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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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.

Canada-Russia ’72: The ugly Canadians visit Sweden, and getting ready for Moscow

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.

Canada-Russia ’72, game 4, Vancouver: Can you feel the love? No?

Game 4, Vancouver, Sept. 8, 1972

After the debacle in Montreal, no doubt many Canadian hockey fans consoled themselves by thinking, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse than that.”

It could. And did.

The Vancouver game, the fourth in seven nights for the still beer-bellied, out-of-synched Canadians, would prove to be the low point of the Canadian leg of the series. While the game itself is best forgotten from a Canadian point of view, it would provide one of the indelible moments in Canadian sports history, but only post-game.

Nothing about this game was good for Canada. It began poorly and went downhill.

Bill Goldsworthy took a penalty at 1:24 of the first period, on perhaps his first shift of the series. The Russians scored right away, with Boris Mikhailhov deftly deflecting a shot past Ken Dryden, back in net for the first time since Game 1. Incredibly, Goldsworthy took another penalty at 5:58 for trying to remove a Soviet player’s head from his body, using his elbow as the scalpel. And again with Goldsworthy in the box, the Russians scored another redirection goal, and Canada was down by two not even halfway through the period. And for the first time, loud booing was heard. Whether the booing was over the penalty call, or Canada’s performance, is hard to tell. Later, however, there would be no doubt as to the reason for the fans’ displeasure.

In the second period, speedy Gilbert Perrault scored a lucky goal, a deflection off a Soviet stick, and the wilting Canadians were back in the game.  But not for long — Yuri Blinov converted a two-on-one at 6:34, and the mood shifted from hopeful to ugly. The Vancouver fans, cementing their reputation as the worst in Canada, jeered Dryden when he made routine saves. When Canada got chances, like Yvan Cournoyer going in alone on a feed from Esposito, Tretiak was there. Indeed, Tretiak was outstanding when called upon, including a stunning steal in the third.

Nothing went right for Canada. Rod Gilbert had a goal nullified for kicking it into the net, while the replay showed Gilbert may have redirected it, but not kicked it. (There was no video review back in the day.) Before the period was done, so was Canada. The Russians went ahead 4-1at 13:52, and ripple of applause was heard when the Russian goal was announced. Moments later, Frank Mahovlich collided with Tretiak, and proceeded to use him as a La-Z-By for about 10 seconds, making no effort to let Tretiak back on his feet. It was a painfully obvious foul, but Mahovlich was not penalized. The fans were not impressed, and boos rained down upon the team. Mahovlich would later say he was shocked by the crowd’s reaction.

Trailing by three going into the final period, there was no reason for optimism. Bill Goldsworthy, of all people, got credit for a goal at 6:54, but that whispy flicker of hope was snuffed out at 11:05 when the Russians regained their three-goal advantage.

Late in the game, the booing intensified; Goldsworthy was so upset by it, he would later say he was ashamed to be a Canadian. When Shadrin scored at 11:05 to make it 5-2, the outcome was a certainty. Denis Hull, brother of the missing Bobby (who had the temerity of join the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets, resulting in his exclusion from the series and a national outcry at the American masters of our game), scored a goal at 19:38 that made the game sound slightly more respectable.

The only memorable moment for Canada came post-game, courtesy Phil Esposito, who had emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Canadian squad. Bathed in sweat, Esposito told Canada how shocked and disgusted he was by the booing. The Canadians, he said, were playing only because they loved Canada, and to have that love spurned by angry fans baffled and angered Esposito.Watch it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFKvB3Wnzgk

Esposito practically willed Canada to victory in the series, but his greatest achievement might have been that inspiring post-game speech. I know I was cheering him on.

With that, the Canadian leg was over. Team Canada limped out of the great white north, heads hung low, baffled by what had transpired, ears still ringing with the jeers of the Vancouver fans. Now, it was on to Moscow on Sept. 22nd, and nobody wanted a break from the series more than me. The series was so all consuming, so intense, it was basically all you could think about on game days, and in between for that matter. Nobody knew that the events in Moscow of Sept. 22-28 would make the Canadian games of Sept. 2-8 seem as intense as pre-season hockey.

Canada-Russia ’72, game 3, Winnipeg. The forgotten game.

Game 3, Winnipeg, Sept 6, 1972

First, you may be wondering … why Winnipeg? Why not Edmonton, or even (God forbid) Calgary?

As hard as it may be to believe, at the time Winnipeg had the biggest and best arena on the prairies.  Like I said in the beginning, this was in a very different Canada.

If it’s possible that there is a forgotten game in the series, this is it. Game 1 was legendary for its shocking final score, game 2 for its great Canadian return to form, game 4 for Canada hitting bottom and Esposito’s famous post-game speech, and all of the games in Russia are unforgettable. But game 3 in Winnipeg isn’t a game that anyone, except those in attendance, remembers particularly well. That’s probably because of the final score. In sports, they say a tie is like kissing your sister; sure, it’s a kiss, but your sister?

Still it was probably the most closely contested game of the series, as the score would indicate.

It began well for Canada. Bill White, a balding defenceman (remember, no helmet), let a shot go that was bobbled by Tretiak. JP Parise tapped it in for a quick Canadian goal at 1:54. Coming off the tremendous Toronto victory, perhaps things had turned around, and the universe was unfolding as it should.

