Closeup/Sports

Sticking it to‘em

The... uh... Great Canadian Game

Robert Miller May 16 1977
Closeup/Sports

Sticking it to‘em

The... uh... Great Canadian Game

Robert Miller May 16 1977

Sticking it to‘em

Closeup/Sports

The... uh... Great Canadian Game

Robert Miller

They came together as Team Anonymous and no one really expected them to recover the World Hockey Championship for Canada. They came apart—in full view of millions of television viewers in Canada and Europe—as Team Stupid and more than lived down to everyone’s darkest expectations. Graceless in victory and disgraced in defeat, Team Canada ’77 was handed an undeserved chance to play Cinderella in Vienna but chose instead to play the witch. The Canadian performance, particularly in two humiliating losses to a vastly superior Soviet team, amounted to little more than punk rock in the home of the Strauss waltz.

In their first meeting, an 11-1 slaughter that was the worst defeat a Canadian team had ever suffered in international play, the Russians gave the professionals a hockey lesson. In their second match, with the championship still undecided, the Russians gave them a lesson in sportsmanship, not to mention an 8-1 shellacking. Both lessons were desperately needed.

Pathetically but predictably, the Team Canada High Command—lawyer Alan Eagleson, coach Johnny Wilson and captain Phil Esposito—blamed the refereeing which, if not perfect, was at least fair. Certainly it wasn’t the referees who slashed, chipped, speared, butt-ended, highsticked and cross-checked their way through the tournament. It wasn’t the Russians or the Czechs, either.

Yet here was Eagleson, at the end of the second period with the score 5-1 and the Canadians already having taken 46 minutes in thoroughly deserved penalties (including a match sentence to a sputtering Atlanta Flame named Eric Vail, who had tried to hack off Sergei Babinov’s head), berating the officials for treachery and incompetence. Here was coach Wilson, normally a sensible man (unlike many in the Team Canada party), ridiculing referee Raimo Sepponen, a gym teacher from Helsinki, as a “boy scout sent to do a man’s job.” And here was superstar Esposito, once indomitable and still determined but no longer very effective, suggesting that a Soviet flag be presented to the officials and refusing to shake hands with Sepponen after the game, despite the fact that it is traditional for team captains to do so.

In the days leading up to the second Russian game the Canadian players had talked freely about their determination to play what they call “a physical game,” about the value of intimidation as a workaday tactic. “I’m not saying it’s exactly right,” Phil Esposito offered. Or always effective.

“None of our players were frightened,” deadpanned Soviet official Konstantin Loktev. “You can’t scare the Russians,” said Ron Ellis, the retired Maple Leaf whose play was one of the few bright spots for the Canadians. “Theyjust laugh at you. Laugh, and put the puck in the net.”

On the final day Team Canada proved just how silly its tactics against the Russians had been. Playing clever, disciplined hockey they whipped the world champion Czechs 8-2 in a one-sided match that left the door to the gold medal wide open to the Russians. But this being world championship play where the unexpected always occurs, the amazing Swedes again shocked the heavily favored Soviets, this time 3-1, to achieve the following: first place for the Czechs, who tied with, and lost to, Canada; second place to Sweden, which split two games with Canada; third place to Russia,

which, everyone agreed, was much the best team in the tournament; and fourth place to Canada—just where Eagleson had picked the team to finish.

The conclusion was inescapable: if «the Canadians had been mature enough to control their emotions, they might have won it all. But they allowed their tempers and their machismo compulsions to get the better of them. Asked if keeping one’s head wasn’t part of being a professional, Wilson could only shrug and mutter: “It’s supposed to be.’

Astonishingly, when there were only two games left. Team Canada found itself with a chance to win the gold medal, although the Canadians had done precious little to earn it—and maybe to even silence its critics with what would have been at least as heroic a comeback as the one Esposito and Paul Henderson arranged in Mos-

cow in the first hockey summit in 1972.

All the Canadians had to do, when they took the ice against the Russians, was win that game, and the next one, and the title was theirs. Of course, they couldn’t do it. The game was less than a minute old when defenseman Dallas Smith took a crosschecking penalty. Smith was back on the ice for only 23 seconds when Phil Russell went off for tripping. As the game went on, so did the parade to the penalty box. Vail’s game misconduct, which carried a 10-minute, no-substitution penalty as well, was the crusher. By the time Canada got back to full strength the score was 3-1. Three minutes later it was 5-1, the fifth Russian goal being a gift from Walter McKechnie, the Detroit Red Wing who made an ass of himself, game-in, game-out.

After the game was lost, Billy Harris, the former Toronto Toros coach who had handled Team Canada’74, wascontemptuous: “It was stupid, idiotic. These guys haven’t learned a thing. You just can’t take cheap penalties against the Soviets. They’ll kill you. All day yesterday they [the Russians] practised their power play. They knew they’d get to use it a lot.”

