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Espo returning to Russia for Summit anniversary

Wednesday, 02.22.2012 / 5:09 PM / NHL Insider

By Lonnie Herman - NHL.com Correspondent

It’s been 40 years since Phil Esposito set foot in Russia, but this week he's returning to the scene of one of Canadian hockey’s greatest triumphs as the 40th anniversary of the Canada-Russia Summit Series takes place in Moscow this weekend.

Originally, Esposito planned to sit out the reunion, telling reporters that he had "no desire to go to Russia," but recent events, including the passing of his daughter, Carrie, caused him to rethink his decision.

"I had a chance that if I went, my grandsons could join my wife and me in Russia," Esposito told NHL.com. "We'd get to spend four or five days with them and I thought, 'Wow, this is a great opportunity.' So I decided that I would go and I talked to (the people planning the reunion)."

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Esposito -- currently a radio analyst and vice president of corporate relations for the Tampa Bay Lightning -- and his wife, Bridget, will leave for Moscow just five days after agreeing to go.

"Of course, typical of how the Russians do things, it all came down to the last minute, so to speak," Esposito said.

Excuse Esposito if some of the memories from 40 years ago remain raw. The Summit Series was perhaps the most emotional, most demanding and, as a result, the most rewarding time of a hockey career that has included induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In September 1972, Esposito was among the biggest names on a star-laden roster assembled to play the Russian national team in the first meeting between the countries to include NHL players. At the time, professionals were ineligible to play in Olympic competition.

The Summit Series -- an eight-game showdown with games held across Canada and in Moscow -- was seen as a referendum on hockey supremacy between the Canadians, who dominated the NHL at the time, and the Russians, who were the class of European hockey. It engendered fierce nationalism in both countries and among the players involved.

Esposito was among the most vocal of the Canadian players, especially after Canada was booed off the ice after a loss in Game 4 at Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, which put the Canadians in a 1-2-1 hole in the series.

However, Canada rallied with three straight wins in Moscow to end the series and take the honors with a 4-3-1 advantage. In Game 8, Paul Henderson scored his famous last-minute goal to seal the series, banging home the rebound of a shot by Esposito.

During the course of the series, bitterness from both sides reached unexpected levels, becoming a global soap opera that absorbed the hockey world. Every time, it seemed, Esposito was in the middle of the drama.

"When I played them I had to hate them," Esposito said. "I really mean that. It wasn't that I hated the players or the people, I hated the politics and I hated their way of life. It wasn't something that I ever wanted to be involved with. I think that was more my concern than anything else. The vehicle to get them back was through their players. Listen, I really believed that we had to play that way, with hatred, or else we wouldn't have won.

"Maybe I'll re-enact the famous fall. I'll go on the ice and slip and fall on my butt and throw a kiss. That was a crazy moment." -- Phil Esposito

"I don't know how it will feel going back there now. I've been told that in Red Square they now have a Ritz Carlton that we're staying in and that it's beautiful and Mercedes-Benz are around and BMWs and all these type of cars. I can tell you in 1972 that was not the case."

Among the items on Esposito's agenda during this visit is lunch at the Kremlin and a hockey clinic in Red Square. He also will have a stash of Tampa Bay Lightning paraphernalia to hand out to kids.

Esposito's emotions have cooled with the passage of time. Much has happened in the ensuing four decades to change Esposito's world view. His daughter Carrie, who died last month of an abdominal aneurysm, married a Russian hockey player, Alexander Selivanov, when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But some wounds from the Summit Series still have not fully healed.

"Boris Mikhailov," Esposito said, referring to the legendary Russian player who was Esposito's arch-nemesis throughout the Summit Series. "I don't like him. Never have and never will. I don't know if he'll be there, and I don't care. If he is, I'll look at him and tell him, 'I don't like you!' I will; I can't help myself. I don't know if I'd even shake his hand."

But good memories and goodwill will trump any remaining hard feelings on Esposito's part, it appears.

According to Esposito, one of the planned events of the reunion will feature an on-ice contest with members of both squads participating. Although he will not be skating, Esposito plans to attend the game and maybe even steal the spotlight.

"Maybe I'll re-enact the famous fall," Esposito said, referencing his famous spill during player introductions before a game in Moscow. "I'll go on the ice and slip and fall on my butt and throw a kiss. That was a crazy moment."

Once again, it shows character in this dressing room. Once again, there's no quitting in here. We all wanted this so bad and we worked so hard to get home-ice advantage and we weren't going to let this one slide.

— Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog on his team's OT Game 1 win vs. Minnesota Wild