‘BoniBlog – Espo: Still shooting from the lip

by John Iaboni, Sports Media Canada special correspondent — now reporting from Blue Jays spring training in Dunedin, Florida

John Iaboni at the Blue Jays camp

One thing about Phil Esposito, he’s never been one to conceal his feelings. His emotional outburst with Johnny Esaw (a Sports Media Canada Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in 1997) at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum following Game 4 of the 1972 Summit Series was a momentous indicator of that.
We caught up with Espo Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum. The founder of the Tampa Bay Lightning remains a forthright staple of Lightning radio broadcasts. When we renewed acquaintances for a between-periods chat, I wondered out loud just exactly what one of Team Canada’s leading figures against the Soviets in ’72 thought about Canada’s 7-3 thumping of the Russians at the recent Vancouver Olympics.
Naturally, Espo came out firing … anything less would not have been … well … Espo.
“I watched the game at home on television and I thought that the Russians quit,” he told me. “I mean, they did. Plus (goalie Evgeni) Nabokov was awful, he really was. And I think the whole team quit, it was terrible.
“Besides the coach Bee-kov, Bye-kov (Vyacheslav Bykov) whatever his name is, he should have seen it and put (Ilya) Bryzgalov in there right away. He waited until the fourth one or the fifth one I think it was and then it was too late.”
Esposito never enjoyed the ’72 Summit, often referring to it as a “war” on ice. To this day, his feelings haven’t softened whenever the two hockey rivals face each other.
“Well, I like anybody beating Russia,” he said.
Even though, I wondered, his son-in-law (Alexander Selivanov) is Russian?
“Absolutely, my grandkids are Russians, it doesn’t matter,” he said clearly showing where his hockey allegiance still remains.
“By the way, I also think the Russians made a mistake for not having more NHLers on their roster,” he added. “The put some (nine) players from the Kontinental Hockey League because they think it’s like the NHL but you could see the difference – a big-time difference.”
He wasn’t done there yet either, taking a jab at Vladislav Tretiak, his former on-ice goaltending adversary who recently agreed to a five-year contract extension as president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. Tretiak was GM of the Russians squad at Vancouver and his new contract carries through the 2014 Olympics at Sochi.
“I was surprised that they gave Tretiak an extension on his contract,” Esposito said. “I thought after that (no medal at Vancouver), they’d fire him, too, but they didn’t.”
As for the men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament and the Canada-USA terrific Gold-Medal game, Esposito was overwhelmed.
“I thought it was fabulous, I thought it was great for hockey and hockey won,” he said. “And I wish people would realize – and the commissioner (Gary Bettman) has said it and I’ll say it, too – every game in the NHL you can see the same players that played in the Gold Medal game … every game!”
Some other thoughts from Esposito: He believes new Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is the right man to revive the Lightning and he couldn’t say enough about the emergence of Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie. Vinik was at his first game on Saturday night since taking over ownership and the Lightning broke a five-game losing streak with a 6-2 win over Atlanta.
After watching Stamkos against Atlanta in which he scored twice to reach the 40-goal mark, it’s hard to think he was left off Canada’s Olympic squad. This kid is that good now and only going to get better.