Series opponent Vyacheslav Anisin.

"I didn't know what it was," he said. "I was told it was a big teapot and I said, 'But I don't drink tea.' I didn't know then that it was something historic and special."

He jokes about Team Canada's homecoming, politically Conservative Eagleson trying to herd the team off the front of the plane upon touchdown in Montreal because Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister, was going to enter the rear of the jet.

As his teammates and coaches celebrate, Phil Esposito offers a victory salute to the Russian crowd after Game 8 of the Summit Series on Sept. 28, 1972. Melchior DiGiacomo, Getty Images

 

"We argued for 10 minutes as some guys left by the front," Esposito said. "I sat with Tony and (Bruins teammate) Wayne Cashman and quite frankly, I don't think we could have gotten off the plane if we tried. Trudeau comes walking up the aisle while all the other guys were going up to the front. He came over to me, grabbed my hand, shook it and said, 'Thank you for a job well done,' and I said, 'You're welcome.'

"When we landed in Toronto, it was all about the Conservatives and Ontario's premier, Bill Davis. I remember being pushed up the stairs of a balcony to make a speech. I said a few things and my brother said, 'Let's get out of here, please.' We went back to the hotel and the next morning we left, Tony for Chicago, me for Boston."

Fifty years later, Esposito considers the Summit Series as a whole. His place in it is indelibly stamped for his presence and his often unfiltered candor, both on and off the ice.

"I'm OK with the fact that I was the first in the NHL to score 100 points (126 in 1968-69) and the first to score 60 and 70 goals in a season (76 in 1970-71)," Esposito said. "I was the guy who put a hockey team in Tampa (co-founder of the Lightning), and I'm OK with that, too.

"But in 1972, the Summit Series was playing with emotion for my country. It wasn't my job, it was for my country."

 

Top photo: Phil Esposito battles Russia Alexander Gusev during Game 2 of the 1972 Summit Series at Maple Leaf Gardens on Sept. 4, 1972. Graphic Artists/Hockey Hall of Fame

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