Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito answers call as guest for Sochi reunion

Phil Esposito stands next to the statue commemorating him outside the Lightning's arena.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago this month, the world watched as Russia’s immortal hockey goaltender Vladislav Tretiak lit the flaming cauldron to open the Sochi Olympic games. The spectacle of 88 nations competing near the Black Sea amid gleaming venues provided the inspiration for a recent February anniversary reunion of the power brokers who made it happen.

The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, submitted his guest list to Tretiak, who was organizing last week’s fete, adding the name of a man he’s admired for five decades. Putin invited Phil Esposito.

"He plays hockey all the time," Esposito said on his return. "He loves to get on the ice."

"I was the only non-Olympian and maybe the only guest from North America. It was quite flattering. But it all hinges back to 1972 and the Summit Series. It just blows me away. Those people in Russia still believe that was the greatest hockey spectacle ever. "

Putin clearly does. He was a 19-year-old student in the then-Soviet Union, destined for a career behind the Iron Curtain as an officer of the KGB. After the fall of The Wall, he would rise from the collapse of the USSR to become the powerful leader of his homeland.

Not without global controversy, true. But an unrelenting respect for strength that Putin vividly recalled from witnessing Esposito leading Team Canada through an eight game series against the Red Army. One played with a passion — and hostility — across two continents more than four decades past.

"Putin told me he admired my attitude, my character, my relentlessness in that series."

This from the dashing center man with the jet black mane who became the first skater in NHL history to post 100 points in a single season. Who in one particular year coupled the Stanley Cup with a league record 76 goals and gaudy 152 points. And that was before joining the best players Canada could muster that September for a clash of cultures.

"Putin said I refused to lose," Esposito said. "You could see it in my eyes."

The Tampa Bay area has been graced by that very same Esposito willpower. Founding an NHL franchise on personal charisma and building an arena along Channelside seems ridiculously improbable in hindsight. Yet every game night, thousands pass his bronze pedestaled statue before ascending the main entry steps, with fans of all ages pausing for snapshots with his towering likeness.

"I used to have dark hair. It’s silver now. But everywhere I went in Russia they recognized me. ‘Can I get a picture with you? Will you sign this?’ People would look at me and smile and say ‘I remember.’ "

Putin remembers Phil Esposito scored the first goal in the Summit Series, just 30 seconds into Game 1 in Montreal, past Tretiak. The rout the majority of hockey experts had predicted appeared to be on. Three periods later, however, Canada had been humiliated, falling 7-3.

Vadislav Tretiak #20, Vladimir Petrov # 16 and Vladimir Lutchenko # 3 of Team USSR defend the net against and Phil Esposito # 7 of Team Canada during the 1972 Summit Series, September, 1972.

"We learned they could play. But as far as I was concerned, we were not going to lose this series."

Phil would later admonish his countrymen on national television for booing the Canadian team as it left the ice in Vancouver following a Game 4 setback that gave the Soviets a 2-1-1 series edge heading to Moscow. Then came Esposito’s most memorable faux pas of his on-ice career — embarrassment that endeared him to many.

Prior to Game 5, the Great Espo aligned with Team Canada along the blue line. Skating forward when introduced, Phil suddenly and inexplicably was transformed into Charlie Chaplin, slipping flat-splat onto his backside, his blades pointed to the rafters. Displaying Esposito moxie, he clamored to one knee and offered a ceremonial bow and wave to the roaring crowd. Perhaps a bit red-faced, yet laughing with everyone else.

"Putin asked me how I could laugh," chuckled Phil. "Well, I could either do that or cry. I even blew a kiss to Brezhnev."

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As in Leonid Brezhnev, at the time enjoying really good seats, a perk of ruling the USSR.

Led by the King of Comedy, Canada recovered from still another loss later that night and swept the final three games. It was Esposito’s shot off Tretiak that Paul Henderson rebounded home for the clinching victory, with only :34 seconds to play.

Coach Harry Sinden termed those eight games Phil Esposito’s finest hour. We may have included the unforgettable pratfall as well. Now, four decades later, he was again in Moscow, this time sipping wine with a Presidential admirer, in the company of that nation’s most influential men.

"Putin is an avid wine collector," said Phil. "This wine was grown in Russia from Tuscany cuttings. It was outstanding.

"I presented him with a painting of himself in a hockey uniform that a friend and I commissioned. He really liked it, but told me that it looked like it was my body rather than his, that the artist used. I joked, ‘It can’t be, it’s too small.’ He laughed at that.

"He asked why I never wore a helmet as he did and was depicted in the oil portrait. I told him I had once, in 1977, in international play, because they forced me to wear it. I hated it and threw it back at them."

But I reminded him that I did wear a protective cup.

"Putin smiled really broadly and joked, ‘Some things are more important.’ "

Phil has since returned to the Florida and his Lighting Radio Network perch when the Lightning try to do as he did thru a glorious playing career. He is back with still more incredible memories of a life richly led.

"I think Putin liked me because he saw strength, I had no fear on the ice. I will say the truth as I see it. And I now have respect for Russia.

"I did not like or respect them in the 1970’s. But they know now I do."

Yes, they do. From Vancouver to Vladivostok.