Phil Esposito on the Russians: ‘Everyone’s the same. They want the Cup’

This painting of Phil Esposito and Canada toppling the Soviet hockey empire in the famed 1972 “Summit Series" is displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame. [FRANK PASTOR | Times]
This painting of Phil Esposito and Canada toppling the Soviet hockey empire in the famed 1972 “Summit Series" is displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame. [FRANK PASTOR | Times]
Published May 10 2018
Updated May 10 2018

TAMPA — Phil Esposito fell 19 years before the Soviet Union did. Only Esposito stood back up and blew a kiss at stone-faced Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

You've got to love Espo.

Esposito and Canada then toppled the Soviet hockey empire in the famed 1972 Summit Series. Now he jokes, eats caviar, and drinks wine and vodka with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leave it to Esposito, NHL Hall of Famer, Lightning founder and the sport of hockey's all-time dancing bear. Esposito, who is a Lightning radio voice, turned 76 a couple of months ago. It's never dull with Phil. Never was.

Now the Russians are coming. Actually, they were already here. The Lightning and Washington Capitals are set to meet in the Eastern Conference final, a veritable summit series for Russian-born talents. There is Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of his generation. There is Lightning shooting star Nikita Kucherov. And Washington dervish Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lightning goaltending sensation Andre Vasilevskiy.

More than just about anyone, Esposito has been there and done that when it comes to Russians and hockey. He toppled them in '72. He saw Russians hit the NHL. He drafted them onto the Lightning. Former Lightning player Alexander Selivanov is his son-in-law. Espo has seen it all. Better yet, he'll talk about it.

"In 1972, they were stifled. I hated them in the beginning, until I got to see the culture they were living in. … That was real communism. Those players did exactly what they were told to do from the time they were 12, 13 years old. I hated communism, and I still do. I don't like government control. I don't like it in this country, either.

"In 1972, it was government against government, society against society. The politicians created it. The players didn't. We just wanted to play and win. Same with them. But they turned it into capitalism against communism. I thought capitalism would become rampant in Canada. Instead, it went to socialism. That's why I don't live there.

"They're my friends now, the Soviet guys. I thought (Alexander) Yakushev was the best back then. There was Boris Mikhailov, (Vladislav) Tretiak, I see them a lot. We have a couple of drinks."

Esposito remembers what a Soviet  coach once told him.

"He said, 'Until we can match the emotions of the North Americans, we will never beat them.' He was right, too. Now look. When Ovechkin scores a goal, he wants to jump over the glass. Look at Kuznetsov after he beat Pittsburgh in overtime. Or Kucherov when he scores. They've got the emotion thing down.

"In 2012, I met Putin the first time. I've seen him, like, four times since. I go there because I'm invited. I was invited to go to the one-year anniversary of the (2014) Sochi Olympics. I was the only North American non-Olympian. I sat right behind Putin.

"Then we went to a private room and joked around. He asked me, 'Is it true you never wore a helmet your whole career?' I said yes, it is, but I wore a cup. He looked at me and in perfect English, he said, 'Some things in life are more important, eh, Phil?'

"You know, sometimes you've got to treat people the way they treat you. He treated me with great respect, and I did the same to him. If he had been disrespectful, he would have gotten it right back from me. He loves the game of hockey. He plays maybe two, three times a week.

"Back then, I didn't like them at all. I didn't like their society. I didn't like the way they treated our people. It was disgraceful to me. You know?

"In '72 they were bugging us all over. We found microphones behind the mirror in the bathroom, behind the beds, by the couch. One thing for sure, we never saw a restaurant in '72. We ate bear meat, horse meat, because they stole half our food and half our booze, which was worse.

"In the (Summit Series) over there, when I slipped down and fell, I made perfect eye contact with Brezhnev. His eyebrows were sticking so far up that if he'd combed them back, he wouldn't have had a forehead. The guy was absolutely stoic. But it was fun.

"The players today don't care about the old stuff. Neither does the league. In Russia, they like their players to stay home, and they pay good money. But they also like their players in the best league in the world. Think 'Ovie' doesn't want to win a Cup? He wants it big time. So does 'Kuch.'

"That '72 series was huge. It changed the culture. I was told by a very high official in the Russian government that when Canada beat the Soviets in '72, that's when the culture of communism started to change.

"That's what makes us so great. Back in the '70s, those guys couldn't say a damn word about how they were treated. Now you see them and they're more capitalistic than we are.

"It's very easy to demonize (Putin). A lot of people hate him. There's no doubt about that. He hasn't done anything to me. If he did, there'd be no choice. He's out."

Caps-Lightning, on its way.

"Russians, Canadians, Americans, Swedes. Who cares?" Esposito said. "It's a big world. Everyone is the same. They want the Cup."

You've got to love Espo.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.