So, where were we?
Ah, yes. Team Canada left the “friendly” confines of home with just one win in four games, and the disapproval of Canadian (actually Vancouver) hockey fans still ringing in their ears. The series, expected to be an 8-0 romp for Canada (the pessimists pegged it at 7-1), was now not just a hockey series, but a full on war.
Before heading to Moscow, however, Canada made a stop in Sweden for a couple of exhibition games. I don’t remember the games being televised, which is just as well. By all accounts, the games (a 4-1 Canada win and a tie) were bloody fiascos. Again, this was our first real exposure to a brand of hockey other than Classic Canadian, and it was not a pleasant experience. Canadian hockey players were schooled in the “I will break your nose with my elbow” school, while Swedish hockey was more of the “I will subtly remove your spleen with my stick” school.
This was Canada’s first taste of hockey, Swedish style — notorious for spearing, diving and hiding from confrontations — and it wasn’t long before the term “chicken Swede” had worked its way into the hockey lexicon. (Harold Ballard, the notorious owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time, famously said if a Swedish hockey player went into the corner with a pocketful of eggs, none of them would end up broken.) The games were, by all accounts, ugly affairs. The Swedish media called our guys the Canadian mafia and thugs for our style of play. The captain of the Swedish team had his nose broken by a Vic Hadfield (more on Hadfield later), and a photo of the bloodied but innocent Swede was splashed across the Swedish papers the next day. No one, however, had a photo of Canada’s Wayne Cashman, who had his tongue cleaved by a Swedish stick to the mouth. The games were officiated by a two men unknown to Canadian hockey, who would become household names in Canada by the end of the Canada-Russia series. And not the good kind of household name.
While the games were a write off, the stay in Sweden allowed the Canadian players to finally bond as a team. Animosities between players from Toronto and Montreal, and Boston and New York, began to vanish as the enormity of the task ahead of them became apparent. They were no longer Canadiens and Leafs, Bruins and Rangers, but Canadians.
And so, it was on to Moscow, and Game 5 from the Luzhniki Ice Palace (for a country that has real palaces, even Russians must have found calling this Soviet-style slab of concrete a ‘palace’ amusing). The Canadian team brought hundreds of steaks (a pre-game steak was a ritual for hockey players then), which, of course, promptly disappeared. Fortunately, Canada also brought along 3,000 rabid hockey fans who not only didn’t disappear, but drowned out every sullen Russian hockey fan for the duration of the series.
It was easy for Canadian fans to out-cheer the Russians. It was learned later that most of the seats went to Communist party higher-ups and various toadies. Real hockey fans found seats scarce (like everything else in Moscow), and when they could find them, they were priced out of the reach of a typical Muscovite. By the final game in Moscow, scalpers were asking for 100 rubles, when the typical monthly salary was 120 rubles.
Before Game 5 in Moscow, Team Canada faced a mini-revolt, as three players — who were told by coach Harry Sinden that not only would they not be playing, they wouldn’t even practice — decided to go home. For some reason, the poster boy for the defectors was Vic Hadfield of the New York Rangers. Ask anyone today to name the three quitters, and chances are the only one anyone will remember will be Hadfield’s. (For the record, the two others were Rick Martin, who would have a stellar career as part of the ‘French Connection’ for Buffalo, and the forgotten Jocelyn Guevremont.) Hadfield has had to defend his decision for the last four decades. I can understand it today, but at the time, Hadfield was no less than a traitor to his country.
Soiled reputations in Sweden. Defecting players. Stolen steaks. The monumental task of winning three of four in Russia. This did not bode well.
Tomorrow, Game 5.