Canadian former professional ice hockey player Phil Esposito greets former rival Russian hockey player Alexander Yakushev during the starting ceremony for an exhibition ice hockey game to mark the anniversary of USSR-Canada. (REUTERS)
Not a chance will Phil Esposito go there when discussing the emotionally charged 1972 Summit Series.
Esposito is more likely to be apoplectic if you criticize what went down between Canada and the Soviet Union during the eight-game series as going far beyond the rules.
"We were going to do whatever it took to win. It didn't matter," Esposito said of series, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its conclusion Friday.
"People nowadays are ridiculing us -- I had some people send me mail saying, 'I'm so ashamed you're Canadians because you didn't play fair and were dirty.' Those people don't understand. We did whatever we had to do.
"It was f---ing war."
Today, all the players involved don't dwell on the antics --or tactics -- that went down during the September games in 1972.
When they meet, such as earlier this month in Russia, they are friends, happy to see each other and forever linked by being part of something so special.
Long forgotten are the antics, such as Bobby Clarke's slash to Valery Karlamov's ankle, Boris Mikhailov kicking Gary Bergman's shins to the point his leg was bleeding and the throat-slashing gestures from Bergman and Esposito towards Mikhailov.
At the time, though, it went to a whole new level -- a battle for hockey supremacy also had overtones of being a clash of ideology, capitalism versus communism.
"It was going both ways. I'm not going to say we were the best guys in the world. We weren't," Esposito said. "We played mean and we played dirty, and I'm not going to deny that one iota. But the truth is, we did what we had to do.
"People need to understand, we had to win. And whatever it took to win, we were going to do it."
Game 8 saw things spill over in a new way -- towards the officials.
The Canadians actually threatened to not play the game due to the Soviet's insistence Josef Kompalla and Franz Baader, both from West Germany, would referee. The compromise was Kompalla would do the game with Rudy Bata from Czechoslovakia.
"That Kompalla tried to screw us, there's no doubt about it," Esposito said.
Case in point was a couple of dubious calls early in the game on Bill White and J.P. Parise.
It was at that point Parise nearly clubbed Kompalla over the head.
"I don't know how the hell he stopped the stick from coming down," Pat Stapleton said. "It would have split the guy in two. It's amazing how he did that."
Recalled Esposito: "J.P. had never gotten kicked out of a game, never did anything like that, it was so out of character. It calmed down after because the referee calmed down. And then everybody let us play, both teams for that matter."
Ron Ellis believes saner heads also prevailed from the other side.
"Finally it got to a point where the Russians, if the referees kept calling things that way, would be embarrassed," Ellis said. "They stopped calling things, and then we started the comeback."
There were a couple of other notable nasty incidents in Game 8 amidst an entertaing match and crescendo finish.
First was Rod Gilbert's fight with Yevgeni Mishakov early in the third period and then Alan Eagleson's infamous run-in with the off-ice officials for not turning on the goal light when Yvan Cournoyer scored to make it 5-5.
Eagleson was grabbed by soldiers and Canadian players raced to save the now-disgraced former executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association and escort him to the bench -- which Eagleson did while giving a middle finger to the hosts.
"I was the first guy there," Stapleton said. "All of a sudden there was a commotion and Al was being dragged around by a bunch of guys in uniforms. I happened to be the first guy there and reached out with my stick, sort of swung my stick at the guys there, and the next thing I knew, Peter (Mahovlich) was over top of me grabbing Al and bringing him back to the ice."
The end result, fortunately, was a thrilling comeback and Paul Henderson's series-winning goal with 34 seconds remaining.
Ultimately, the way the series is also remembered in the former Soviet Union is proof their players were just as good as Canada's stars. It was a war with two winners.
"It was a tremendous, competitive battle, and they had as much pride and determination as we did, there was no question about it," Stapleton said. "The interesting part 40 years later is we've become good friends and respect one another. You have to be honoured to have the opportunity to play in that event as an athlete.
"When we were in Russia (earlier this month) there was a banquet at the end and it was emotional for everyone. It really was.
"At the end of it, we shook hands. You don't know if you'll see each other again, but you leave each other as friends."
CANADA'S REAL HERO IN '72
Paul Henderson was Canada's Summit Series Game 8 hero, the spoils of scoring the clinching goal with 34 seconds left in the 6-5 clash with the Soviet Union.
The star of the game, in his mind, was Phil Esposito.
"I think probably the best period any Canadian hockey player played up until 1972 would have been the third period he played," Henderson said. "It was the best period Ken Dryden played in the series, maybe in his life, too."
Esposito played a huge role all series, but took his game to a new level in the final period when Canada erased a 5-3 deficit.
He scored the goal which started the comeback, assisted on Yvan Cournoyer's game-tying tally and then stole the puck and fired the shot Henderson turned into the rebound marker.
"Phil, in my estimation, played probably the best period of hockey I remember anybody playing under the circumstances, with the pressure that was on us," Ron Ellis recalled. "It was unbelievable what he did in that period."
For his part, Esposito, who finished the eight-game series with seven goals and 13 points, said he can't compare that performance to others over his prestigious career.
"It's hard to say. Different situations, different things," he said. "It was like preparing for a game you had to win. It was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. That's the only way I can say it was.
"And we had to win."
To this day, his performance remains massive to even the greatest of players.
"If you want to see one player play the best eight games anybody has ever seen, watch Phil Esposito," Wayne Gretzky said earlier this month while in Russia celebrating the 1972 series as well as the 1987 Canada Cup. "Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr were probably the two greatest players in the game, but for eight games, Phil Esposito was so special. Without him, emotionally and doing what he did on the ice, we would not have won that series."