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A Wild Stab For It
This is Game Eight from Russia
By Dave Bidini, Brian Pickell
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2012 Dave Bidini
All rights reserved.
This much we know: the night before Game Eight, Dryden went to bed early. I imagine him fast asleep in his pyjamas, laid flat against a hard, unforgiving Soviet pillow and paper napkin sheets too small for the tall goalie, but his rest was probably more fitful than that: glove hand thrashing and legs kicking at phantom pucks shot into the darkness of his dream. Dryden was down but the rest of the team wasn't, because how could you sleep knowing that when you woke up it would be to face the terrible cackling skeleton of sporting fate staring back at you in a cold mirror of a white hotel room in a strange city on the other side of the world? That's why, when Ted Blackman, the Montreal sports broadcaster, returned to the Hotel Intourist around 11 p.m. after walking the streets of Moscow in the soft late autumn of September 27, he found Team Canada coach Harry Sinden moving through the lobby, his mind soaked in fear and uncertainty, swinging from hope to hopelessness, winning to losing, hero to goat, and back again. Harry unstuffed his hands from his dark blue Team Canada blazer, rubbed his forehead, and appealed to Blackman, "Do me a favour, Ted. Go into the bar and see if any of the players are there. It's past curfew and I don't want to be the bad guy tonight, telling them to go to bed." Blackman said sure, turning towards the tall padded doors of the hotel's lounge. Moments later, he came out. "What's the report?" asked Harry. "Anyone in there?"
"Harry," said Ted, trying not to laugh. "If you could get Dryden out of bed, you could have a team meeting."
In the afternoon, they brought us into the gym: hundreds of children, terrified and hopeful in the stale air. I was eight years old in 1972. Canada playing Russia in hockey was unusual in itself, but watching Canada play Russia in hockey on TV in the afternoon was stranger still. A friend, Mark Mattson, said, "Back in those days, the only things you watched on TV in class were sex education films or religious movies. So watching hockey, this was really weird."
Before the start of the game, my phys ed teacher — track-panted in an age when only athletic instructors wore that sort of thing — barked for us to "Sit Down!" and "Keep Quiet!" when all we wanted to do was run around and play tag or war as a way of easing the thick unbearable tension. We played war because the '72 series was war, or at least that's what Espo said. We were told that the Russian players — the Soviets — were trained as soldiers, too, and studied closely, you could see this in the way their play seemed born from a strategic operative — zone to zone to zone, a chalkboard diagram come alive. We were also told that the players lived on a military camp — a basa — where their athletic corporals allegedly warned them that if they missed a break-out pass or gave away the puck, they would be sent to Siberia, which is where I found myself forty years later, sitting in a kitchen drinking tea and eating dark chocolate with women who lived through such times. "It was hard, yes," said one of them, reapplying her lipstick every few minutes, "but we were happy, too, in a way. There was fear of what might happen, but there was also a great feeling of togetherness." I asked her, "But with the gulags right here ... didn't that make it hard for you to believe in the hope of the future?" Overhearing my question, one of the women's husbands took me into the living room, where he pulled out an old map and went region by region, showing me how strong and mighty the Soviet Union used to be. "Yes. We were in awe of you; afraid, too," I told him. Then the man's son showed up. "But Dad," he said, "back then if your boss treated you badly, there was nothing you could do. If you spoke out, you would be fired, and sometimes, worse." The father rolled his eyes and looked at me. They fought for awhile as I sat on the sofa thinking about a question Espo had once asked, then answered, himself, "Would I have killed to win the series? Yes, I believe I would have." In September 1972, we ignored the gym teacher's cries and kept playing war. Then Mr. Dawson screamed one final time. "Children, THE GAME! It's starting!" We looked up.
In 2004, I was travelling through Tatarstan with a fiftysomething Soviet broadcast employee: a cameraman and sound engineer named Sergei. Whenever an unmarked car would come up behind us, he'd stroke his Van Dyke beard and tell us, "Look: KGB." Once, after we were stopped by police on our way back to Kazan, he added, "This is how they take you. Quietly, out of nowhere." It wasn't until I'd suffered three days of this that I realized he was joking. I played along for his amusement until, one time, our driver noticed a different set of lights in the rearview mirror. He shouted at us to stay quiet. The car pulled up beside ours, and two men spoke to the driver. After discovering that we were from Canada, they asked if any of us were Wayne Gretzky. It was Sergei's turn to laugh. We drove on.
