World hockey stars are descending upon the Russian capital for a game on Red Square this Saturday marking 40 years since the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. The captain of that Canadian team, Phil Esposito, now 70 years old, shares his memories of the pulsating series and impressions of modern-day Russia with RIA Novosti after landing in Moscow.
RIA Novosti: That series was the greatest ever.
Esposito: Yes. Ever. It became very political. And I wish it wouldn’t have, but it did. I’m blaming both sides, both countries, for making it political. It was unfair to the players. I had a great, great time here in Moscow. It was very difficult because it was something I was not used to. I wasn’t used to the fact that you couldn’t go to a restaurant. You couldn’t get food. I was not used to that sort of stuff. It was difficult for us. I talked to some of the guys like [Vladimir] Petrov and [Alexander] Yakushev, and they had a blast in Canada. They bought jeans, and they had a great time. They were good, boy. Jesus, they were good. A real good team. I just thought that that was as good a hockey team as I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not kidding you. We won on sheer will. We really out-willed the Russians, or the Soviets, as they were called. We had more passion, we had more desire to win. We just felt that we could not lose. And we were not going to. Although it came close!
Is the legends game necessary?
Nothing’s necessary in life. Except for living. That’s all that’s necessary. It’s not necessary but it’s fun. It’s going to be fun for those guys to play. I’m certainly going to go to the game and watch it. I’m anxious to see guys like Glenn Anderson and Ronnie Duguay. I’m anxious to see my friend, [Alexander] Yakushev, I really like Yakushev.
He, to me, was the best player on that team. A lot of people thought [Valeri] Kharmalov was, but I thought Yakushev was the best player on that team. Big, strong, shoot, skate. Boy, he reminded me of Bobby Hull.
How far will the legends match go to stirring memories of 1972?
You can’t recreate that. Our guys are old. I’m 70 years old. J.P. Parise’s 70 years old. We can’t play like that. I don’t think it should be a replica of ‘72 because [Alexei] Kasatonov’s playing, [Alexei] Yashin’s playing. Yashin’s only  years old. He should still be playing in the NHL or in the KHL. One of them. I don’t understand what he’s doing.
Back then, what did you think about the Russian team before the series?
I had never seen them! I never saw any of those guys play, ever. I never watched the Olympics when I was a player, I didn’t care. We had no idea. The only time we saw them play, [Soviet goaltender Vladislav] Tretiak got married the night before, I mean, come on! What do you think he was doing all night?
What can you say about Tretiak?
He’s not one of my favorite guys. Him and [Boris] Mikhailov I’m not crazy about. But the other guys, I love [Valeri] Vasiliev, he’s not around any more, [Vladimir] Lutchenko, I liked him, he came to Tampa Bay and gave me his army uniform in 1994-1995 maybe, and then he passed away.
Of course, Bobby Hull didn’t play in the Summit Series
They didn’t let him, because we were called Team Canada, but in truth we probably should have been called Team NHL. Only because they never allowed Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe or Gerry Cheevers to play, and they came and played in ’74.
How did you cope without Bobby Hull?
Bobby Hull played in the World Hockey Association. So he was not allowed to participate in that series. I don’t know why, except for it was politics. Again. Stinking politics.
What did you feel when you first came to Moscow in 1972?
I felt sorry for the people. I saw people lined up to try to get food and the doors opened and then they closed at 11 o’clock because there was no more milk, no more bread, and they couldn’t get food. I actually felt sorry for them. The new Russia is very, very nice. You’ve got lots of traffic!
I’ve just got here and I’ve been told it’s really different from 1972. And I’m sure it is!
Flying on the plane, I watched the news, and it showed the mall and Red Square with the ice rink and I said ‘Wow, this is beautiful.’ This reminds me of Canada, with the snow and the weather – just like Canada!
I’m going to be coming back again probably in a couple of months and I want to bring my grandkids back. They’re Russian, they speak Russian perfectly. Their father is Alex Selivanov, who used to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Edmonton Oilers and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and then he came over and played in Magnitogorsk, and in St. Petersburg, and Spartak, I think, or Dynamo. Now he coaches in the Netherlands.
What do you think about hockey in Russia today, and the Kontinental Hockey League in particular?
I watched on the airplane the KHL – they had highlights. I was really impressed that there were a lot of fans in the stands too. To me, the players were very good, the goaltenders, so-so. But the players were really good, the forwards, the defense.
I think it’s great that they’ve started this KHL in this country, so that it becomes another professional league for players to play in. No longer do they not allow people to come and play here or Russians to come and play in the United States or Canada in the NHL. Everything is open now and that’s good, because it makes for better hockey. The Cold War is over.
The truth is, with Russia now being without Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Belarus, they must have some real good games, boy!
Whom would you like to meet while you’re in Russia?
I’m anxious to meet Mr. Putin. I’m going to meet him I think. And I’d like to meet Mr. [Alexander] Medvedev, the guy who started the KHL.
How does modern hockey differ from that of your generation?
The guys are bigger they’re stronger. The players are bigger, stronger, with better equipment, but they don’t think like we did. We played because we loved it, it was a living, but it wasn’t a great living like these guys. Hell, I worked in the summertime until I was 30 years old in a steel plant driving bulldozers because I didn’t make enough money playing hockey. I scored 76 goals and made $18,000. When I got to $100,000 I did quit work in the summer!
What about playing styles?
Well, we played without helmets, and we kept our sticks down. We did not try to hit guys above the shoulders. You’d try to hit them down lower. Nowadays guys have helmets, face shields, but the hockey sticks are so different. They can shoot the pucks so much harder than we did. The equipment is so big. They look like Iron Man some of these guys!
What about the current Canadian team?
The Russians seem to be playing hockey like we did in the 70s, and we’re playing hockey like the Russians did in the 70s! It reversed. Soon it’ll come together. They are having fights and everything in the KHL. They never did that in Russian hockey. In Canada they don’t do that very much any more.