September 27, 2012

Summit Series Heroes: Phil Esposito

While Paul Henderson has been forever immortalized for his series winning heroics, Phil Esposito's effort in the tournament was equally as memorable. In fact, almost every member of Team Canada would be quick to point out that Espo - their undisputed leader - was the real hero of the series.

Right from the get-go, Phil was the leader of this team. He had a commanding stature and he oozed charisma. Players were quick to literally follow him in training camp and away from the rink. When his team struggled out of the gate, he fired them up, and wouldn't accept losing as an option. In fact, he never once felt Canada would lose, not even after falling behind 3-1-1 after the first game in Russia.

No one was more intense than Espo. In the ceremonial puck drop before game one, he vigorously won the usually friendly draw. Then just 30 seconds into the game he scored and celebrated emphatically.

The Russians soon proved that they would be no pushover, and in fact dominated the rest of game one, winning easily in Canada's cathedral of hockey - the Montreal Forum.

The humiliating defeat in game one seemed easy to take compared to the game 4 loss. In the final game played in Canada, Vancouver fans loudly booed Team Canada off of the ice. That would be Team Canada's lingering reminder of their lack of success as they headed to Russia.

But Espo would have none of that. He went on national television following the game and, with his heart and the Maple Leaf on his sleeve, he spoke his mind.

"To the people across Canada, we tried. We gave it our best. To the people who booed us, geez, all of us guys are really disheartened. We're disillusioned and disappointed. We cannot believe the bad press we've got, the booing we've got in our own building.

"I'm completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Every one of us guys - 35 guys - we came out because we love our country. Not for any other reason. We came because we love Canada," he ranted off the top of his head.

Team Canada rallied around perhaps the most famous speech in Canadian history (yes, perhaps even more important than any political speech ever offered).

In fact, it was until after the speech Phil himself realized the battle Team Canada was in - a battle he termed "a war." As he left the post game 4 interview a heckler in the crowd continued to shout insults at him.

"I was so mad I felt like ramming my stick right down his throat," said Espo. "That's when I realized we were in a war, man. This isn't a game. This is a war and we'd better get ourselves together."

Team Canada headed to Russia, and Russian fans were quickly introduced to the charisma of Esposito. During the player introductions Phil stepped on a stem of a rose that was handed out to the players moments earlier. The big Italian fell flat on his butt. The arena erupted in laughter which turned into cheers as Espo got up and blew a kiss into the crowd and took a bow. Phil insists he was directing the kiss towards Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev, and that Brezhnev was not impressed.

Canada unthinkably blew a three goal lead in that first game in Moscow. That forced them to win all the remaining games. Thanks to Esposito's leadership and incredible play and Henderson's timely goal scoring, Canada was able to save face and win the tournament.

Espo led the tournament and scoring and tied for the goal scoring lead. He was as charismatic as the Soviets were stone-faced, which was symbolic of the sharp differences in the two societies. He played the tournament as is if he was possessed. He scored 30 seconds into the first game, and assisted on Paul Henderson's "goal heard around the world" with just 34 seconds left in game 8. Twice he was named the MVP of a game, and was instrumental in the game 8 victory, scoring twice and assisting on two others.

Paul Henderson as said that seemingly everyday of his life someone thanks him for scoring the dramatic goal in Moscow. Thank you too, Phil Esposito.

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