Canada-Russia ’72, game 6: Winning ugly

Game 6, September 24, 1972

The days between games were almost as agonizing as game days. In the two days between games, pretty much all I could think about was the upcoming game. On game days, I was almost sick from worry. This would have been a pretty good excuse to get out of school (“Please excuse Maurice from school yesterday. He was sick from worry.”) but there was no need to stay home to watch the games. As I recall, classes shut down for the games. Oh, there were a few holdouts — mostly femal home ec teachers — but for the most part everyone had Series Fever, and the only treatment was rest in front of a television.

After the devastating loss in Game 5, there was now no room for error. Team Canada gave up a three-goal lead in the third period, and a loss in Game 6 would mean a loss of the series — with two games to go. Catastrophe is not too strong a word to describe that result.

Game six featured a scoreless first period, a five goal second period, and a scoreless third period. But that doesn’t mean nothing happened in those two scoreless periods.

The first period saw the first inkling of the problems to come with the officials. Phil Esposito took a double minor for boarding or cross checking or something like that, and Espo was not happy. He berated the official (who seemed to take great glee in giving Esposito his penalties), and even did a chocking gesture while in the box. In hindsight, at least one of the penalties was certainly legit, but at the time any penalty against Canada was seen as part of the worldwide communist conspiracy to steal the series (even though the referees were West Germans).

The second period saw Canada turn the tables on the Russians. After going behind 1-0, Canada scored three goals (Denis Hull, Yvan Cournoyer, Paul Henderson) in just a minute and a half. The second two goals came so close together (15 seconds, the second on a long shot that eluded Tretiak) that poor old Foster Hewitt lost track of the score. Of course, lost leads meant nothing in this series; Canada led by 2 in Game 1, 2 in Game 3, and three in Game 5. No lead seemed safe, and indeed before the period was over, the Russians narrowed the gap to one, setting up a gut wrenching third period.

Before the period was over, an incident would occur that would define the series. Bobby Clarke, the notorious Philadephia Flyer sparkplug/thug, delivered a savage slash to the ankle of Valerie Kharlamov, the blazingly fast Soviet star. The slash would break Kharlamov’s ankle, eliminating one of Russia’s top weapons. In a series that would be decided in the last three games by one goal in each game, not having Kharlamov could have made the difference. Clarke’s slash was deliberate, and he never denied that he was quite happy to break Kharlamov’s ankle. (Kharlamov, to his credit, played for the rest of the game, but was lost for the rest of the series.) The intensity of the series was such that I found it perfectly acceptable that Clarke would try to put Kharlamov out of the game, and did. It was war, and whatever had to be done, had to be done. That’s terrible, I know, but that’s how much this series meant to Canada.

Consider this quote from Phil Esposito: “I’ve said this publicly and I’m not too proud of it, but I’ve said it publicly, so I’ll say it: I often wondered how you can kill another person in a war and stuff like that, that you don’t even know, and you don’t – you know what I mean? But there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have killed those son of a bitches to win. And it scares me. That’s where I was. Now other guys think I’m crazy when I say that. And it’s easy to think I’m crazy now after 40 years.

After two periods, Canada had 29 minutes of penalties to Russia’s four, courtesy of the West German referee combo of Franz Baeder and Joseph Kompalla, or, as the Canadian media wags called them, Baeder and Worst.  Team Canada coach Harry Sinden said the officials were “entirely incompetent. Two of the worst officials I’ve ever seen referee a game.”  Canada was so furious, they made the Russians wait about five minutes to start the third period.

But really, were they that bad? Clearly, they overlooked Russian interference, a common trait of USSR hockey at the time. But most of the Canadian penalties, as far as I could tell from the broadcast, were deserved. The third period was a free-for-all, with just one penalty (to Canada, in the last three minutes) called, when there could have been a half-dozen to both teams. After the game, a big complaint from the Canadians was about offside calls, many of which were suspect. But in the bizarre world of international hockey, the two referees also had to call the offsides, so a few screw-ups were to be expected.

It was not the prettiest of games, particularly in the second period, but Canada did what it set out to do. One down, two very hard wins to go.

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