To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Canada-Russia series of 1972, I went back and watched, via time machine (or maybe DVD), Game One from Montreal, played Sept. 2. Here is my report.
It was a Saturday, the last one before school began again for the fall. At least there was The Series to take my mind off school.
Turned out, it just made matters worse.
The great Canada-Russia hockey series of 1972 was finally ready to go. For all of Canada, when the Russians took to the ice for the first time in the steamy Montreal Forum, it would be our first encounter with the Soviet menace.
The Russians were so anonymous to us, so robotic. The commies (we could call them commies in those days), wearing the kind of equipment that Value Village would reject, were complete unknowns. In short order, we would know their names as well as we knew the names of the Canadian stars.
It was our first introduction to guys like thuggish looking Boris Mikhailov, the rangy but cadaverous Alexander Yakushev, a little guy named Valery Kharlamov (hockey players named Valery? No wonder we were going to kill them), and a goaltender wearing a too-small helmet named Vladislav Tretiak. On our side, we had guys named Rod and Red and Rick and Vic and Phil and Paul and Pete and Frank and, of course, Bobby (Clarke, but no Orr or Hull). They apparently were all named Canada, since that was the only word on the back of their sweaters (which is what they called jerseys in the old days).
The Montreal crowd for game one reserved its loudest applause for Canadiens heroes Frank Mahovlich and goaltender Ken Dryden, who looked deeply worried about what was to come.
It was our first taste of the Russian national anthem, a stirring, typically militaristic and incredibly long dirge that we would all get to know far too well. We countered with Roger Doucette, the legendary Canadiens anthem singer. If anyone sang along, I couldn’t hear them; I think everyone might have been too tense to sing.
After the opening ceremonies, complete with the sharing of little banners, the first game of the Series With No Name began.
Legendary play-by-play man Foster Hewitt was well past his prime as an announcer, but you had to have the inventor of hockey play-by-play handle a series of this magnitude. Within 10 seconds he was mangling the pronunciation of Yvan Cournoyer. Hewitt’s trouble with ‘the Roadrunner’s’ name became a kind of running joke during the series, about the only thing we had to laugh about.
After 30 seconds — 30 seconds! — Phil Esposito scored. Pandemonium! This was shaping up exactly as we hoped it would. Go home, commies!
But when the Russians get a power play, we get a taste of what the Ruskies could do. Their passing was crisp and quick, and they poured in on the Canadians. Only a massive save by Dryden prevents a tie. Before the period is half over, Paul Henderson scores, and Canada is looking good, up 2-0. Badly outplayed, but still ahead.
At 12:30, the Soviets score a beauty by a guy named Zimin, who is forgotten now but was clearly someone that Hewitt thought was “a real top notcher”. Before the period was over, the Russians tie the game — shorthanded, no less. The two-goal lead, which Hewitt admitted was unearned, was gone.
At 2:40 of period 2, the unthinkable happens: the Russians take the lead. Kharlamov burns a Canadian defenseman and puts one past Dryden short side. It the first taste we have of the speed and skill of Kharlamov. Hewitt would later say “there seems to be no stopping this Kharlamov.” Oh, there would be …
Later, Kharlamov does it again, scoring on a quick low shot, one of those sudden goals that either takes the wind out of you, or gives you a huge boost. Me? I was winded. After two periods, Canada trials 4-2.
This was looking very bleak. We couldn’t have imagined how much bleaker it would get.
The ice was shrouded in fog in the third period, but only one team looked like they were playing in a fog.
But wait! A ray of hope. Bobby Clarke scores at 8:22, it’s 4-3 and suddenly there is life in the game. The crowd is into it; the players have more jump. Things are looking hopeful.
Hope fades in a hurry. Boris Mikhailov scores at 13:22, then Zimin at 14:29, and it’s game over. The Ruskies score one more at 18:37 just to seal the humiliation, a beauty by Yakushev. When the Russians scored, there was little celebration on their side. Nobody smiled. These guys knew how to play hockey, but they sure didn’t seem to enjoy it.
Canada looked slow and tired, as well they should. The heat was oppressive, the players out of shape, and like any all-star team, they had little or no chemistry. But that sad Saturday night in September, none of that mattered. Canada’s confidence took a beating that night, the first of many.
The mood in our house, as I’m sure it was in houses across the country, was funereal. If I had worse days in my life to that point, I’m not sure what they were.
And school started in two days.
Random thoughts from game one:
• There was a ridiculous amount of interference, and sticks were liberally used as weapons. Bobby Clarke clubbed a Soviet player over the head and wasn’t penalized.
• The game is noticeably slower than the game today. The pace of Game 1 at times looked no better than an oldtimers game today.
• Equipment? What equipment? The shoulder pads looked no more substantial than the padding in a half-decent men’s suit. And only one or two Canadian players wore a helmet.
• The PA announcer in the Montreal Forum sat in the penalty box right next to the penalized player, and the fans walked directly behind the players with no barriers.
• TV coverage was terrible. The style at the time was the move to a shot of the goaltender, so on several goals you couldn’t see the player making the move.
• And how come nobody ever says “ragging the puck” anymore?