Maybe Canada would have won anyway, but the deck did tend to be a little stacked

Michael Posner October 4 1976

Maybe Canada would have won anyway, but the deck did tend to be a little stacked

Michael Posner October 4 1976

Maybe Canada would have won anyway, but the deck did tend to be a little stacked

Michael Posner

Of all conclusions now being drawn from last month’s Canada Cup, the least persuasive is that Canada once again reigns supreme in hockey. Anybody naive or chauvinistic enough to believe that Rogatien Vachon, Bobby Orr or Darryl Sittler have rescued the great Canadian game from all those barbarous imitators in Europe deserves a week in Murmansk with Alan Eagleson. Second prize is two weeks.

Admittedly, Team Canada won the first legitimate world cup of hockey—and with it the dubious privilege of instant sanctification by the Canadian media. But they won it with more advantages than Jimmy Connors had at Forest Hills. They played all their games in Canadian arenas, before heavily partisan crowds, on smaller ice surfaces inhospitable to the free-skating European style. Their schedule gave them two easy games (against Finland and the United States) before facing the heavyweight Swedes, Russians and Czechs. They were close to families, suffered none of the gastric surprises of a foreign diet and could read in at least one official language the daily hallelujahs of the sporting press. Given those edges, the only wonder would have been their losing.

It should also be remembered that the Soviets did not send their best possible squad; that the Czechs got inconsistent goaltending (good as he was, Vladimir “Godzilla” Dzurilla too often played like the B-club goaltender he is back in Brno); that the Swedes were ill-prepared to play 60 minutes of hockey; that the Americans used one end of their sticks better than the other, producing an impressive number of stitches but not too many goals; and that the flying Finns left their horsepower in Helsinki.

Those quibbles aside, it’s only fair to add that the team put together by Montreal Canadiens general manager Samuel Pollock represented the best collection of talent ever seen in Canada; that they beat some pretty fair hockey teams; and that, in doing so, they provided the finest display of hockey Canadians are likely to see for some time. And there’s the rub: in the wake of this tournament, too many people are only too acutely aware that the game poet AÍ Purdy once called “the Canadian specific” has become the Canadian soporific, Saturday night’s cure for insomnia. Worse, the Stanley Cup—that annual rite of spring (it used to be winter, but most NHL owners weren’t back from Florida and needed some diversion in May)—becomes a minor league trophy. Can Les Habs hold off the vengeful Flyers? Can Bobby Orr re-

surrect the moribund Black Hawks? Does anyone care? The only question that can matter now is when Team Canada will again meet the Russians and the Czechs. Eagleson has seen the future, and it is not the Colorado Rockies.

The series taught Canadians some other lessons as well—most obviously that the CTV network ought, for its own sake, to be kept far, far away from production of anything more serious than the Miss Canada pageant. From camera positions to postgame analysis, the CTV crew gave every sign of being out of its element—like Renee Richards (n'e Raskind) at a tennis stag. Interviews were shallow, commentaries flat. The play-by-play had all the excitement of a state funeral. The industry talk is that CTV, in its anxiety to win the series, seriously underestimated its production costs and tendered an unrealistically low bid. It also turned in an embarrassing performance—one not enhanced by Carling O’Keefe’s relentless betweenperiod shilling.

More positively, the series may have altered the North American concept of coaching. The Western press once made a great joke of the Soviet coaching system, as convivial as the Kremlin, but not as easy to penetrate. How could any team with four coaches succeed? Wasn’t it amusing to see two or three guys simultaneously directing traffic behind the bench? Apparently not. In fact, it was so clearly unamusing that the Team Canada brain trust itself elected the four-coach system. And though Scotty Bowman and Bobby Kromm were plainly the men in charge, it was Don Cherry—

consigned to watch Team Canada from the stands—who noticed the Czech goalkeepers coming out too far and committing themselves too soon. “If you fake the shot and keep going, you can beat them,” he said. That observation, delivered to the dressing room before the overtime period with the Czechs, remained in Darryl Sittler’s memory long enough for him to fake a shot at the blue line, skate wide and put the winning goal behind a “committed” Dzurilla.

Finally, the Canada Cup provided an opportunity for some great hockey players to show off their remarkable skills, for Rogie Vachon (stop), Dennis Potvin (hit), Gilbert Perreault (skate), and Bobby Clarke (check) to do what they do as well as or better than anyone else in the world. But no one was more impressive than Bobby Orr, crippled knee notwithstanding. Viewed from the top of the arena hockey is a game of geometry, a kind of high-speed chess. From the top it is possible to see not only the million things a player may do with the puck in any situation, but the one thing he should do. Nine times out of 10, Orr does that one thing—as if he too could see the flow of play from the top. His shot is wicked, his passing crisp, his control of the game awesome. But his instinct for knowing precisely what to do with the puck, and the exact moment to do it, surpasses understanding. He is a genuine marvel. It’s nice to know that Canada won the tournament, but it’s a hell of a lot nicer to know that Bobby Orr is still able to perform as the game’s supreme craftsman.