In fairness to Canadian Hockey, there are much better players in Canada than those who traveled to Vienna. Only two or three of the players on Team Canada ’77 would have any chance at all of making a genuine Canadian all-star team. Nevertheless, it was a pity that Canada’s return to world championship play—after a sevenyear snit—left Canadian hockey looking so bad in European eyes. Of course, the Russians and Czechs have set clubs that have played together for years, but the Swedes, except for their collapse against Canada in their second meeting, were fully competitive in Vienna—despite missing as many as 10 of their greatest players, because of NHL and WHA playoffs. They, however, declined to offer that as an excuse, while The Canadians did so at every opportunity. Team Crybaby.

After the Swedes stunned the Russians 5-1 on May 2, in a physical game in which they out-skated and out-muscled the surprisingly flat Soviets, the tournament was thrown wide open. The Russians went into a state of shock. Their coach, Boris “Chuckles” Kulagin, grudgingly conceded that his team had been soundly thrashed and immediately called a punishing practice behind locked doors for the following day. After an hour on the ice, without sticks or pucks, the Russians changed into track suits for two more hours of rugged land drill. The approach seemed to backfire. On May 3, a suddenly hopeful Czech team, morose since its 3-3 tie with Canada and 61 loss to the Russians, broke into an amazing four-goal lead and managed to hold on to win 4-3. Both the Russians and the Czechs looked utterly drained afterward, and Kulagin was once again called upon to explain the inexplicable—a loss by his powerhouse. “If Balderis [Helmut Balderis, probably the best young player in the

world] had scored on his breakaway we would have won,” he said lamely.

The sudden Russian failures surprised everyone, including rival coaches Hans Lindberg of Sweden and Karel Gut of Czechoslovakia, and for Russia to lose the tournament, after a whole year of intensive preparation and after sending its 20 very best players, would have been a preposterous suggestion 48 hours earlier. But suddenly the possibility was real.

While the Swedish upset opened the door for themselves and the Czechs, it also offered a glimpse of hope for the Canadians who had been robbed of a victory against the Swedes the first time by taking too many stupid penalties, and by failing to solve the magic of the number two Swedish goalie, Goren Hoegosta.

On May 4, playing their strongest and chippiest game to that point, Espo and Company went out and clobbered a thoroughly cowed Swedish team, 7-0. “They were scared shitless,” said Espo. It was little wonder the Swedes were frightened. On the ice, the Canadians snarled threats at them (“I’m gonna cut your obscenity obscenity off’) and generally laid about with the sticks. With the score 6-0 and the game long since won, Carol Vadnais, who is not noted for his robust play in the NHL, injured Kent Erik Andersen with a butt-end that drew 15 minutes in total penalties and the scorn of almost everyone present. Afterward, Vadnais was unrepentent: “A Swede really carved up (Wayne) Cashman in 1972,” he said, “and I wanted to pay him back.” He was asked: “Which Swede was that?” Vadnais replied: “Any Swede.”

It was not Canada’s finest hour. On the other hand, it wasn’t the worst either. That came after the first loss to the Russians.

The telegrams had poured in and the telegrams were mostly hasty—“What are people going to say if we lose to the Romanians?” asked assistant general manager Bill Watters, not joking—as ordinary Ca-

nadian hockey fans expressed their outrage at (a) the beating and (b) the performances by Wilf Paiement and McKechnie, who had gone more or less berserk against the smooth Russians.

Paiement himself seemed slightly stunned by the reaction to his savage play. He went to Eagleson to apologize and promised not to take another penalty. “I told him not to promise that, but not to take any more cheap shots and to hold on to his temper,” the Eagle said. And a couple of days after the Russian debacle, Paiement was less contrite: “I don’t care what people say, what people write . . . maybe I took a couple of stupid penalties. But the game was lost by then.”

The uproar in Canada echoed through Austria. There was even a demand, by New Democratic Party MP Arnold Peters, that Eagleson and his fellow Hockey Canada director, Doug Fisher, be brought before the bar of the House of Commons and made to give an accounting for the disaster. Eagleson, who retains his political ambitions despite his preoccupation with hockey, handled the suggestion with aplomb: “I’d be glad to appear. It may be the only way I’ll ever get there.”

Nevertheless, he felt constrained to tell the press: “The players are doing their best, but their best just isn’t good enough.” A few minutes later, the Canadians took the ice against the defending world champion Czechs, outplayed them, and were tied only because two linesmen ignored an offside seconds before the Czechs scored their last goal. Suddenly, Team Yo-Yo was respectable again.

Before the Czech game, Iona Campagnola, the federal minister responsible for sport, had sought to reassure the Canadian players. “The country is behind you,” she told them, “but for heaven’s sake don’t lose our respect.” In other words: don’t disgrace yourselves again. It was at least as sensible a response to the Russian defeat as any. Generally, though, Canadian hockey fans reacted with predictable hysteria, which begged the question: isn’t it time to accept that good hockey is played in places other than NHL rinks?

There is no longer a shred of doubt that the Europeans, and particularly the Russians, can play hockey at the highest level. No more eloquent tribute to the Russians’ skill could have been conceived than the one paid by Rick Hampton, a good defenseman who normally toils in the uncertain vineyards of the Cleveland Barons. Hampton scored the lone Canadian goal in that 11-1 hammering and when the puck went into the net he went after it as a souvenir (look, Mom, I scored on Tretiak). An exhausted and embarrassed Phil Esposito

sprawled sweating in the Canadian dressing room after the game and patiently repeated his analysis: “They are a great hockey club. They did everything right and we did everything wrong.”

