Sports

The ‘Great Canadian Game’ now truly belongs to the world

MICHAEL POSNER September 20 1976
Sports

The ‘Great Canadian Game’ now truly belongs to the world

MICHAEL POSNER September 20 1976

The ‘Great Canadian Game’ now truly belongs to the world

Sports

Just how the puck finally slithered from behind the Soviet goal to Denis Potvin at the point is still unclear. What is certain is that Potvin barely had time to control it before slapping it in the general direction of the net. “You don’t beat Tretiak from 60 feet anyway, so I just knocked it in there, aiming at Gilbert Perreault by the side of the goal.” Perreault held the puck for only an instant—until Bobby Hull skated free of his check 20 feet to the right of Tretiak. Perreault’s pass to Hull came whistling back off Hull’s stick and was in the net before you could say Canada Cup. And with that game-winning goal, a much-besieged Team Canada assured itself a victory over the Soviets (the final score was 3-1) and a place in the best-of-three Canada Cup final against Team Czechoslovakia.

It was a rousing finish to international hockey’s first legitimate summit on ice, a tournament that in its opening week seemed almost enervating. The Soviets had performed major surgery on their national team, leaving at home half a dozen world calibre players in favor of untested youth, and the initial results were disappointing: the Russians lost and tied their opening games, showing only brief flashes of the form that overwhelmed North American audiences in 1972 and 1974. Team Sweden, fortified with 10 NHL and WHA professionals (including Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman Borje Salming), proved capable of one good period of hockey per game—the first. After that, the Swedes suffered energy shortages. In five games, 16 of the 18 goals scored against Sweden came in the final two periods. Team Finland—the only true amateurs in the tournament—managed only one victory in five starts, an inspired, revengemotivated 8-6 defeat of Sweden, that made front page news in the Helsinki Sanomat, the nation’s largest daily. And Team Canada floated through its first three encounters, pressed only by the aggressive Americans, who later fought the classy Czechs to a 4-4 tie. Nowhere, however, did the tournament generate the intense excitement of earlier Canada-Soviet series.

Before the opening Canada-Finland encounter in Ottawa, Detroit Red Wing Dan Maloney, one of six players cut from the training camp squad, stood with CTV analyst Eddie Westfall at rinkside.

“Ever see these guys before, Eddie?”

“Naw.”

“That’s just it,” said Maloney. “Nobody knows anything about them, ya know? Nobody knows what they got.”

The Canadians learned very quickly

that what the Finns had was little more than the 25 recordings of Sibelius’ Finlandia, which they presented to Team Canada before the game. The Finns were strong and they could hit, but they could not keep possession of the puck. Invariably their long lead passes to breaking wingers were intercepted by Team Canada’s defense. Canada scored three times in the first seven minutes and the gaine was effectively over. When target practice ended, the Canadians had won 11-2, but had temporarily lost centre Bobby Clarke, who had been taken to hospital during the third period after straining his Achilles tendon.

“You don’t realize how much you enjoy practising until you can’t do it,” said Clarke the next day, watching Team Canada prepare for its game against the USA. Clarke sat out that contest on doctor’s advice, and the Canadians missed his presence. After scoring three times in the first period, they rewarded the Americans for their determination by giving up two easy goals. As would happen repeatedly in the series, the Canadians met brilliant netminding in the acrobatic form of Pete LoPresti. “You will never know what a thrill it is for an American-born kid to come to the Montreal Forum and play against Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr,” said LoPresti, who averaged more than four goals against per game with the Minnesota North Stars last season. “Who would have ever thought that it was possible?”

Its lacklustre showing against the USA sparked Team Canada into a more disciplined game plan against Sweden. The core of the strategy was to stop Borje Salming. “He’s the key to the Swedish attack,” said Team Canada coach Scotty Bowman. “He directs the traffic. He brings the puck up ice. We knew that if we pressed Salming and forced him to pass the puck, we’d be alright.” With rare lapses, the team executed the plan efficiently. Aggressive forechecking in the Swedish zone produced three of Team Canada’s four goals, while goaltender Rogatien Vachon, impressive throughout the tournament (yielding just six goals in five games), stopped 28 Swedish shots—a few of them breakaways—for the shutout. “We lost to the better team,” said 31-year-old Swedish coach Hans Lindberg afterwards. “What more can I say?”

Based on the first week’s results, Team Canada was confidently expected to breeze through the preliminary round robin into the final. But all of that changed radically when the Canadians met Czechoslovakia in the Montreal Forum. “You get a feeling of involvement from sensing that you’re somehow needed as spectator,” said Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, “when the game or the series is in jeopardy. Until the Czech game, it seemed just a question of time till Team Canada won—no sense of urgency, no real involvement. Well, by five minutes into the second period, I was very involved and nervous. From a comfort point of view it was painful to watch.” It was also delightful to watch, as the Canadians and the Czechs skated end to end with precision passing, creating near-perfect opportunities at the net—only to be thwarted by Vachon and Vladimir Dzurilla respectively. Dzurilla, broad of smile and midriff and, at 34, the oldest player on the Czech team, stopped every Canadian shot, most of them with his ample belly. “He played the angles so well,5’ said defenseman Denis Potvin, “that he was stopping the puck with his body. He never had to dive for it or make the big stick save or glove save. He was never out of position.” Elsewhere, the Czechs played a game similar to the Russians, only better. Czech defensemen repeatedly knocked down Canadian passes; instantly, two or three Czechs sped to the attack, a full stride or two ahead of pursuing backcheckers. In the Canadian zone, the Europeans eschewed the extra pretty pass for the extra shot on net and diligently pursued the puck into the corners. In their own end, the Czechs stacked defenders in front of, the

