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Phil Esposito plays ambassador to Russia

Hall of Famer takes in World Cup semifinal with Fantasy Camp invitees

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- This is how times change:

On Saturday, in the electrically charged atmosphere of Air Canada Centre, Phil Esposito was entertaining a healthy number of those who were in town to take part in his four-day Fantasy Camp.

At least a dozen of the 18 or so in his private suite for the World Cup of Hockey 2016 semifinal were Russian.

Honest, they were.

Forty-four years ago to the night, in Moscow, Esposito would have performed open-heart surgery on any Russian or then-Soviet who got within reach of his heavy Northland Custom Pro, black adhesive stick tape wound around the blade of his scalpel.

"If these guys here tonight were politicians or Soviet leaders from that day, you're (darn) right I would have cut their hearts out," Esposito said, happy Russians buzzing all around him, grabbing him for photos, shaking his hand.

"But these guys aren't politicians, they're businessmen. The guy over there, we call him Sasha, that guy owns a paving and construction company in Moscow, and also one in Nashville. I'm trying to get him to put one in Tampa (where Esposito lives)."

A compact Russian came by, a fireplug-stout man who would be part of a fantasy-camp pickup game the next day up the street at old Maple Leaf Gardens.

"The hash-marks," Esposito said to him, grabbing a bilingual Russian to translate. "Tomorrow, I'll be at the hash-marks. Get me the puck there!"

Esposito laughed as the grinning man nodded with little comprehension.

"He owns the largest paper mill in Russia," he said. "He's got more dough than you can imagine. He flew over here in his private jet. I coached him over there on a tour we did. Now he's got to know, I won't cruise around the ice tomorrow and attract attention. I'll park myself on the hash-marks."

The game between Team Canada and Team Russia was at hand and Esposito stood at modest attention, a glass of red wine in his hand, and he loudly hummed a few bars of the Russian anthem.

None of this made sense.

And then it was O Canada, and with a strong vibrato, he sang a few bars of that.

Esposito is 74, a milestone birthday coming next February that he says he'll celebrate with a blowout party at a casino in Tampa.

"And that's it," he said brightly. "After 75, there will be no more birthdays. No more cards, no more birthday wishes."

I mentioned the 44th anniversary of Game 6 and Esposito reminisced about a few of the details.

Canada was in a desperate position on Sept. 24, 1972, trailing the Soviet Union three games to one, with a tie, in the historic eight-game Summit Series.

They fell behind Team USSR 1-0 that night, but then struck for three second-period goals in an 87-second span. Paul Henderson scored what would be the winning goal in a 3-2 game, Henderson's first of three consecutive game-winners.

Of course, Canada would win the next two games to capture the monumental series, 4-3-1, and Esposito has said that had the two nations played another 10 games, Canada would not have lost even one.

No more than two or three of the Russians in his suite were alive in 1972. But that was no matter to those who weren't, because Esposito's legend in Russia is nearly the equal of it here.

He introduced one of his guests to me and the man immediately cornered me to tell me in good English that there are six Russians and one former Soviet in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He knew their names, and he knew the years of their induction.

"And Sergei Makarov is next," he said, chest puffed out about the Russian superstar who played six seasons in the NHL but has a list of accomplishments in his homeland as long as his arm.

I'd almost worked my way out of the corner when this Russian encyclopedia cut me off to ridicule the 1972 scouting of Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, then deemed by Canada to be as porous as a screen door.

"Tretiak, Hall of Fame, 1989," he said, beaming.

A few of Esposito's friends from this side of the pond wandered in and out of the suite, including former NHL and KHL coach Mike Keenan, who led the New York Rangers to their most recent Stanley Cup championship in 1994.

In came Ron Duguay, a Rangers legend who played 499 of his 864 NHL games in New York during a career that spanned from 1977-89. Duguay was a heartthrob as a player and now, with stylish hair, long and lean in jeans and jacket, he doesn't look remotely near the age of 59. More than one female Russian heart was throbbing in his presence Saturday.

I'd long wanted to watch a game between Canada and Russia with Phil Esposito, whose name is synonymous with the rivalry between the two countries that dates to the Summit Series.

On Friday at the Hockey Hall of Fame, where he, fellow Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur, Mark Messier, Darryl Sittler and Steve Yzerman, and Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby were honored with Canada Post stamps bearing their likeness, Esposito matter-of-factly extended the invitation to join him in his suite Saturday.

So that's where I settled, among many Russians and a man with silver hair, a vise grip, a spicy vocabulary and a rich hockey pedigree.

On Saturday, entertaining the Russians, he bridged a gap that in 1972 was not going to be bridged. Esposito worked the room like a pro, laughing easily, poking fun at himself, stabbing a few Russian words into his conversation.

He took his leave shortly before the end of the first period, heading out to dinner with his wife and two daughters who would fly home Sunday.

Esposito will be on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens with his fantasy campers Sunday afternoon, having skated Saturday.

"I was out there 10 minutes today and my hips hurt," he grumbled. "But after a while it was OK. We'll see whether I can get out of bed in the morning."

His Russian guests had a great time in his absence, leaping and screaming and hugging when their team scored twice in the second period.

They had settled down a little after Team Canada took command in the third, scoring three goals in the first 9:22 of the period, and if they left Air Canada Centre unhappy, they weren't devastated. 

Most of them would be on Toronto ice the next day, skating with their friendly host. And they looked forward to Esposito telling more fabulous stories, one after another, a few of them perhaps even true.

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