Esposito gives fans a tongue-lashing
Team Canada’s verbal beating by Vancouver crowd after an embarrassing loss led fiery assistant captain to spring to team’s defence
Most Americans can recall where they were and what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It’s a touchstone experience, one of those public moments that seems to tap deeply into the collective psyche of a nation and reverberate there forever.
Canadians don’t have as many similar experiences, but when they do happen, they seem to involve hockey. So where were you and what were you doing on Sept. 28, 1972, when Paul Henderson scored The Goal! with 34 seconds remaining in the last of an eight-game Summit Series with the Soviets?
There are many among us who still remember it as the greatest goal ever scored in a series that was nothing less than a Cold War on ice. No argument there — but only if you agree the seeds of that Henderson goal were planted on a Sept. 8 night in Vancouver following an embarrassing 5-3 loss by one of the greatest post-game speeches ever delivered by an NHL player.
Team Canada, you’ll remember, lost Game 1 on Sept. 2 by a stunning 7-3 score at the Montreal Forum. Two nights later, they won 4-1 in Toronto. On Sept. 6, the Soviets twice rallied from behind to emerge with a 4-4 tie. Now, a win in Vancouver was a priority if Team Canada was to travel to Moscow with an edge in the series.
What they got instead, to the dismay and anger of the crowd, was a thrashing.
Soviets 5, Team Canada 3 — and it wasn’t as close as that.
What made this loss far more difficult to swallow was the hostile, game-long reaction from their fans.
It’s why Esposito launched into a post-game, on-ice rant that streamed into millions of homes on television. To this day, it is still remembered as the most impassioned speech in hockey history.
“For the people across Canada, we tried,” Esposito said. “We gave it our best. For the people who booed us, jeez, all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned and we’re disappointed in some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings.
“If the Russian fans boo their players like some of the Canadian fans, then I’ll come back and apologize to each and every Canadian. I’m really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it.
“Some of our guys are really down in the dumps,” Esposito continued. “We know we’re trying. What the hell, we’re doing the best we can. They’ve got a good team and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150 per cent, because we certainly are.
“Every one of us guys, 35 guys, came out to play for Team Canada. We did it because we love our country and not for any 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.”
Years later, Esposito suggested he was angered to the point where he felt like ramming his stick down a fan’s throat. “That’s when I realized we were in a war, man,” he said. “This isn’t a game. This is a war and we’d better get ourselves together.”
Red Fisher’s eight-part feature series will resume on Sept. 22.
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