The Canadian view from Moscow

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

I don’t think there is much point in me reporting the hockey series in Russia game by game. Most Canadians saw as much or more of that as we did and had the additional benefit of instant replays and expert analysis. However, the feelings of the Russian and Canadian fans in Moscow may be worthy of note.

Like everyone, the Canadian fans on the scene were tremendously upset by the terrible refereeing in the second game and the first period of the fourth. While the officiating in the rest of the games was different than what we are used to, we felt that it was basically fair by international standards Elbowing, holding and kicking don’t seem to be called at all and interference calls vary with the changing of the moon or something.

Wearing his heart

Phil Esposito sweated blood and wore his heart on his shirt throughout the four games. The Henderson, Clark, Ellis line was the line I’d say presented the best image of Canada. Pat Stapleton was stupendous throughout on defense. Serge Savard and Gary Bergman were brilliant at times. Brad Park was a disappointment. Frank Mahovolich and Dennis Hull never really got untracked which may be because they are so big and take longer to reach peak condition or maybe because they will never be really top notch players in international hockey. The constant back and forechecking at top speed leaves these two going the wrong way most of the time.

Tony Esposito and Ken Dryden played great hockey although I think both will be even better come spring.

The whole team played as much with heart as with legs. I am sure they had no legs left for the third period of the final game and played it all with heart.

Didn’t quit

Even in the first game, when Canada lost after building up a three-goal lead, the fans there were with them all the way. Frankly we couldn’t see that they had quit. They were exhausted which is natural and they were also defending their lead in typical NHL fashion. The fact that that doesn’t work against the Russians was news.

The speed of the games for 60 minutes was incredible at close range. Anyone who thinks our boys quit in the first game will sound a lot more convincing to me after he has beaten a Russian athlete at anything that requires their brand of conditioning.

Don’t fool around

When you have seen their skiers jumping off snowless jumps in mid September, watched their speed skaters rolling along roadways on rubber-wheeled skates and watched the Moscow Dynamos chasing each other at top speed through their complicated drills, you have some idea of what Team Canada was up against.

The skiers really shook us up. They thatch the jump with bundles of plastic straw like broom heads and wet the whole mess down with water. Then they swish down the jump take off and land on more of the same stuff and wind up piling into sand.

The Dynamo drills are something else too. When a player practices taking a shot on the net he is chased by a player from the red line all the way around one net, down the full length of ice to the other net and then takes his shot. Sometimes the whole team chases him just to give him lots of pressure and to give the others the experience of going around the net in a crowd.

The swimming pools (heated) were full of the 13 to 15 year olds you will be seeing in the Olympics in Montreal in 1976.

Ashamed of leaders

We were very proud of our hockey players.

We thought they showed the championship spirit which has made them NHL stars all the way.

I wish we could say the same for their leaders. Harry Sinden and John Ferguson got completely carried away at the games. They were violent behind the bench in

every game. Under these conditions it is no wonder the players were often chippier than necessary.

Most of the Canadian fans on the scene despised Alan Eagleson. Besides being a big ham, he was very crude in his method of supporting the team and we were ashamed of him. We admired Peter Mahovolich’s guts when he rescued Eagleson from the militia by going over the boards with his stick swinging like a scythe and scattering them like barnyard fowl. However, we rather wished the militia had got to keep Eagleson. At least for awhile.

My wife and I met some of the players—Frank Mahovolich, Don Awrey and Bill Goldsworthy. They were all as nervous as surrounded soldiers and still quite defensive about their efforts against the Russians.

Phil Esposito charmed everyone. When he took his pratfall before the first game, he handled it beautifully. He lay on the ice spread eagled and laughing while all the photographers got their shots. The next night, when he was introduced, he grabbed the boards and hung on for dear life. After the second game, which the Canadians won in the face of flagrantly foul refereeing, he shook hands with the referee obviously congratulating him on a great effort against the Canadians.

On the Russian team, goalie Tretiak had us all psyched. We kept telling each other that he had to have a bad game but he never did. I didn’t see any cheap goals against him. He consistently cut the angles down to absolutely nothing and wouldn’t budge. A breakaway was rather useless against him unless at least two were in on him and we sometimes felt that it would take an axe to make him go down.

With Kharlamov and Ragulin injured, Yakushev impressed me most. He seems to be able to reverse direction at top speed and swoop back away from the net pulling the goalie down and out towards him with staccato fakes before lifting the puck up and over into the exact center of the net. Being a lifelong Toronto fan, I was, of course, most impressed by Henderson.

The Russians should never have let him stand around the net the way they did, but his speed, forechecking and deadly dexterity around the net had me in the air all the time.

Esposito bulled along on sheer heart and strength but Henderson flew like a swallow and stung like a Sten gun.

Painful rumour

One of the most disturbing things to Canadian fans was the lack of real news after the games. Our guides told us what the Russian press said but we had no idea what our press said or what the reaction was at home. We heard all sorts of rumours about players leaving and fans being arrested and that the fans at home were all down on the team and us fans. One rumour went around that the Canadian press was saying that both players and fans were behaving like animals in Moscow and bringing shame to Canada. This was a very painful thought.

Our relationships with the Russians were generally excellent. There were a few twits in the group as is inevitable and a few fans complained from the minute they landed and some even went home in the middle of the trip. There were only a very few of these however, and the rest of us thought they were ridiculous. We were amazed and delighted to get back home and find that the people here had been as excited and interested as we had been and that everyone was proud of us rather than ashamed.

The Russian fans admired Esposito’s ability but thought he should be locked up. The key keeper lady on our floor called him the “Beeg creemeeenull” and everyone said our players were not sportsmen. They were especially appalled by the gestures and ranting of our players in addition to their roughness. They said that in Russia no man with any hint of breeding would make such gestures in public. We explained that, in Canada, no gentleman would lead into his bodychecks with his elbows or tackle or kick another player and expect to get away with it. However, we couldn’t really understand what they were talking about and they couldn’t see what to us were flagrant infractions.

I have no doubt in my mind that the Russian fans sincerely believe that all Canadian hockey players were sired by tigers, mothered by wolverines, starved before the games and released from the players’ bench with the simple instruction, “Kill”. Our guide was shocked when I told her that many Canadian stars had been left off the team because they were considered rough in Canada and that only the players with the reputation of being level headed were in Russia. If she had believed me, which she did not, she would never have come back without an armed guard.

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