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Yakushev deserves to be in Hockey Hall of Fame, Esposito says

Believes forward was Soviets' best player in 1972 Summit Series, could have starred in NHL

by Phil Esposito / Special to NHL.com

Phil Esposito, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, was one of four co-captains for Team Canada in the historic 1972 Summit Series against Alexander Yakushev and the Soviet Union. Esposito, who won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's points leader five times -- four times consecutively -- between 1968-69 and 1973-74, led Team Canada in scoring with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in the eight-game series against the Soviets, who were led by Yakushev's 11 points (seven goals, four assists). Here Esposito, 76, shares his thoughts on Yakushev, who will go into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, in a special testimonial for NHL.com:

 

Had I heard of Alexander Yakushev before the 1972 Summit Series? Are you kidding me? I had no idea about him or any of his teammates -- who they were, what they were, what they did. I didn't know of Yakkie until that first game in Montreal on Sept. 2. He was No. 15, the guy who scored their seventh goal in our 7-3 loss, and he was the one guy I was afraid of when we were on the ice. It wasn't [Valeri] Kharlamov or any of those other guys, it was Yakkie.

He was big and strong, 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. My brother Tony (a Team Canada goalie) said he shot the puck as hard as Bobby Hull and when it hit him, it hurt. But Yakkie didn't play to his size. He didn't get involved in a lot of the [stuff] that [Boris] Mikhailov did.

When you think about Yakkie and the way he could skate … his biggest downfall, I thought, was his lack of emotion. But all of the Soviets were the same then. They were robotic, in their game and their emotion for the game. At the end of that series, (Soviet assistant coach) Boris Kulagin said, "Until we match the North Americans' passion, we will never beat them."

 

[RELATED: Yakushev made mark in Summit Series en route to Hockey Hall of Fame]

 

The names of Kharlamov and Mikhailov were better known over here than Yakushev, but that's probably because of the media and because they were more dynamic. Mikhailov, for sure. Yakkie just played the game and trust me, when he wanted to play, it was very, very hard to stop him. I really worried about him on their power play. He was devastating (four of Yakushev's seven goals in the series were scored with a man advantage).

I remember a goal the Russians scored right at the start of the second period of Game 8 in Moscow. Yakkie shot the puck from a couple of strides across our blue line and it hit the wire mesh - - there was no glass - - up behind our net. It hit so hard that it bounced right out in front of Kenny (Dryden, Canada's goalie) and Vladimir Shadrin was there to put in the rebound. It's almost like it was a set play.

Yakkie scored five of his seven goals in the last three games of that series. Think about that, what he did. And some people say he wasn't their best player? Come on. I've said that Yakkie was their best player. That's not everyone's opinion, but it's been mine since 1972.

He'd have been a star in the NHL. We had a reception in Moscow after Game 8 and that's when I spoke to Yakkie for the first time. I told him that night, 'Come to Boston and I'll get you $100,000 to play for the Bruins. I'll only take 10 percent of your salary as commission,' (laughs). And he said to me, 'You come to Moscow and I'll get you an apartment.' He understood. I think they all understood English pretty well but they didn't speak it much. There was no political advantage in that.

I never spoke to Yakkie on the ice because he was so passive, but I had a lot of conversation with Mikhailov and [Vladimir] Petrov. I couldn't believe how high Petrov's voice was. I gave Petrov more elbows, to get him off me, than I gave anybody in my career, more in those eight games than I gave in eight years in the NHL.

The next time I saw Yakkie after that 1972 reception was in 2012, when we had a 40th anniversary celebration of the Summit Series. Since then, six years later, I'll bet I've seen him 20 or 30 times. My first reaction when we met in 1972, and again 40 years later and still today, is that I had so much respect for him because of how good he was.

I was absolutely, sincerely happy to shake hands and look him in the eye and tell him the respect I had for him. I couldn't say the same, at the time, when I met Boris or Vladdy (goalie Vladislav Tretiak) -- maybe they were too boisterous, I don't know, although I got to like them both.

There are people who will wonder why Yakkie is going into the Hall of Fame while some players in North America are not. But this is for a career body of work. Yakkie did things on the world stage that we didn't see in the NHL -- two gold medals in the Olympics, seven gold medals in the world championships. He's in the IIHF Hall of Fame. Over here, our shrine is called the Hockey Hall of Fame, not the NHL Hall of Fame.

If I could speak to Yakkie again as he's inducted in Toronto, I'd say, "Congratulations, my man. Welcome. Good for you. With Tretiak (inducted in 1989) and Kharlamov (posthumously in 2005) in the Hall of Fame, you certainly should be too."

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