Canada-Russia ’72, game 8: A walk through hell on the way to heaven.

Game 8, Sept. 28, 1972

How do I describe the importance of Game 8 to a young Canadian hockey fan?

Let’s try this: remember when Sydney Crosby scored in overtime to beat the U.S. and give Canada the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, 2010? Well, it was like that, only about a thousand times better. I loved that Crosby goal, but nothing — absolutely nothing — compares to that goal, and that game.

Naturally, it came with controversy before the game that spilled over into the match itself.

Ever seen this picture?

The great dispute was over who would referee. The Russians wanted the incompetent and possibly corrupt combo of Josef Kompalla and Franz Baader as the officials. Even Paul Henderson said if Baader and Kompalla refereed, Canada should pull out of the tournament. Kompalla, for his part, had called the Canadian players “childish”. And this is the guy the Russians wanted to officiate the most important hockey game of all time! Canada wanted the generally competent Rudy Bata from Czechoslovakia and Uwe Dahlberg from Sweden. But the morning of the game, Dahlberg became ‘sick’. Alan Eagleson, the manager of Team Canada and a central figure in Game 8 even though he didn’t wear skates, said later that Dahlberg was told by the Russians that if he officiated the game, he would never ref another game. Hey, that would make anybody sick.

So it was Bata and, incredibly, Kompalla, who would officiate.  It wouldn’t take long before officiating became the story — Canada was down by two men at the three-minute mark. One call was legit, the other a dive, as Foster Hewitt accurately described it. Russian scored on the two-man advantage, and a game that was already at a boiling point exploded.

After Russian got its first penalty, Canada’s J.P. Parise was called for interference (there would be five straight interference penalties in the period) at 4:10. Parise later said he was angry not because there was a penalty, but the nature of the penalty; as he put it, how can you call interference on a man who has the puck? Furious, Parise went to the box, promptly jumped out again, skated around in a rage, got misconduct, then went berserk. He charged at referee Kompalla, raising his stick in a gesture that could only be interpreted as “I am going to kill you”, or whatever the equivalent is in French. Parise, of course, got a game misconduct, but that was enough to send the Canadian bench into a rage. Someone from the Canadian bench threw a chair on the ice, and Team Canada menacingly circled the hapless referees for a good 10 minutes. It was madness, as Canada’s leather-lunged fans chanted “Let’s go home! Let’s go home!”

The rest of the period was all hockey — Canada tied, Russia went ahead, Canada tied again. The pressure on the players, and one high school student in Edmonton, Alberta (that would be me) was almost unbearable.

In the second, Russia scored first thanks to one of the quirks of the arena. Instead of glass in either end, there was netting. A Russian shot hit the net, catapulted out in front, and Shadrin put it behind a bewildered Dryden. By the end of the period, Canada found itself down by two goals, and facing utter catastrophe.

So it came down to this. An entire grinding, exhausting, emotionally draining series would be decided in one period, with Canada trailing by two goals. It seemed all but over.

The third period brought the famous Alan Eagleson incident. After Canada tied the game, Eagleson noticed the goal light didn’t go on, at least not immediately.  Eagleson (I’m sure very calmly) raced towards the goal judge, but was intercepted by Russian cops. Peter Mahovlich, convinced that if Eagleson was taken away by the Russians he would never be seen again, reached over the boards to rescue Eagleson. Most of the Canadian team, including coach Sinden, joined in the fray, resulting in a memorable scene of white-shirted Canadian hockey players staring down Russian cops. The clearly rattled Eagleson was escorted across the ice to the safety of the Canadian bench, members of the Canadian training staff gave the Russian crowd the finger. Not a proud moment.

Of course, I don’t have to tell you what happened in the rest of the period.  What has been forgotten was Esposito’s enormous role in the comeback. Espo got the first goal and assisted on the tying and winning goals. Esposito also called a huddle shortly before Henderson’s goal, something that had never been done before. Throughout the series, Esposito was a force of nature. He exemplified why Canada won the series; we simply, if I may use a terrible cliché, wanted it more. We HAD to win it. Esposito simply would not allow Canada to lose the series, and for his efforts, I am forever grateful. Henderson is everyone’s hero of the series, but to me, the real hero was Phil Esposito.

The goal, Hewitt’s call, and the iconic (yes, the correct use of the word) photo are unquestionably the most seen moments in Canadian history.

Henderson’s goal became an instant “where were you?” moment. Me? I was celebrating wildly at Mac high. You could hear the screams of joy echoing through the entire school. Mac high, like virtually every school and business in the country, had shut down (the TV audience has been estimated at a stunning 13 million). We still had classes to attend after the game, but clearly it was a lost cause. I remember being in Mr. LeBlanc’s French class, still buzzed over the game, when the principal announced that there was no point in going on with classes, and the rest of the day was cancelled. Double win!!

Canada had come back from the brink of humiliation and pulled off the greatest comeback of all time. We celebrated, and yet every Canadian knew that the game had changed forever. We were no longer the undisputed kings of hockey, and that was a good thing. Over time, we reevaluated the way we play and the way we train, all for the better. We can thank the Canada-Russia series of 1972 for altering hockey forever, and for the better.

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