MOSCOW - When Phil Esposito is spotted in Russia, the reaction from a throng of people is a sight to behold.
"One time, my wife (Bridget) looked at me and said, 'I didn't know I was travelling with Brad Pitt,' " Esposito said with a laugh.
"Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed by the admiration, the adoration, whatever word it is. It's overwhelming. I'm 70 years old and, man, it's wonderful to still be recognized and known.
"I think I'm more famous over here (in Russia) than I am there (in Canada and the United States). Does that make any sense?"
Forty years ago, Esposito was a force, his size, scoring and passion on full display during all eight games of the 1972 Summit Series.
He'll admit Paul Henderson was the hero of the series with his winning goals in the final three games, including the series clincher with 34 seconds remaining in the finale, but Esposito was the engine behind Team Canada.
Wayne Gretzky put it best.
"Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr were probably the two greatest players in the game, but for eight games Phil Esposito was so special," Gretzky said. "Without him emotionally and doing what he did on the ice, we would not have won that series."
Gretzky, who was 11 when the series was played, has told Esposito as much. The two were chatting via text message recently and Esposito, who has been in Russia for a couple of weeks as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations, told The Great One what he has been doing and the reaction.
"He said, 'You deserve it. I watch the eight games all the time. You were unreal. Best I've ever seen a man play,' " Esposito proudly relayed. "That is really huge. To me, Wayne was simply the best forward I ever saw play."
But Esposito's performance, which included eight goals and five assists, was truly one for the ages.
That's why he has legendary status in Russia.
The reaction from hockey fans has made Esposito realize much about the country he didn't wish to revisit in the aftermath of the 1972 series.
"These people in Russia have embraced this whole thing almost to the point of overdoing it," Esposito said as he was mobbed for autographs and a couple of interviews at the KHL offices. "Maybe that's right and maybe that's wrong but they feel -- and I do, too, by the way -- that series changed the face of hockey forever.
"Really and truly, if you think about it, we're playing hockey like they did in the '70s (now) in Canada, and they're playing hockey like we did in the '70s here in Russia. It's good. It's really good.
"Without a doubt, I'm sorry it took me 40 years to come back here. I should have been back here. My daughter (Carrie) -- when she was living in St. Petersburg when her husband (Alex Selivanov) was playing hockey (in Russia in 2003-04) -- said, 'You've got to come back here, dad. These people are crazy for you. You've got to come back here.'
"I said, 'No, I don't want to go back to Russia,' but I'm sorry it took me 40 years.
"These people are friendly and wonderful, but in 1972 they weren't allowed to talk to us like they are now, and we never really wanted to talk to them. We were at war as far as we were concerned."
Now, Esposito -- who doesn't believe his squad should have been called Team Canada because Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Gerry Cheevers, who had jumped to the WHA, weren't allowed to be on it -- has become an ambassador for the game in both countries.
"The hockey players here have the talent. We have the talent," Esposito said, noting that Russian forward Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins was the NHL's MVP last season.
"It's the language and the politics and that's what causes all the trouble. If I could understand (them) better and (they) could understand me better, we'd have no problem. Maybe there should be a universal language. Maybe we wouldn't fight so much."
But there's still plenty of fight in No. 7.
He'll tell everyone Canada won that series because of pride and heart, overcoming a more talented Soviet squad.
"It should have ended in a tie," he said. "But somebody, the minister of sports of something in those days, came to our team I think with six or seven minutes to go and said, 'If it's a tie, we declare victory by international rules' because they scored one more goal than us. We didn't understand that. But when we were told that by the coaches, I remember all of us on the ice in front of the bench said 'Well, we'll just have to score another goal.'
"But the perfect scenario would have been if we ended in a tie and both teams would have ended up winners."
On Twitter: @SUNRandySportak