When you think of great sports speeches, there are a few that have become etched in history.
Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of this earth” speech stands out in baseball; and Muhammad Ali’s many “I am the greatest” declarations defined a boxing era.
Hockey’s such moment came on the night of Sept. 8, 1972. Canada had just lost 5-3 on home ice in Game 4 of the Summit Series to the Soviets, giving The Reds a 2-1-1 lead. Canadians in general weren’t pleased with the performance from their boys and the fans in Vancouver that night let them all know by booing them off the ice.
Dripping with sweat, enveloped in exhaustion and fed up with the crowd’s response, Phil Esposito took matters into his own hands in a TV interview as he was leaving the ice:
“To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, geez, I’m really – all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned and we’re disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings…
“I’m really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps. We know, we’re trying like hell. I mean, we’re doing the best we can and they got a good team and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150 percent, because we certainly are…
“Every one of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason, no other reason. They can throw the money for the pension fund out the window. They can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home and that’s the only reason we come. And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.”
And with that, Canada was headed off to enemy territory for the final four games of the series.
Immediately after his emotional speech to the nation, Esposito returned to the dressing room, but didn’t say anything to his teammates. Instead, he had other business to take care of that made it clear this series was about more than just hockey.
“First off, I was getting phone calls from people,” Esposito recently recalled. “I think I took five calls, four of them were terrific, one was from northern British Columbia telling me the communists were better and why don’t you admit it: communism is better than capitalism and we should be socialists in this country.”
It’s recognized that the boisterous and outspoken Italian from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., turned the tide of the series with his brief, but passionate plea. However, Esposito himself didn’t realize the importance of that moment in the history of the game or in that series until 10 years later when they gathered for a reunion and finally watched it.
“I was embarrassed,” Esposito said. “I came as close as you can come to swearing on the air and caught myself. Which is unusual because I was in the kind of mood where I could have said anything. The truth is, I had nothing to lose. I was playing in the States. If we lost that series when I got up to Montreal or Toronto they might have booed a little bit, but I got booed anyway.”
Embarrassed? Esposito was the first NHLer to record 100 points in a season, he led that Canadian team in scoring (seven goals, 13 points) and he won two Hart Trophies, five Art Ross Trophies and two Stanley Cups in his day. So why would this all-time great be embarrassed about getting emotional after the hometown fans booed a team that gathered in the name of national unity?
“What right do I have to say something like that?” Esposito said. “Then I realized after, the best way to make a speech is emotionally if you want to get your point across. Unfortunately, that’s why politicians are f—-ing losers.”
Canada, of course, took the final three games from the Soviets to win the eight-game series by the narrowest of margins. Paul Henderson’s famous goal with 34 seconds remaining in Game 8 – off a shot from Esposito – will forever be a lightning rod for Canadian patriotism.
“The first second (after the goal),” Esposito chuckled. “I said to Paul, ‘well my friend, you came as close in my life to me kissing another man.’ ”
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