If the International Olympic Committee isn’t aware of the shock waves it will send not just through the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but also through the international hockey world by including the Russian Olympic hockey team in their planned ban of the Russian Olympic team for doping, they may want to listen one of Russian hockey’s fiercest rivals to understand the damage this could do to the Olympic hockey tournament that is already reeling from the absence of NHLers and the time difference in North America.
“If the Russian hockey team — and I specifically say hockey team — were not allowed to play in the Olympics, that would be like the Canadian hockey team; the United States hockey team; Swedish hockey team; and the Finland hockey team not being allowed to play,” hall of famer Phil Esposito told Murphy’s Hockey Law Tuesday. “You don’t have an Olympics! Period! Without all of those countries there, you don’t have an Olympics. So I think it’s absolutely ridiculous … ridiculous, if they’re not going to allow the Russian hockey team to play because of this.”
Esposito was reacting to the recent news that not only is the IOC likely to follow through with its threat to — as it did at the summer Olympics — ban all Russian Olympic sports teams, including the favored hockey team, (allowing them to play but not under the Russian flag), but also the Kontinental Hockey League threatening to hold its players, of all nationalities, back as well.
In the amazing NBC Sports Network documentary on the 1972 Summit Series between Russia and Canada, Esposito — who was the leading scorer and a catalyst for Canada in their legendary series clinching Game 8 — described the moment he knew there was something much bigger than hockey at stake against the then Soviet Union. Reflecting on a post game interview after a loss in Vancouver during the series, Esposito had this to say:
“Communism is better! Don’t you admit it now! And all this other stuff. This is Vancouver! Guys in the stands were yelling that Communism is best and it’s supreme! That’s when I realized, we are in a war here,” Esposito said. “That’s when I really realized, we are in war here; this is no game, this is war!”
Esposito went on to assist on the series clinching goal by Paul Henderson and is forever part of Canadian and international hockey lore.
Esposito now serves as Vice President of Corporate Relations for the Tampa Bay Lightning and has served as an ambassador of the game in Russia and China in recent years. He knew back in 1972 and he knows now how big a part Russia is of the international hockey community. So even if he still considers Russia a rival on the ice, he still thinks the IOC is wrong. While the proud Canadian still maintains his bitterness for Russian hockey and wouldn’t say or do anything different he said — including wanting to “rip a Russian’s heart out” — or did during that series, he believes he knows what’s right for the game and right for the Olympic hockey tournament.
“I stand by everything I said and did then and would do it again, but I am totally flabbergasted if they do indeed block the Russian hockey team from playing in the Olympics because of what happened with other sports in the Summer Olympics,” said Esposito. “I think it’s absolutely wrong.”