SPORTS

Winning Isn’t Good Enough

JACK LUDWIG May 1 1973

SPORTS

Winning Isn’t Good Enough

JACK LUDWIG May 1 1973

SPORTS

Winning Isn’t Good Enough

JACK LUDWIG

Too frequently our experience is that intense commitment to an image on the television screen showing a war, a crash, a murder, an embrace, somebody winning, somebody losing. The image glows, time ticks it away. Another image interposes. Perhaps a happy commercial or that single grim one in which Daddy’s blotted out for his insurance. Most news stories have no return. Magazines rarely follow up even their most important descriptions and analyses. Newspapers don’t go in for the long-haul stuff much either. Therefore I welcome this chance to look again at one of our most important events of the past year, the Team Canada-USSR series. I don’t qualify the statement to mean only sport events because, as I indicated in my Maclean’s December article, Team Canada In War And Peace, I think the series had much to say to us beyond the hockey heroic.

The season’s play on the whole justified the player selection for Team Canada: Phil Esposito was, as usual, far ahead of his closest pursuers in the scoring race. Bobby Clarke, after an excellent series, was having the best scoring show of his short NHL career. Of the first dozen or so scorers toward the end of the regular season all but four — Jacques Lemaire, Rick MacLeish, Johnny Bucyk and Pit Martin —were members of Team Canada, though one of them, Bobby Orr, had been injured and didn’t play, while another, Marcel Dionne, didn’t suit up against the USSR. Ken Dryden was leading in the category of least goals scored against per game though Team Canada’s other goalie, Tony Esposito, a winner of the Vezina Trophy in 1971-72, was not having as good a year.

Injury and fatigue were for some the price of victory: Ken Dryden’s back gave him trouble in the middle of the season. Phil Esposito, in spite of his usual good scoring year, was not himself. Bobby Orr got back in the Bruin lineup and had to drop out again briefly. Paul Henderson, having a bad injury year, showed little of his series spark and verve. Brad Park was seriously injured. The still booed and catcalled Vic Hadfield — who, with Gil Perreault, Richard Martin and Jocelyn Guèvremont, had left Moscow rather than sit on the bench — broke a couple of fingers and a thumb. Wayne Cashman was out of the Boston lineup during midseason. Peter Mahovlich, too, was badly hurt and so was Rod Seiling.

Psychologically the series had even more of an effect on the regular NHL season. Dryden, for instance, emphasized the anticlimactic unreality of NHL play. Martin and Perreault, “deserters” to Team Canada coach Harry Sinden, had excellent statistics in 1972-73 to argue their claims for series ice time. Marcel Dionne could, if he wanted to, make the same pitch. Team Canada gave only quarter share credits for dividing game receipts (according to reports) to the players who cut out from Moscow. Some of the players felt that any activity connected with the series — including books written for or by players and coaches — should have contributed royalties into a “pot” to be shared by all equally.

But the greatest call for a second look came from the “lessons” the series might have taught organized hockey. 1 wondered if Canada would learn anything from the USSR’s coaching, conditioning and pacing of its players; or, since winning was a goal most people understood, Canadians would want no second looks. Canadians would say, “we won, didn’t we?” which said it all.

Some teams were obviously affected by the series: the Buffalo Sabres, fighting Detroit for a play-off spot, took two days during the regular season to hold a training camp; Detroit, quite independent of the USSR series, brought Lloyd Percival back into its conditioning program.

Most important of all, I submit, was Harry Sinden’s attitude toward the “win” philosophy. Many commentators on his book have quoted one passage I want to quote too. As you read it think of what the statement implies as a principle. A principle, once established, affords the basis for the same conduct from two teams facing each other, not just one. Hear Sinden:

“Kharlamov, the Russian star, had been injured in the sixth game of the series, when his ankle jumped up and tried to assault Whitey Stapleton’s hockey stick. He missed the last game, but the Russians were pulling out all the stops for this [final] one. In minutes, word came back that Kharlamov was getting a shot of novocaine and would be on the ice. T don’t want any of you guys to go out of your way,’ I told the players, ‘but if he happens to skate by, and gets in your way, give him a tickle.’ ”

Sinden is confident he will appear a “tough” coach, a Vince Lombardi who thinks winning is all there is to any sport. He uses the smart-ass crack about Kharlamov’s ankle jumping up because as an afterdinner ploy at fraternal luncheons it’s sure fire for approving guffaws, cheers and shouts of “We’re Number One.” The give him a tickle line is instantly recognized by any player or fan as the tough coach ’s realistic approach to winning. Team Canada incapacitated Kharlamov; Team Canada won; what else is to be said?

But as to the principle: what if the “give him a tickle” suggestion of deliberate injury be applied to someone on Sinden’s Boston team — a key man like Phil Esposito, or, worse, the injured Bobby Orr whose knees are in worse shape than Kharlamov’s ankle? Or if kids in peewee — or their coaches — see what a “tough” coach does to “win”? Injuring the opponent’s key man is obviously a winning tack, much easier done than close checking, fine passing, careful defense, accurate shooting, good goaltending — all of which, the Team Canada-USSR series should have reminded us, the NHL and all organized hockey needs to reemphasize. The prescribe^ remember, is that neat clean-cut blazer-wearing Harry Sinden whose eyes brim with tears as he parts from his assistant coach, John Lerguson (there is no truth at all to the rumor that the part of Harry Sinden’s eyes in the movie version of his book is going to be played by Margaret O’Brien). Will this then turn out to be the greatest and most farreaching effect of the series? That Team Canada will not have learned a thing beyond this shorthand message for neanderthals: give him a tickle?

One hopes not. One hopes that others will look at the series in a different light. That next season’s training camps will have foresight, imagination and even a creative flare. By lining up with the machismo fear of this decade, Sinden has blown his chance to make himself a symbol of the New Hockey, hockey of the Seventies. Careful students of the Team Canada-USSR series will, I hope, ignore Sinden’s tough guy pose and see what the “Match of the Century” contributed to the science and art of hockey in the years that will follow. ■

Jack Ludwig is a Canadian novelist and a professor of literature