Bill Watters reported the next day: “The Russians held the score down. The way they were going, it might have been 15 or even 20. During the third period their coaches were telling them just to play with the puck. Then, when we took a couple of cheap penalties their coaches told them to put it in. They put it in.” The idea that a foreign hockey club could score at will on a team of Canadian professionals would have been unthinkable before Vienna. Now it is fact, and Canadian hockey fans might as well face it.

In a way, Canadian fans could be grateful that the country’s greatest players did not perform at Vienna. Even the powerhouse that Sam Pollock assembled last summer for the Canada Cup series would have been in desperate trouble against this Russian team if they met on the vast ice surface in the Stadthalle. In fact, the more one watches the Europeans play hockey the more one realizes that the two systems—North American pro and European—are so different that they verge on incompatibility. The conflicting schedules, the differences in the rules (interference is an art form in Europe and routine body checks still occasionally draw penalties), the different objectives (entertainment and money versus national pride), the very style of play which is dictated by the size of the rinks on each continent, all combine to frustrate the possibility of any definitive test between the Canadians and Europeans. The Canada Cup was held under conditions favoring the pros, the world championships under conditions favoring the Europeans.

However, international hockey is here to stay. The fans demand it and the promoters on both sides of the Atlantic need it. Ben Hatskin, boss of the Winnipeg Jets, was lured from his Palm Springs, California, golf course all the way to Vienna—not to watch Team Canada but to negotiate a mini-tournament involving a World Hockey Association club (likely the Jets), a Russian club and the Japanese national team. It would be played over Christmas in Tokyo, of all places. “May be a chance to make some money,” Hatskin winked. The European organizers of the world championships need the Canadians, too. At Vienna, Team Canada was the star attraction, despite the fact that it was generally known to be a second-echelon entry. The Canadian games were scheduled at the featured eight o’clock starting time, the local press was full of the doings of the players and their wives, Phil Esposito was much the best-known of all the players in

The boys of other winters

A short skate down memory lane: ever since 1954, when the Russians showed up at the world hockey championships for the first time and walloped a lessthan-awesome Senior B club known as the East York Lyndhursts, Canada’s ventures in international hockey have been fraught with peril, confused by politics and highlighted by only intermittent triumph. Mostly, the Canadian public has grumbled—either over the calibre of the teams we sent to play the world at our game or at the rules and regulations the world enforced against us.

That 1954 loss to the Soviets triggered a huge surge of interest in international hockey and forced hockey men in Canada to start taking the Europeans more seriously. There had been so little interest in 1953 that Canada didn’t even bother to send a team to defend its title, but after the Lyndhursts’ loss Canada was forced to upgrade its representatives. In 1955, the Senior A champion Penticton Vees—much the best club we’d ever sent abroad—were dispatched to restore the nation’s honor. The Vees won, defeating the Soviets in an intensely fought match which attracted so much interest in Canada that Foster Hewitt traveled to Europe to cover it live on radio. From then on, though, it was mostly frustration for Canada. The Whitby Dunlops, also Senior A champions, did manage to win the world title in 1958, but there was no longer any doubt: the Russians, Czechs and Swedes could more than keep up with Senior A-calibre Canadians.

Through the 1960s, Canada experimented with a national team of amateurs, the brainchild of a hockey-loving priest, Father David Bauer. The national team was world class, but not quite of world champion quality. It played well but once again it was a case of “Canadian boys against Russian men” and the world title stayed in Europe.

When the national team finally disbanded Canada took a firm stand: it wouldn’t return to world tournament play until it could use its very best players, its professionals. International officialdom remained adamantly opposed, with the Russians and Czechs claiming that the Canadian pros would taint their “amateurs” and jeopardize their Olympic standing. It was stalemate, until the Russians won the 1972 Olympic gold medal. Then they abruptly changed direction. Russia challenged Canada to a series with only one stipulation: Canada had to assemble the very best team it could. Thus was born the first Team Canada and thus began a new era in what is no longer exclusively our game.

the tournament. And next year, Canada will have a team in Prague—despite rumors to the contrary.

How many of the 1977 squad would volunteer again remained uncertain. According to Espo, some of the younger players were shocked by what they saw in Prague before the Vienna tournament began. “All that barbed wire, guys with machine guns ... well, you know. I’m older and I’ve been involved in these things before but I can tell you it still bothers me. Can you imagine the impact things like that have on some of the young guys on this team?” Paiement, for example, made it clear he wanted no part of such an excursion, even if he were asked again. “We [the Rockies] are going to make the play-offs next year,” he said optimistically. “But, to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t want to go to Prague.” Another player who likely will not be in Prague in 1978 is the great Espo himself. Quite apart from the fact that, at 36, he has slowed down a bit too much to be effective against the Russians and Czechs, there is the fact that he genuinely hates the place. “If I only had one day left to live,” Esposito said, in the best line he had anything to do with in Vienna, “I would want to spend it in Prague—because a day in Prague can seem like a whole lifetime.”