London developer Vito Frijia will mark anniversary of Summit Series with team in Russia

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Members of the 1972 Team Canada who played in what’s still considered the greatest hockey series ever are heading back to Moscow to celebrate the event — and a local entrepreneur and sports lover is among the invited guests.

The eight-game ’72 series was the first meeting between the “amateur” USSR national team, which had dominated global hockey, and National Hockey League players.

To the surprise of everyone except probably the Soviets, the series turned into a heart-stopping showdown that enthralled a nation.

It’s expected 10 members of that team will head to Moscow in five days to help launch a Russian exhibit honouring the event.

Pat Stapleton, Phil Esposito, Don Awrey, Jocelyn Guevremont, Dennis Hull, Brad Park, Wayne Cashman, Pete Mahovlich, Frank Mahovlich and Red Berenson will join Russian players like Vladimir Tretiak, Alexander Yakushev, Alxander Gusev and Boris Mikhailov at the event.

Also expected to make an appearance on the day is Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Among the invited guests is London business person Vito Frijia. The owner of Southside Construction and the National Basketball League of Canada’s London Lightning has been a huge supporter of the 1972 team and is close friends with players like Stapleton, Phil Esposito, Hull and Paul Henderson.

Almost five years ago Frijia played host to a 40th-anniversary gala tribute dinner for players from both teams at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto.

Frijia was a 13-year-old when the series took place. He has always believed the country owes these players a debt of gratitude for what they went through and how they brought a country together.

“I was a brand new Canadian. We came here in 1967,” Frijia said. “I remember sitting in the back of the gym. We had a black-and-white TV on a stand. You could hear a pin drop. When Henderson scored, the nuns back there were hugging all the little kids.

“The kids knew there was something special but we didn’t recognize the magnitude of what happened. They were my heroes back then.”

Frijia had a chance to go to Russia in 2012 but couldn’t go because of previous engagements.

“It’s very nice for get another chance to go and very nice for them to invite me,” Frijia says. “It’s going to be fun because I know most of the guys.”

The NHL was supposed to walk all over the Soviets in ’72, but in the end NHL players were life-and-death to come away with a series win. The victory was only made possible by a late goal by Henderson in the eighth game of the series in the Soviet Union.

“We’ve gone from rivalry to respect for one another,” Stapleton said. “For us playing when we did, it wasn’t like it is now. We’d been on skates about two weeks. They’d been getting ready for a long time.”

When you look back on who the Soviets had on their roster, it wasn’t difficult to see why they dominated world hockey and why the series turned into a monument to hockey history.

The Soviets were backstopped by goaltender Tretiak on a team that included Yakusev, Valery, Gusev, Mikhailov, Valery Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, Alexander Ragulin, Valery Vasiliev, Vyacheslav Anisin and Alexander Maltsev.

“They were very good,” Stapleton said. “We didn’t know how good until we got on the ice with them. It’s a wonderful thing that this is happening because over the years we’ve both grown to respect each other.

“What’s interesting is that we know how important the series was for Canadians and for us, but we’re finding out that it was also a really big thing for the Russians.”

Team Canada was invited by the Russian sports federation and will arrive in Moscow on Wednesday and spend three days in Moscow participating in numerous events, including meeting Russian hockey fans in Moscow’s Park of Legends, and attending a KHL Moscow Dynamo home game.

The big event will be Thursday, when both 1972 teams attend the opening of an exhibit at the new Russian Museum of Hockey. The exhibit is called “World Hockey Classic: USSR – Canada.”

It will come of the 45th anniversary of the series.

Stapleton is the chair of 1972 Summit Series Hockey Team Inc. (SSHTI), an organization created by the 37 members or their heirs from the ’72 Team Canada. SSHTI works to protect the heritage of Team Canada ’72, sustain the legacy of the event and use that legacy as a way to give back to Canadians.

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