You really can’t tell the players without a program-with one notable exception

Robert Miller April 18 1977

You really can’t tell the players without a program-with one notable exception

Robert Miller April 18 1977

You really can’t tell the players without a program-with one notable exception

Robert Miller

We learn about ourselves in the oddest ways and most unlikely places. One July night in 1974 I wandered into a crowded taverna in the Plaka district of Athens, seeking some vine leaves and a bottle of Demestica. The headwaiter asked if I minded sharing a table and seated me beside two young guys who turned out to be journalists from Helsinki, in Greece to report on the collapse of the colonels’ regime. We had a severe language problem, but eventually they introduced themselves by name and nationality. When I said I was from Canada, an astonishing thing happened: the Finns burst into broad smiles, jumped up, offered their hands, and said, absolutely in unison: “Ahh! Canada! Phil Espozeeeto!” Not Pierre Trudeau. Not Gordon Lightfoot. Not Mordecai Richler. Not even Banting and Best. But Phil Esposito, the global Canadian.

It was the indomitable Espo, of course, who stuck it to the Russians in the traumatic 1972 hockey series, an achievement that, given the Finns’ hatred of the Soviets, qualified him for instant sainthood in Helsinki. It was also Espo who administered a harsh tongue-lashing to the Canadian people (and thereby unified not only a collection of out-of-shape hockey stars but also, briefly, the nation itself) after the frustrated fans of Vancouver had booed the first Team Canada off the ice of the Pacific Coliseum. Now, in the spring of 1977 and the autumn of his career, it is Espo again to whom the nation has turned in its hour of need. He is captain, assistant coach and, initially at least, the only certified superstar member of Team Canada ’77.

The day the players left for Europe and the world hockey championships in Vienna (April 21 -May 8) Phil Esposito was tired—and looked it. He’d had a long and disappointing year, not playing as much as he would have liked in the Canada Cup tournament last fall and not leading his New York Rangers into even the first round of the Stanley Cup play-offs. “Jeez,” he sighed, “I’ve been on skates since the eighth of August... but once we go against thosè Russians and Czechs the old adrenalin will start to flow.” It seemed doubtful, though, whether Espo’s adrenalin or leadership abilities would be enough. Team No-Names, Espo dubbed the club; Team Newfoundland, sneered a Toronto columnist. On paper and in the flesh it was the weakest Team Canada yet, weaker even than the 1974 version from the World Hockey Association which managed only one win in eight entertaining games

against the Russians. In the meantime, the Russians and the Czechs, whom Canada’s greatest players were life-and-death to beat last fall, were going to Vienna with the most powerful teams they’d ever assembled. Aside from Espo, the superstars in Vienna will have names like Kharlamov, Yakushev, Novy, Tretiak and Dzurilla. Canada’s superstars will be involved elsewhere—either still battling for the Stanley Cup or trying to straighten out their tee shots.

Allan Eagleson, Mr. Everything in Canadian hockey these days, introduced Espo and his obscure playmates to a skeptical Toronto press conference by saying: “I am sure that these players, on the basis of their ability, will become household names in the next few weeks.” If the Eagle sounded doubtful, it was un-

derstandable: the original roster included nine members of the Cleveland Barons, five Rangers, three Vancouver Canucks and assorted refugees from Washington, Denver, Detroit and even the retired list (Dallas Smith and Ron Ellis). Indeed, Eagleson took pains to stress the team’s underdog status (usually the pros are heavy if unrealistic favorites) and even said at one point that he would not be surprised if Team Canada finished fourth in an eightnation tournament that included such powerhouses is Romania and West Germany. To Espo, such talk amounted to heresy. “I don’t go anywhere to lose,” he growled.

In fact, Eagleson’s public pessimism was little more than a psychological ploy designed to put the team in a “can’t-lose” position. Deep down, Eagleson, general manager Derek Holmes and coach Johnny Wilson (of the rocky Colorados) nurtured hopes of winning the whole thing. They planned to airlift as many as 15 additional players to Europe as teams were eliminated from Stanley Cup play. This meant that the final lineup of 20 would be picked from up to 38 pros, all of whom should be in peak physical condition after the grueling National Hockey League schedule. While most sportswriters and many fans gave Canada virtually no chance, knowledgeable hockey men were less certain. Given hot goaltending and a little luck, Team No-Names might yet make a name

for itself. Among others, Sam Pollock, genius-in-residence at the Montreal Forum and the chief architect of last fall’s Canada Cup victory, thought so. Of course, meticulous planning went into the Canada Cup operation: even the schedule was weighted in Canada’s favor, to say nothing of the advantages of playing at home before adoring crowds. This year’s Tearn Canada has a thrown-together look about it, will play on strange ice and must face the Swedes, Soviets and Czechs before getting to the “breather” games against the Finns, West Germans and Romanians. Canada opens the tournament against Team U.S.A. One ominous portent: the tailors goofed and got the reds and greens reversed on the official Canadian blazer crests, which meant that, regardless of how good it was, the club was off to represent the country literally under false colors. Still, coach Wilson was able to say: “I am sure we will come back successful” and Esposito, whom the Eagle has landed in a potentially embarrassing situation, was able to fix reporters with his famous, baleful stare and insist: “I expect to win. I am an optimist at heart.”