Gorgeous guide Tanya foretold the future of Russia

Posted on September 5, 2012
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(2002 update of 1972 article)

Scenes

So many scenes from the 1972 trip to the Canada, Russia hockey series are seared into my memory.

Phil Esposito was the heart, soul and leader of the team. His speech in Vancouver and his pratfall during the introductions before game five are well known. His drive, passion and will to win during the games is legend.

Another little act won Canadian and even Russian hearts at the opening of game six. When Espo was introduced, instead of skating forward, he made a desperate clutch for the boards.

After Henderson’s goal put the Canadians in the lead with 34 seconds left, the Canadians celebrated in a big messy pile on the ice.

The Russians, of course, took their positions at center ice and waited grimly for play to resume.

The huge Russian on right defence, suddenly raised his stick high over his head, roared and shattered the stick on the ice in front of him. He picked up the pieces, skated to the bench and got another stick. Resuming his position, he again stood like stone for perhaps another minute. Then again he exploded, raising his stick to the rafters and smashing it to the ice and into a dozen pieces.

Again he picked up the pieces, skated to the bench, took another stick and resumed his statue like position. I didn’t note his number at the time but I wonder if it was Liapkin, the player whose error put the puck on Henderson’s stick in front of the net.

A gift

Another memory is of an elderly, very elegant and obviously wealthy Anglophone woman from Montreal. She was traveling with her grandson, about 13 years old. She wasn’t a hockey fan and she certainly wasn’t a party animal like so many of the rest of the boisterous Canadian fans. What she was was a devoted grandmother taking her grandson on a great adventure when the boy’s parents could not.

She is probably gone now. That boy is in his 40’s. Do you suppose his grandmother was in his mind at all the past month?

The immigrant

On the flight on the way over, some of the cynics were blaming the weak showing of the team in Canada on our soft society generally. Not only the players but all Canadians were too soft and spoiled to stand up to the disciplined and stalwart Russians.

Suddenly Gus, a Greek immigrant who owned a restaurant in Smith’s Falls, Ontario, leapt to his feet in his seat and unloaded on the critics. He was boiling as he ranted about what a great country Canada is. He lectured about freedom and opportunity and personal safety. At the time, Greek immigrants had left a country run by a brutal military dictatorship.

I wish every Canadian could have heard that rant.

Adventure

My favourite adventure outside the rink happened as a result of buying my bugle. Hearing other Canadian fans sounding the charge, I wanted a bugle.

Mark Romoff and I got Tanya to write down the name of a music store and the address of our hotel in Russian. We set off to find a cab. Cab drivers didn’t really care to pick up fares. They got paid whether they did or not. There was no tipping. Why work?

We’d learned to sneak up on a parked cab, jump in and refuse to get out until he took us where we were going.

On this particular day, we found a cab and hopped in. The driver put up quite a fuss but we didn’t get out. Presently two well dressed, important looking Russians climbed in too. The taller, more authoritative, better groomed one was obviously asking the driver what we were doing there. The driver was obviously explaining we were nuts and demanding to be taken to a music store.

The Russian apparently approved the trip.

As we set off, he pointed at us and asked something like “Kanadaski?” We knew “Da.”

He said “Esposito” and jerked his elbows jaw high. We said “Kharlamov” and made slashing motions.

He reached over and drew a grid in the fog on the cab window. He wrote the scores of the games so far. He wrote a score for the game to be played that night showing Russia winning handily.

I protested and wrote C – 3 and K –5 indicating Canada would win 5-3. He took out his card and wrote a number on the back.

When we got back to the hotel with my bugle, we hunted down Tanya and showed her the card and asked what it said. She looked a little shocked and said it was the card of a member of the Soviet congress, the mayor of a city some 800 miles from Moscow. The number he wrote was his room number.

We pestered her to call the room. She told us “He says you met in a cab this afternoon. He says you had a disagreement about the outcome of tonight’s game.”

We confirmed that we certainly had.

“He wants to know if you would like to join him in his suite after the game to discuss who was correct.”

I said something equivalent to the Miramichi expression “Pretty likely!”

After Canada won, we hurried back to the hotel. We enticed Tanya to come with us so we could communicate. Mark Romoff, Betty Jean, I and another Canadian nicknamed Hoddy went up to the room. Hoddy followed Tanya everywhere he could.

We knocked on the door and the fire plug answered and swung it wide.

The giant, Vladimir, stood waving his arm to a buffet feast and Armenian cognac. The buffet was finer than anything we’d seen or been able to find while we were there. Rank hath its privileges.

