Anybody under the age of 35 is unlikely to appreciate the state of mind of millions of Canadians on the afternoon of Sept. 28, 1972, the day Team Canada and the freewheeling redshirts of the Soviet Union played the deciding game of their historic Summit Series.
From Moscow, the voice of Foster Hewitt, broadcaster supreme, delivered stunning words as the second period ended: the best hockey team ever assembled in Canada had coughed up two late goals and a tight game had become a 5-3 lead for the bad guys.
The Soviets had been a devastating force in international hockey since 1954. That was the year they made their first Olympic appearance. They blanked Canada's team, the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, and they won the gold medal.
But this 1972 lineup had been assembled to obliterate past embarrassments. It was the first true Canadian, urn, galaxy from the National Hockey League, built to put hockey’s crown back where it properly belonged. Indeed, in the days leading to the Sept. 2 series opener in Montreal, deep-thinking Canadian newshounds and hockey fans coast to coast were predicting an eight-game sweep.
Twenty-six nights later, the world knew better. Through five games Canada had been outplayed, outskated and outscored, trailing three games to one with one tie. These National Hockey League players had been accustomed to working their way into decent condition as each new season took shape. Now, slowly being force-fed by the flying Soviets, they scrambled back from a two-game deficit for a deadlock, each team with three wins and a tie.
Accordingly, the vital eighth game began in a charged atmosphere in the big barn of a rink called the Luzhniki Ice Palace on Moscow’s outskirts. It was a strange building for hockey. The aisles were some 15 feet wide (close to five metres) from the boards to the front row of seats, and at one end the distance was at least six times as great, a huge vacant space.
For this tumultuous final game, up in one corner stretching from ice level to roof, swarmed the 3,000 Canadians who had hit Moscow a week earlier and now they surged with flags and banners and thundering air horns. They had dreamed up a chant, da da Canada, nyet nyet Soviet, which they brayed every couple of minutes. Next to their section teemed a pile of Soviet supporters, relatively restrained except for high-pitched whistles in earlier games. But now they answered each Canadian chant with one of their own. It sounded like shy-boo, shy-boo and no doubt meant something like go jump in the North Saskatchewan River.
Just before the opening puck was dropped, a contingent of Soviet militiamen came marching into this din in their khaki, red-trimmed uniforms, with rifles slung across their shoulders. They lined themselves along the front-row seats and behind the players’ benches. They were likely there to keep peace, but these were the days of spy
Canada's comeback caught writers off guard
novels and KGB police and I, for one, figured they were there to throw us all into cells buried deep under the Kremlin. Or right near there.
Most of us ink-stained wretches from Canada sat cheek to cheek on a long polished bench half a dozen rows above ice level near one of the blue-lines. My seatmate was Jim Coleman, columnist for the Southam chain of newspapers. Coleman later was an Order of Canada recipient, a practically unknown accolade among low-life sports scribes. Then as now he was an immensely entertaining writer and a staunch nationalist.
It was in this latter capacity that I recall him at the final game. He grew increasingly apprehensive as the Soviets played the Canadians
bump for lump. He was especially distressed by the less than vigorous style of Rod Gilbert, a polished right-winger for the New York Rangers, whom Jim had dubbed Mad Dog earlier in the series, studying Gilbert’s leisurely style.
“Geez,” he muttered once, as Rod tapped a passing Russian lightly with his stick, “is he gonna kiss that Yakushev?”
Coleman was missing when a group of us deep thinkers stood in a little knot of gloom under the stands following the second period. Let’s see, there was Red Fisher from the old Montreal Star, Ted Blackman from the same town’s Gazette, Jim Taylor from The Vancouver Sun, Fran Rosa from The Boston Globe and me, all of us glum. Team Canada had tied the score at 3-3 halfway through that period but then the Soviets had pulled away on goals by Aleksandr Yakushev and Valeriy Vasiliev.
I feared the worst. “I just hope it isn’t a blowout,” I grumbled to Taylor. He agreed.
“Do those guys never get tired of skating?” Ted Blackman muttered.
When I went to my seat, Coleman wasn’t there. He should have been because after less than four minutes his man Gilbert got into a fight with Evgeni Mishakov. I sped upstairs to the press lounge looking for Jim.
He was there, and he later confessed that he was sufficiently depressed by the idea of an imminent Canadian loss that he was on the brink of ordering a double vodka. This would have been a serious departure for him, a former drinker who for many years had been the spiritual father for a lot of us with alcohol problems.
I rushed into the lounge where he sat at a table. “James, you’ve got to come and see this,” I cried, “Mad Dog Gilbert has just been handed a major for fighting!”
“You’re kidding,” he said, laughing aloud as we sped for our seats. So we were there when the Canadians refused to fold, when they doggedly reversed the Russian flurry. And we were on our feet and screaming when they got the winning goal with 34 seconds left on the clock. Paul somebody scored it; you’ll think of his name. Even if you’re under 35. □
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