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Phil Esposito wouldn't let Canada lose Summit Series

Architect of victory in decisive Game 8 against Soviet Union 44 years ago Wednesday

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- There might have been better single periods played by an individual in the history of hockey. But to a country having an anxiety attack, it's unlikely there ever was one more important than the masterpiece Phil Esposito produced 44 years ago on Wednesday.

Canada entered its dressing room in Moscow after two periods trailing the Soviet Union 5-3 in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. A tie wouldn't suffice; with the series even at 3-3-1, the Soviets were going to claim victory because they had scored two more goals.

As he had earlier that month back in Canada, Esposito took his team by the scruff of its neck and got the job done. If Paul Henderson became a national hero for his third consecutive game-winning goal, including the series-winner with 34 seconds left in the third period of Game 8, Esposito was the engineer of the comeback.

On Sept. 28, 1972, Team Canada completed a glorious, improbable rally and skated its way into hockey lore by winning its third consecutive game in Moscow.

Esposito, then a star center with the Boston Bruins, has never been a "what if?" guy. But more than once in the 44 years since that series, he has given thought to Canada's dramatic victory in Game 8 and the series and what might have happened had the result been different.

"I said this to the guys one time in the dressing room: 'I play in Boston, they really don't give a [darn] about this,' " Esposito recalled.

He remembers looking around the room at his teammates who made their living with NHL teams in the U.S., saying their cities didn't much care about the series, either. But then he considered the Montreal Canadiens' Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Ken Dryden, and Henderson and Ron Ellis of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I said to them, 'You guys who play in Canada? My God, if we lose this series, you won't be able to walk down the street. People will never forgive you. They won't forgive me, either, but I don't give a [darn], I'm going back to play in the States.'"

Even down two goals, in a hostile environment and with the weight of their country bearing down, Esposito says today there was a cool, almost surreal confidence in that dressing room.

"I didn't realize it then, but over the years, thinking about it, I was so confident that these [Soviet] guys would not beat us," he said during a recent conversation. "When we won Game 6, I felt, 'We could win easy now.' I'll say this again: I believe we could have played another four or five games and not lost again. That's just my gut feeling. We had become a team."

Esposito's third period in Game 8 was that of a man possessed, a leader whom coach Harry Sinden said "refused to let us lose."

From scoring the first goal in the series 30 seconds into Game 1 at the Forum in Montreal, a game that would become a Soviet rout, to an emotional speech on live national television after the Game 4 loss in Vancouver, scolding the critical fans and media who were piling on as the Soviets took a 2-1-1 lead back home, to throwing his team on his back for the final 20 minutes, Esposito was Canada's captain, no matter no player served as one.

Esposito pulled his country within one with a goal at 2:27 of the third period. Ten minutes later, he assisted on Cournoyer's equalizer. And then in the dying moments, refusing to have come off the ice on a line change, he snapped a puck at Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, managing a shot even as his body moved away from the goal. Henderson knocked home the rebound.

"Was that the best period I ever played?" Esposito says now, repeating the question. "With all due respect, I can't answer that. All I can say is that when they called my name, I was there. And I wasn't comin' off.

"I've felt bad over the years. I've reflected about staying on the ice sometimes and going through Bobby and Jean's linemates," he says of fellow centers Bobby Clarke and Jean Ratelle. "That was really selfish of me and I know that. But the truth was, I had this faith in myself, faith to get the job done. I can't explain it. But I did this in the NHL, too. I was not always going to get it done, but I had faith in myself that 70 or 80 percent of the time, I would."

Esposito finished with seven goals and six assists in the eight-game series. His team-leading 52 shots on goal were almost double the 28 taken by Henderson, and his 89 shots at the Soviet net were well more than twice Henderson's 38.

The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was the only player on either team with a four-point game, that being Game 8; he scored Canada's first goal, then found another gear in the third period, in which he was the series' only player with a three-point period.

In 18 NHL seasons, on his way to 1984 Hockey Hall of Fame induction, Esposito scored 1,590 points (717 goals, 873 assists) in 1,282 regular-season games, as well as 137 points (61 goals, 76 assists) in 130 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

His 118 career game-winning goals are second on the NHL's all-time list behind Jaromir Jagr (133), and his trophy case is bulging: Esposito won two Stanley Cup championships, the Art Ross Trophy five times as the NHL's leader in points and the Hart Trophy twice as regular-season MVP. He was a First-Team All-Star for six consecutive seasons, from 1968-69 through 1973-74.

Yet for many, his career is best remembered for 27 days in September 1972, climaxing with his endless shift.

For a time, that didn't necessarily sit well. But that has changed with the years and some snow on his roof and his life's work on the ice put in perspective.

"I'm OK with the fact that I was the first in the NHL to score 100 points," Esposito said. "The first to score 60 and 70 goals in a season; 76, to be exact. I was the guy who put a hockey team in Tampa, and I'm OK with that, too.

"But in 1972 … that was playing with emotion for my country. It wasn't my job, it was for my country. Did I get myself up for it? I'll say this: There was no way -- I don't know why I keep saying this and people sometimes look at me like I'm nuts -- that I was going to lose. I was not going to let us lose."

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