Canada-Russia ’72, game 7: Playing on the edge.

Game 7, Sept. 26, 1972

Befitting a series that could have gone either way, Game 7 is the most closely contested of the series. In a game that saw seven goals scored, no team had more than a one-goal lead.

The series bubbled over in Game 7. In the first period, Phil Esposito was sent to the penalty box for slashing. While in the box, the camera caught Esposito gesturing to a Soviet player. He started with the slash across the throat motion, then pantomimed fighting. He did this for a good thirty seconds, while Foster Hewitt droned on about anything but Esposito’s gestures. Today, of course, Esposito would be expelled from the game, chastised in the press, and probably suspended. But in 1972, in this series, it didn’t even get a mention.

In the first period, after Esposito scored from his customary spot in front of the net, Alexander Yakushev scored on a slapshot that should never have gotten past Tony Esposito. On a power play, Petrov scored a beauty, drawing Esposito out of position to take their only lead of the game. Before the period was over, the Soviets fell victim to a famous ‘Savardian spinarama’, as Danny Gallivan used to put it — Serge Savard faked a shot, befuddling a Russian player, then passed it to Esposito who fired home his second goal. According to the book Hockey Night in Moscow, which I’ve had for 40 years, Esposito spent five straight minutes on the ice during that sequence.

In a scoreless second period, the 3,000 Canadians and about 12,000 Russians engaged in a running cheering battle. When Canadians would launch the “Go Canada Go” chant, the Russians would whistle in an attempt to drown them out, or chant “shaibu”, which, I believe means “All hail the glorious collective hockey squadron.” But the Russians had no answer for the Canadian fan’s most creative moment, the “da, da, Ca-na-da, nyet, nyet, Soviet” chant. I can never figure out how a crowd collectively comes up with a chant.

In the third, after Rod Gilbert scored, the Soviets tied it on a powerplay, with Yakushev scoring a tip in from the side of the net. It was hard to tell the ghoulish Yakushev had scored; there was no celebration from him at all. As the period wore on, the officiating tipped towards the Soviets, with any number of Soviet offences missed. The closest the game, and the series, came to a full-scale brawl was with 3:34 to play, when the teams met for an extended debating session, to the shrill whistling of the Soviet fans. Gary Bergman was in the middle of it, incensed because he has been kicked — kicked! — by Boris Mikailov. A pair of offsetting five-minute majors were handed out, which seemed like an easy out of the outmatched officials.

As the game appeared to be headed for deadlock, Paul Henderson scored a goal that was, based on sheer skill, greater than his much-more famous goal two nights later. At 17:54, Henderson took the puck at the Canadian blue line, skated unmolested over the Russian blue line, put the puck between the legs of two Soviet defenders, shook off a hip check from a third, and slipped the puck past Tretiak. It’s a magnificent goal, probably the greatest of his life, and his second straight winner.

“Of all the goals I’ve ever scored,” Henderson said after the game, “this one gave me the most satisfaction.”

Just wait, Paul, just wait.

Prophetically, as Hewitt pointed out on the broadcast, the goal judge would be a little slow to light the lamp. He would be slow two days later as well, triggering one of the most famous incidents of the most famous series in history.

The Russians would press furiously after Henderson’s wonderful goal stood up. Now, just one more game, and the comeback would be complete. Surely, it couldn’t get any more exciting, could it?

Sure, why not?

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 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?