Canada-Russia ’72, game 5: Midnight in Moscow

Game 5, Sept. 22, 1974

This was foreign territory, to put it mildly. Everything about watching live hockey from Moscow seemed odd. Live broadcasts from far away countries were still a novelty then, and no place was more foreign and faraway than Russia.

The picture quality was horrendous, the sound worse than AM radio, but at the time it was as good as you could get. The satellite signal was weak, and it had to travel from Moscow to Stockholm to Brussels to London to Fuccino, Italy to Etam, West Virginia to New York and finally to Toronto. It was one of the first live colour broadcasts from behind the Iron Curtain, and it was a technical miracle that we got to see the games at all.

The opening ceremonies provided an omen of what was to come, if you believed in omens, and I did. During his introduction, Phil Esposito did a spectacular pratfall, slipping on a flower stem. Espo, ever the actor, got on one knee and bowed extravagantly to the crowd, making the best of a humiliating moment. Watching this moment in a classroom at Archbishop MacDonald High School, I wasn’t laughing.

The crowd looks uniformly black, with hardly a colour to be seen. All the men are wearing almost identical suits, no doubt bought from the old Gum department store, a Soviet run edifice that was for many years among the world’s largest department stores, and pretty much the only place you could buy anything in Moscow.

Another oddity; ads on the boards, ubiquitous today, made their first appearance in Moscow. I remember thinking how weird it was to see ads for Jockey and CCM and Catelli on the boards in a communist country, but in capitalist Canada, we kept the boards pristine. Clearly, the ads were aimed at Canadian viewers, and must have baffled Russians.

So much was foreign on these broadcasts. It was our first exposure to the European style of booing, which is to whistle. No touch icing was in effect, and the larger ice surface looked almost oceanic. The Canadian flag in the arena clearly was not regulation; it looked like it was stitched together the day before.

Things looked great for Team Canada in game 5. By the 11:58 mark of period two, we were up 3-0, and playing great hockey. In this game, you can finally see the weakness in the Soviet game — too much team play. On many occasions, where a Canadian player would wind up and blast a shot, the Soviet player makes one last pass, and squanders a scoring chance.

Watching this game 40 years after it was played, the changes in hockey become glaringly apparent.

How much has hockey changed? In one roughly 30-second period, I saw interference, a hook and a slash by today’s standards. Back then, nothing.

There was one moment late in the second period that — if it had gone slightly differently — might have changed the course of hockey history. Paul Henderson crashed into the end boards heavily, and had to be assisted off the ice, looking extremely wobbly. Fortunately, Henderson was wearing a helmet, one of the few to do so on Team Canada. If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, he might not have played again. Today, he wouldn’t have played at all. Henderson suffered a serious concussion, enough to put him on the shelf for days or weeks today. Back in ’72, he played again — in the same game! And he scored, too.

Clearly, Canada was playing its best game of the series, outplaying the Russians in every department. Up 3-0 going into the third, victory seemed assured. Even when the Russians scored at 3:34 of the third, Canada (courtesy of the concussed Paul Henderson) regained the three-goal lead at 4:56.

Suddenly, the roof caved in. Russia scored at 9:05, then again at 9:13 — eight seconds later, and a romp was becoming a nail biter. The Soviets tied it at 11:42, and won it at 14:46 by a 5-4 score, overcoming a three-goal, third period deficit. And this, on a night when Canada played its best game since Toronto.

It was devastating. Now, Canada faced a staggering chore — win three straight, or go home in defeat, and disgrace. It might have been a beautiful sunny day back on Sept. 22, 1972, but to me and millions of Canadians, a vast, dark cloud had settled upon the entire country.

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