First, there was a shot of an empty ice surface. The transmission came and went, suggesting a fat, jumpsuited technician hitting an enormous metal box with a stick in some studio in Agincourt, trying to bring the pictures back. The shot held for a moment, as if stillness might have somehow calmed the trembling, anxious viewer. Then, there was a voice — part cartoon frog, part leprechaun, part Popeye and part head cold — wobbling like old tape. It was Foster Hewitt, "Tonight we are making hockey history. I wouldn't miss this one for all the tea in China." Then the camera moved slowly, showing the great players marching head down and in two single files along the carpet to the rink. Generally, the Canadians seemed hairier and rounder, and, generally, the Russians were smaller and blonder, although both teams wore red and white — or white and red — and had, generally, a look of duty about them as they stepped onto the soft ice. There was no pumped-up glove-slapping go-get'-em histrionics while skating out of a flaming logo; no small children holding team flags with a song by U2 filling the arena from speakers dangling around the circumference of the rink; no grrrrring announcer rolling his r's as he introduced the teams (home team loudest; visitors, less so). Instead, the scene was darkly meditative: a quiet (for now) building and two dozen players whose look suggested one more long walk down the weird carpet to the too-warm ice surface, and one more speech from the coach before one more long, draining game in this long, draining series. If the event had forced players on both teams closer to the hot sight at the centre of their nation's gaze — weaving them into the fabric of cultural and political history on the barbed needle of sport — it also made them question, near the end of the series, who they were skating for and why. Revisionist poetics tell us that Team Canada wanted to win for Johnny Frozen Pond and Uncle Albert back in Adenoid and the writers of the thousands of letters sent to Russia by Canada Post — which team assistants used to wallpaper the corridors outside the dressing room — but, more than that, the players wanted to win the series for themselves. Ken Dryden told me, "I knew about Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson and what had happened to the Brooklyn Dodgers. I knew there would be a goat, and I didn't want to be him." Only a few players could sense the weight of what might happen to their reputations if Canada lost to Russia, but everyone knew that it would be bad. As for the Soviets, they'd been to Montreal; they'd been to Toronto; they'd been to British Columbia. No man could stay the same after doing what millions of their countrymen had only dreamed.
Petals for the Kremlin
After skating a few laps around the rink, the players lined up along their respective blue lines: Canada to the left, Russia to the right. Anthems crackled over the PA — during the music, a slow, ominous shot panned across the thick netting behind the goal, which looked like chain mail or the bars of a cage — before the players were introduced by an announcer whose voice was as soothing as a raccoon squealing down a chimney ("The International Hockey Match between Team Canada and the Soviet Union is declared open!"). Here, the crowd finally announced its presence: 3,000 Canadians — the largest airlift of bodies into Europe since World War II — trying to drown out the Soviet fans' whistling: moose versus bees, hounds versus wasps, walrus versus mosquitos. When Gary Bergman, the bald, angry uncle of Team Canada's defence, was called, he twirled to the rink's four corners, smirking as he waved V for peace, although the V could have stood for other things, too.
After the introductions, the teams broke. Every Canadian except for the starting six took their place on the bench beside injured defenceman Rod Seiling, who sat at the end wearing a London Fog trench coat. Beside him, Wayne Cashman, Bill Goldsworthy and Dale Tallon paced in their navy team jackets, chewing Trident or Chiclets or Juicy Fruit or Freedent, and, beside them, assistant coach John Ferguson glowered at the ice, his sharp, angry nose pointing like a fuck-you finger at the Russian team. Tretiak, the young Russian goalie, skated to the bench from his crease, where, a few feet to Ferguson's right, the players huddled closely together. From a camera high in the stands, it looked like the closing of damp flower petals. Someone spoke — maybe Yakushev, maybe Lutchenko. They huddled for five seconds, ten. Then the petals opened. Tretiak, all of twenty years old, skated into the loneliness of his crease, where he tapped his pads twice before blinklessly staring forward.
Superstar forward Valeri Kharlamov was a deep and soulful man. That's what his teammates said. His mother was half-Spanish, which accounted for his dark features and the way he played the nylon-stringed guitar and sang: beautiful, rich-voiced, emotional. These features might have had him beaten or work-farmed or cast out had he been anything other than an elite, soft-handed and quick-ankled hockey star in the distrustful, racist and xenophobic Soviet Union, but the point was moot because that's what he was. Before he was replaced as coach, Anatoli Tarasov used Valeri as a lynchpin by which he moved the team's triangles of attack, exploiting his killing speed and his ability to improvise, one of the few players afforded such a luxury. While Tretiak and Yakushev would endure to become the lasting hood ornaments of Russian hockey, Kharlamov was something else: a smooth, baby-faced assassin of all that Canadian hockey thought it knew. His emergence was even more startling set against the Western propagandist's view of Russian men: grunting, drunk and piggish, with big fur hats and long rifles hanging from their hips. Instead, Valeri had a Mediterranean nose and dark hair swept across his brow. While visiting Alexander Gusev's apartment in 2005, I noticed a photo of the two men sitting on a hill in the summertime, smiling. Standing alongside his wife, the tall, blond defenceman — then in his fifties — touched the frame and talked about how much he missed his friend, who had died in a highway car crash with his wife in 1981. "That was many years ago, but it seems like yesterday," he said, his voice tightening. His wife added, "A fortune teller foretold this accident to his wife. But no one thought it would happen."
