Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Hockey and diplomacy met on ice in 1972

Hockey and diplomacy met on ice in 1972

By Tom Hawthorn, The Times Colonist, September 28, 1997

The Russian equipment was old and ratty. Their uniforms had patches like a hand-me-down quilt. The captain wore a "K" over his heart. The goalie wore No. 20, a defenceman's sweater.

Their names — Mikhailov, Yakushev, Tsygankov — were barely pronounceable and certainly unspellable. They all wore helmets (the sissies). Canadian boys said it made them look like robots.

Had they come from Mars, the Soviet Union's best hockey players could not have looked more alien.

Today, 25 years to the day that Paul Henderson's improbable goal decided the Summit Series, when Pavel Bure is a Vancouver Canuck and the Stanley Cup has been paraded through Moscow streets, it is hard to remember just how rare it was for Canadians to see a person from the Soviet Union, never mind an entire fast-skating, crisp-passing team of them.

Stalin was long dead in 1972. Igor Gouzenko, the cipher clerk who defected with tales of Soviet espionage rings, appeared in public only with a bag over his head. For most Canadians, the only Russian to have a name was Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, round and stiff like a matreshka doll, albeit one with comic eyebrows.

The battle for hockey supremacy was supposed to be a pushover for Canada's professionals.

Infamously, Canada's scouts watched Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak play a single game. He was a sieve, and that's what they reported. What they didn't know was that the hungover Tretiak had been married the day before.

Johnny Esaw, the CTV broadcaster, was so certain that Canada was to win in eight straight that he chose to air Games 1, 3, 5 and 7 on his network; he felt viewers would lose interest as the Canadians crushed their opponent.

CBC got to air the decisive Game 8. By that time, the series had become less an exhibition and more a crusade.

It was Sept. 28, 1972. Elementary school pupils gathered in gymnasiums to watch on television. A federal election campaign was ignored for a day. Workplaces slowed, then stopped during the third period. Foster Hewitt did the play-by-play on television, while Bob Cole did the same on radio. Those who watched and listened have not forgotten the precise moment when, in the final minute of the final period of the final game, Paul Henderson, a forward blessed with more perseverance than skill, slipped a rebound past Vladislav Tretiak.

(I skipped junior high in Toronto that afternoon, a 12-year-old who feared crying in front of classmates if Canada lost. When Hendersonscored, yahoos in apartments high above our own tossed empty beer bottles from their balcony, the brown stubbies shattering on the blacktop 25 stories below.)

Ron Butlin, who now lives in Victoria, was among the whistling, enraptured spectators at Luzhniki Arena in Moscow, an outdated rink where fans behind the goals were protected by proletarian mesh and not bourgeois plexiglass.

His strongest memory is not so much Henderson's goal, but the arrival of a Soviet V.I.P.

"The Russians jeer by whistling and they were making quite a noise," he said, recalling Game 8. "All of a sudden, the whistling stopped, absolutely stopped. It was so quiet you could hear the skates of the players down on the ice. I looked around and saw Brezhnev walking through the stands to get to a private box at the top of the arena. Until he sat down, there wasn't a sound.

"Midway through the third period, Brezhnev got up and again there was silence, except for the blades of the skates cutting the ice. Once he was gone, everything resumed.

"It was either fear, or respect, or both. Those were the days of tough Communism."

The series had become a showdown between more than just two hockey teams, but between rival systems - Communism vs. capitalism, collectivism vs. individualism.

Team Canada considered their rivals to be unthinking automatons, obedient to their system, incapable of adapting to circumstance or of allowing individual flare to flourish.

For their part, the Soviet skaters felt the pros played only for money, not for pride of country. How wrong they were, too.

Away from the series, among fans, fantastical rumors took hold. It was said here Tretiak had been forced to have surgery to replace his ligaments with artificial ones. The Russians, in turn, believed that goalie Tony Esposito had a plate implanted in his forehead, the better to withstand shots to the head.

Over the years, the series has become a collage on the tape-loop of memory:

The "To Russia With Hull" campaign; the shocking 7-3 Soviet win at the Montreal Forum to open the series; Pete Mahovlich's brilliant dipsy-doodle goal in Toronto; the booing spectators at Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver and Phil Esposito's impassioned, drenched-in- sweat, post-game monologue on national TV ("To the people of Canada, I say we tried. We did our best. We're really disheartened, disappointed and disillusioned. We can't believe we're getting booed in our own building. I'm really, really disappointed. I can't believe it. Some of our guys are really down in the dumps. They have a good team. Let's face facts. We came because we love Canada. I don't think it's fair that we should be booed"); the defection of four Team Canada players who returned home from Moscow; "da da Canada, nyet nyet Soviet"; indecipherable referees named Kompalla and Baader (the players called them Baader and Worse); Bobby Clarke's vicious two-handed slash of Valeri Kharlamov's ankle; Alan Eagleson's scuffle with Soviet officials during Game 8; his rescue from armed soldiers by Pete Mahovlich; Eagle's flipping a one- finger salute to the crowd from the ice; and, unforgettably, Henderson's goal.

"As we got into the last minute of play," Henderson reminisced in Shooting for Glory, his 1992 autobiography, "I stood up at our bench and yelled three times at Peter Mahovlich to come off so I could get on the ice. It wasn't our line's turn, but I honestly felt I could get a goal. I can't explain why, but I just had this feeling, just as I'd had in the previous game. For whatever reason, Peter came to the bench and I catapulted myself over the boards to join the play in the Russian end. As I got on, the puck went to Cournoyer on the far boards. I screamed at him for a pass that I hoped to one-time at the net because I had a clear shot, but I had to reach back for the puck with all my momentum pushing me forward. I missed and their defenceman neatly tripped me, causing me to fall and slide into the boards behind their net. Immediately I thought, Get up. Get the puck and come back down to try to score.

"The Russians, with a great chance to clear the zone, failed to control the puck, allowing the relentless Phil Esposito to whack the loose disk towards the goal. Tretiak stopped Phil's shot but couldn't smother it. By this time I was standing alone in front of Tretiak to pick up the rebound. I tried to slide a shot along the ice, but Tretiak got a piece of it. The puck came right back to me, and with Tretiak down I slid it along the ice for the winning goal. There were only 34 seconds left to play!"

He leaped into Cournoyer's arms, an image captured by Toronto Star photographer Frank Lennon. Henderson, elated, is staring straight at the camera. So, too, is Tretiak, as he lifts his back off the ice, helpless as an upended turtle. To their left, Soviet defenceman Yuri Liapkin, a look of disbelief on his face, appeals silently to the referee for - what? A reprieve? The series was over. Canada had won.

Twenty-five years later, as they gather in Toronto for an exhibition to be played in their honor, Team Canada's alumni are pot- bellied and balding, enjoying the fruits of their labors in their 50s. Bill Goldsworthy has died of AIDS, Kharlamov in a car wreck, but otherwise most are in comfortable circumstances.

The image of Henderson being hugged by Cournoyer has become an icon, reproduced - for profit - on posters, coins, book covers, and, unveiled just this week, a postage stamp.

Meanwhile, on a farm in Ontario, Pat Stapleton claims to have put Henderson's puck in a box with many others. Some have come to his door with money in search of this Holy Grail of the series, but Whitey is having none of it. His dream is to play shinny with his grandchildren on a frozen slough, and to lose the puck in a snowbank.