Tanya told us he was saying “It is the custom in Russia that when we win we drink and, when company comes, we put everything we have on the table. This is for you.”

I asked her to tell him “In Canada, when we lose we drink so it would only be right for them to join us.”

He and the fireplug laughed and the party was on.

The fireplug approached Betty Jean with the cognac and a tumbler and poured her about a four-ounce shot. He stood waiting for her to toss it off so he could move on with the glass. Armenian cognac may well have been the fuel that got the Russians into space first. It can certainly propel and lubricate a party.

It was simultaneously one of the most exotic and most homey memories I have of the trip.

I’ll never forget the huge Soviet mayor, congress member, and survivor of WW II and the Stalin purges stretched out on his bed talking about his teenage son. He said the boy kept changing his mind about what he wanted to be and couldn’t seem to buckle down to anything. Vladimir worried that the younger generation wasn’t going to amount to much.

Some things seem the same everywhere, always.

I remember his comment that Russia lost more than the population of Canada in WW II.

I remember his hard cohort showing where he had had his tattooed prison camp number cut out of his arm.

Vladimir wondered if we had been taught that Russians were primitive and walked the streets like bears. We said we had a fairly good idea of Russia. Quizzing each other, we did better.

It was a wonderful party and cemented our idea that people the world over are not significantly different. They want hope and security for their families and a bit of fun on a Saturday night. Russians love their country passionately. It didn’t take much to make them weep for her.

As the party broke up we were hugging and exchanging gifts. At the same time, we agreed later that these were tough cats. We had no doubt they could have as easily cut out our hearts still laughing if we had posed any real threat to them. They were at the top in a game far rougher than anything my generation in the West can dream of.

Change

I remember our guide, the gorgeous Tanya, drunk from the party, telling us that young Russians were tired of the revolution and wanted a society like Sweden’s. She also told us that reward in Russia was based more on an old boys’ network from the revolution and the war than on current merit or productivity.

She said change would come when her generation took charge. I realize now she was right.

Joie de vie

I remember 3,000 Canadians leaping to their feet to sing Oh Canada at the top of their lungs at the beginning of game five and every game. With half the contingent singing in French, it never sounded better. I remember tears running down Howie Meeker’s cheeks as he sang.

I remember how the Canadian contingent set out to crack the grim faced Russians. We just kept acting more and more outrageous until they cracked up laughing. They seemed to feel at first that it was important to show us how tough and invincible they were. They either realized or were officially instructed after the first three days that we weren’t a threat and they could relax. After that, we got along like Miramichiers and Newfoundlanders.

I remember several times we’d be sitting in a bar and the doors would burst open and a conga line would parade in singing and dancing. It was always the Quebecois and it always lit up the party. I think it is fair to say that both French and English on that trip were among the first to know truly how wonderful we are together and how lesser we’d be separately. Imagine Quebec or the Rest of Canada as separate entities trying to beat the Russians at hockey! Try to imagine a party as good without Francophones as with Francophones!

Difference

Thirty years later, Summit ’72 still seems like the dream it was at the time.

It may be difficult for people who have grown up since to understand why eking out a one-goal, one-game victory over the Russians seemed so glorious at the time. Obviously we didn’t establish any grand superiority over Russian athletes. We learned as much about hockey from them as they did from us in that month. I think the emotion we felt and that has lasted down the years was mostly liberation.

Many people have said that the series was like a war. It was but the war was not with Russia. It was with communism but not with communism as an economic system.

It was between a system that prizes individuality, the rights and genius of the individual, versus a system that requires the individual to subvert himself to the system, the hive. Russian hockey was much more systematic than Canadian hockey. Russian players often did not take the obvious shot because the routine of the system called for another pass before a shot. We were told that Ken Dryden would never have been assigned to play goal in the Russian system. With his height, he would have been considered too awkward for goal. He’d have been forced to try to be a forward.

It wasn’t our country or our government that was being contested. It was how we each think of ourselves and our individual potential.

A system that treated people like ants or bees horrified us. The thought that such ideas might defeat our approach was horrifying.

The fact that our players were able to get together and adapt to the international game, the Russian system, the international rink and each other in time to prevail was a huge relief. We also believed that, if there had been eight more games, Canada would have won them all. Our team, coming off vacation as individuals,  soared higher and higher though out the series. The Russian team peaked in the first game after years of training together.

That garbage goal has made an astounding difference to the Canadian identity.

Isn’t that life? Shattering change can happen in an instant.

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