Canada went on a powerplay shortly after, only to have the Russians score shorthanded at 3:13 when Frank Mahovlich (Pete’s older, lazier brother) gave the puck away to Petrov, who blew a long shot past Tony Esposito. Canada’s Jean Ratelle scored at 18:25 to give Canada a 2-1 lead, a goal that by today’s standards would never have been allowed: future hero Paul Henderson flagrantly interfered with a Soviet player, freeing Ratelle to go in on Tretiak. While there were only two penalties, by today’s standards there would have been at least a half-dozen, most of them slashing. In fact, it looked as if slashing was a perfectly acceptable part of hockey.

Esposito gave Canada another of its two-goal leads — the third in three games — at 4:19 of period 2. Just past the mid-way point of the period, the game went nuts. Kharlamov, the most thrilling and speediest of the Soviet players, scored a shorthanded goal (the Russian’s second of the game) at 12:56. Paul Henderson scored an unexpected goal, low to Tretiak’s stick side, at 13:47, and Canada lead again by two. But again, the Soviets came back, two minutes later at 14:49 (a cheap deflection), and again at 18:28.  Four goals in seven minutes.

In the third, the remarkable Kharlamov continued to dazzle, setting up a near Russian goal that was stopped from going in at the last second by Brad Park. As the game wore on, the Canadians wore down. Still not in game shape and playing their third game in five nights — and in a sweatbox Winnipeg Arena — the Canadians wilted in the last 10 minutes. The game ended in a tie, which unfortunately relegates it forever to an also-ran in the history books. But it was an excellent game, played at a crisp pace and with numerous scoring chances. Watching it with 40 years hindsight, the Russians were clearly playing the kind of hockey we see today; passing and puck control. Canada still seemed to believe that you could hammer an opponent into submission.

After three games, nothing is close to being settled. But after the fiasco in Montreal and a well-deserved win in Toronto, the game gave Canada some hope (despite a pair of blown two goal leads, and two short-handed goals allowed).

Then, it was on to Vancouver, a place where hope goes to die.

Canada-Russia ’72, game 1: A look back at our darkest hockey day.

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?

Canada-Russia ’72. Why it mattered.

It’s 40 years ago today that Canada and Russia faced off in Montreal to start the most gut wrenching, confidence shattering, depressing and joyous sporting even in Canadian history, and one of the most epic in the history of sports anywhere (you heard me, Super Bowls and World Series’). It is one of the most vivid memories of my teenage years (admittedly, there isn’t a lot of competition in that department), but I am in a minority. With the median age in Canada (half the population is younger than this age, half is older) now 41 — and if you take into account how many Canadians have been born and died since 1972, and how many people have moved here from other countries since ’72 — it’s safe to say that only a very small minority of Canadians have any memory of the series.

While millions of Canadians know of the series, most don’t feel the significance, because they didn’t live through it.

So, for the benefit of those who are too young to remember the September summit, a few words of explanation are in order.

The Canada of 1972 was not the Canada of 2012. While Canadians today can be accused of being arrogant and smug about our place in the world, Canada of 1972 was a decidedly more modest country. We were a middle power, well respected for our peacekeeping duties around the world (remember peacekeeping, anyone?), but not much else. We had Pierre Trudeau, who was way cooler than any other world leader, but otherwise, that was about it.

But there was hockey. And we were, without doubt, the Greatest Hockey Playing Nation On Earth.

The NHL was the unquestioned best hockey league in the world, and in the 1970s the league was made up almost entirely of Canadians (in the 1971-72 season, NHL rosters were 95 per cent Canadian; today, it’s about 50 per cent). We were the best, and everyone knew it.

The trouble it, we couldn’t prove it. The International Ice Hockey Federation allowed only amateurs to compete for the world championships, which meant Canada’s best were unavailable. For many years, Canada could throw together a team of beer leaguers and still win, but in the 1960s, that changed. The USSR took to hockey in a way that only totalitarian states can, winning nine straight championships from 1963-71.

Of course, Russian “amateurs” were anything but. The best Russian players were members of the Red Army. They probably didn’t know which end of a rifle to point, but they knew hockey. They were professionals in everything but name, and we knew it. In protest, Canada withdrew from international hockey in 1970, knowing that we couldn’t send our best, or even our second best, while Russians and other Iron Curtain countries were playing their best (cough, cough) “amateurs”. We couldn’t compete, so we walked away.

While Russian was racking up world championships, Canadians were content with the knowledge that the REAL world champion was the winner of the Stanley Cup.

Finally, an eight-game series was announced for 1972 that would put the best of the NHL against the best of the USSR. No trophy was awarded, no medals given out. It was just an “exhibition” series — with nothing less than world hockey supremacy as the unstated prize. But it wasn’t just our hockey versus their hockey. It was our system (democracy, freedom of speech, capitalism) versus their system (communism, state control of the economy, suppression of speech). The Cold War was still red hot (Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia just four years previous when the Czechs got a little too uppity). The term “evil empire” had not yet been used (that didn’t come until 1983), but it certainly applied. In 1972, the USSR controlled East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Russians were bad, bad people, who had enough nukes to wipe out the world many times over, and designs to rule to world.

So, young ones and new ones, that was the situation. Our way of life versus theirs. Our hockey versus theirs. Our freedom versus their totalitarianism. If this sounds like an exaggeration, it isn’t.  The Canada-Russia hockey series of 1972 was a life and death battle. Phil Esposito, who would attain mythical status with his heroic efforts in the series, has said that he was willing to kill to win. I believe him. And I would have cheered him on.

OK, I was only 16. But that’s truly how important that series was. We would lose game one in Montreal 7-3, the myth of Canadian hockey superiority would be shattered, and Canada would enter into a month of agony and ecstasy. I’m glad I was alive to experience it, but I don’t think I’d want to go through it again.