In Game One in Montreal — 7–3 Russia — Kharlamov scored twice. For his first goal, he swept around Don Awrey like a backyard child beyond the reach of a staggering uncle, taking two strides before flicking the puck past Dryden, who stood there as helpless as a scarecrow. Calling the goal, Foster Hewitt landed hard on the K: "Quite the goal by Kar-la-moff." By the end of the series, he and the rest of Canada would get his name right, although there wasn't much use for it once the series shifted to Moscow. By Game Six, Team Canada knew that the Russian forward was favouring his ankle, and so Bobby Clarke was famously ordered by John Ferguson to tap the player with vigour, telling him, "That guy is killing us out there." With a behind-the-ears wind-up, Clarke shattered Kharlamov's ankle with a single devastating slash, forcing him to sit out Game Seven. Tarasov's replacement, Vsevolod Bobrov — who coached while sitting on a chair at the end of the bench — had no quick answer for the scoring and speed vacuum created by Kharlamov's absence. The team was unprepared for such an important loss, although it's hard to know how the great Tarasov would have responded. After all, he believed that violence degraded hockey, and that, when played finely by the sport's best skaters, there would be little temptation to drag the game into a tar pit of cruelty. In Game Six, he would be surprised how much his theory was tested. In Game Eight, he would be astonished.
Arthur Chidlovski, who lives in Boston and administers the main Summit Series website, was a child growing up in Moscow when the Canadians arrived to play the second half of the series. He said, "At first, the Russian fans thought it would be a series of mutual interest, almost like an exhibition. As a result, it was shocking to see the way Team Canada behaved — running around and arguing like they were part of a comedy routine. I mean, in Russia, we'd never seen a player argue with a referee before. It wasn't done. If you were stopped by a policeman in your car, you wouldn't argue, and we applied this same philosophy to sports." Arthur, who'd been in love with hockey since childhood, wasn't as surprised as others when the series started to become very real and competitive. "The first photo I'd ever seen of a Canadian player was Carl Brewer, taken during the World Championships," he said. "In the picture, most of his face is covered in bandages. It was very shocking to see, not only because of the damage to his face, but because he was so old. In the Soviet Union, players would retire at thirty. And they never had scars. Not like the Canadians."
Jim Jones was in grade 3 in 1972. All of the teachers were aware that he'd lost his dad a few years before. They'd both been big Dave Keon fans, and in 1970, they sent in enough Coke bottle caps to get Jim a big poster of the Leafs' number 14 for his room. A lot of the kids teased Jim after his dad died, and it was a time of tough lessons taught with tough love. But Jim's teacher, Mrs. Davies, was kind and supportive. So was the school janitor, Mr. Bailey, who was grey-haired, and, Jim said, "probably a grandfather." Jim remembered asking him to fix the chain on his bike and then thinking, "I can't be much of a man if I can't do it alone." But the janitor didn't see it that way. He taught him how to do it.
On the day of Game Eight, the classroom kids shot their hands into the air the instant Mrs. Davies asked for a volunteer to go to the assembly room in the basement and check the score. They knew the Russians were ahead by two goals thanks to their principal, John Kormos, who'd been updating them on the PA. Mrs. Davies chose Jim. He ran down the worn marble stairs until he found a big black-and-white TV on a six-foot stand with wheels. The sound was blaring. Jim said, "At that moment, I felt very special. The third period was already underway, and I watched alone until Canada scored. Then Mr. Bailey ran in from the boiler room. He had been listening while he worked, I suppose, and we jumped for joy at the tying goal. I remembered my duty and ran back up the four flights to my classroom. Out of breath with excitement, I blurted out, 'We tied it!' Mrs. Davies was the first to head for the door, and everyone else followed in a kind of scramble. Soon, other classrooms followed us. I led the way and found a seat front and centre on the bench. Next thing we knew, Henderson scored. What I remember most is that we were all part of that moment. It was the first time since my dad died that I felt part of anything. It was a lucky day for me and Paul Henderson."
Excerpted from A Wild Stab For It by Dave Bidini, Brian Pickell. Copyright © 2012 Dave Bidini. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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