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Putin harks back to '72 Summit Series for a political boost

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greets Canadian former professional hockey player Phil Esposito at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Feb. 24, 2012.

Misha Japaridze/REUTERS/Misha Japaridze/REUTERS

Almost 40 years after the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, Phil Esposito and other members of both teams have gathered in Moscow this weekend for an event tinged with political overtones.

Mr. Esposito, who was captain of Canada's team, and former Minnesota North Stars forward Jean-Paul Parisé met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the midst of his election campaign. Soviet team goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who is currently president of the Russian ice hockey federation, was also there, as were former NHL stars Brad Park, Pat Stapleton and Dennis Hull.

The head of ice hockey's ruling international board (IIHF), René Fasel of Switzerland, joined the meeting together with NHL Players' Association president Donald Fehr. The controversial subject of NHL players participating in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was expected to be discussed.

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The weekend was to include a state dinner on Friday and an exhibition game on Saturday to mark the 60th anniversary of Russia's membership in the international hockey circuit. None of the 1972 stars were expected to lace up their skates.

"There is no doubt that the 1972 series was one of the brightest events in world hockey in the 20th century," Mr. Putin said at the meeting. "The series deeply impressed millions of people in North America, Europe and Soviet Union. The matches reduced tension between East and West, setting up new human relations between people. We can not only talk about it, but also play in memory of this series. It's not for the result, but to remind all hockey lovers how it had happened 40 years ago."

There's political motivation behind the event, which takes place just more than a week before the Russian election, said Marta Dyczok, a Western University associate professor.

The latest polls suggest Mr. Putin will reclaim his job, but he's facing growing resentment as illustrated by recent street protests over allegations of election fraud.

"Clearly, there's a lot of discontent," said Prof. Dyczok, who specializes in Russian and Eastern European history and political science. "This is sort of an attempt to turn public attention away from the protests and focus on other things."

She said putting an emphasis on sport and bringing hockey icons to Russia fits with Mr. Putin's image, as well as appealing to voters. "This is part of a larger strategy to paint Putin as the powerful, the multi-faceted [leader]" she said. "It's part of that all-powerful image that he's been cultivating for some time. It's just now gone into high gear."

Focusing on the game plays to patriotism too, she said.

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The Cold War was the backdrop for the series. For a month in 1972, hockey took on an us-versus-them flavour. The Soviets were seen as enigmatic automatons – unsmiling, monolithic and superbly conditioned. The mystery about them lasted one period. Then they earned respect.

"I talked to some of the guys like [Vladimir]Petrov and [Alexander]Yakushev … Jesus, they were good," Mr. Esposito said in an interview with the Russian media outlet Novosti. "That [Soviet team]was as good a hockey team as I've ever seen in my life. We really out-willed the Soviets, as they were called. We had more passion, we had more desire to win. We just felt that we could not lose. And we were not going to. Although it came close."

Canada won four games, the Soviets three and one game was tied.

Canadian fans booed their team off the ice after the fourth game in Vancouver. Mr. Esposito gave Canadian fans a memorable tongue lashing. Canada had to win the last game in Moscow to claim victory in the series.

"It became very political. I wish it wouldn't have, but it did," Mr. Esposito said. "I blame both countries for making it political. It was unfair to the players."

He also compared today's style of game with that of 40 years ago.

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"The players are bigger, stronger, with better equipment, but they don't think like we did," he said. "We played because we loved it. ... Hell, I worked in the summertime until I was 30 years old in a steel plant driving bulldozers because I didn't make enough money playing hockey. I scored 76 goals and made $18,000. When I got to $100,000, I did quit work in the summer."

Mr. Esposito made the journey to Moscow with a heavy heart. His daughter, Carrie Selivanov, 43, wife of former Tampa Bay Lightning star Alex Selivanov, died suddenly on Jan. 30. An autopsy revealed she died of an abdominal aneurysm.

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