goal, forcing Team Canada to shoot from the point. More often than not, the puck richocheted off a body, sliding harmlessly into a corner. At the other end, Rogie Vachon was no less formidable, stopping breakaways and several two-on-one threats. For 55 minutes and 41 seconds, the teams skated back and forth without producing a goal. But with 4:19 to play Vladimir Martinec stole the puck from Darryl Sittler at the Canadian blueline and fed a pass to Josef Augusta. Drawing defenseman Guy Lapointe with him, Augusta went wide, dropping the puck back for Milan Novy, who quickly swiped it under a sprawling Vachon. In a silent dressing room afterwards, Vachon recalled: “I thought he would go for the far corner and I think he was aiming there, but missed the shot. Oh well, it’s not the end of the world.” The 1-0 loss to Czechoslovakia rattled Team Canada’s complacency. They had played very well and still lost and though Dzurilla’s netminding had denied them several sure goals, who was to say that Vladislav Tretiak, nemesis of previous Team Canada’s in 1972 and ’74, would not be equally unyielding? “This team could play* another 40 or 50 games without being shut out again,” said Phil Esposito. “We’ve got too much firepower.” But others were not so confident. And if the Canadians lost to the Russians, Team Canada would be eliminated from its own tournament.

Aside from potentially-unbeatable Soviet netminding, the Canadian coaching staff harbored several misgivings about their own team. The Montreal line of Guy Lafleur, Peter Mahovlich and Steve Shutt had not performed anywhere near its potential. Mahovlich especially appeared to be skating in a light coma. Despite solid efforts in three exhibition games, centre Esposito was clearly not in shape—and his sluggishness on the ice was damaging the play of linemates Bobby Hull and Marcel Dionne. Right winger Reggie Leach had missed the net so many times that observers were beginning to wonder how he possibly scored 61 goals during the 1975-76 NHL season. And Bobby Orr, returning from a 10-month layoff and his fifth operation on his left knee, was simply not the player he used to be (though even in slow motion he was better than most of the others). “He’s not the Orr who can go out and grab a game by the throat,” observed Dryden. “He’s still a very effective defenseman, maybe the best. But the last thing he should have to go through is being compared with his ghost. He can’t be the same. You can’t expect him to be the same.”

Orr wasn’t the only one who had changed. In what remains the central mystery of the entire tournament, the Soviet Union elected to jettison six of the world’s best hockey players from its national team. Without Alexandr Yakushev, Vladimir Petrov, Boris Mikhailov, Gennadi Tsygankov, Vladimir Shadrin and Yuri Liapkin (another player, flashy winger Valery Kharlamov, was recuperating from the

ankle injuries sustained in a car accident), Team USSR was, by common agreement, a poor facsimile of the well-tuned machine seen in previous series. “We are building for the future,” intoned Soviet head coach Robert Chernyshov solemnly. “Perhaps the players left at home might not have missed as many opportunities to score. But this is the new generation. It takes time to mature.”

Most hockey analysts, however, viewed the Soviet housecleaning as a genuine attempt to realign that nation’s strategy on ice. “That series with the NHL—even though they won five of eight games— taught them that their puck control game won’t win against the best North American teams,” said Howie Meeker last spring. “You’ll see a distinct change.” Meeker was right: physically more aggressive than previous squads, the current Team USSR had also adopted the North American style of

throwing the puck into enemy territory, then chasing it—generating offense from within the zone rather than outside it.

The Soviets obviously had trouble adjusting to the new approach and it was not until their convincing 5-0 defeat of Team USA in Philadelphia that they showed characteristics Canadian fans have become too familiar with: taking merciless advantage of an enemy faux pas.

The Canadians who skated on to the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens September 11 for the final confrontation with the Russians were therefore well aware of the implications of defeat. “If we don’t win, then we’re not Canadians,” said coach Bobby Kromm, perhaps overstating the case a trifle. The players had spent the better part

of the day discussing strategy with Team Canada coaches and among themselves, and in the dressing room before the game, there was silence. “There’s 17,000 people out there and millions more on television who are wishing they were in our boots,” said Denis Potvin. “We’re representing a hell of a lot of people.” (Among them was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who requested and received 42 box seats for his entourage, forcing several organizing officials and the head of the Soviet delegation to take cheaper tickets in the “greens.”) Most Canadians, of course, saw the series on television—courtesy of Carling O’Keefe Breweries and the CTV network. The brewmasters paid a record $2.5 million for 50% of the Canadian sponsorship, but spoiled an otherwise flawless promotional effort by taking beween period segments to laud the company’s various sports support programs. One ad man went on at length about how he supervised the design and forging of the Canada Cup trophy. More seriously, the bland ineptitude of CTV’s on-air crew had armchair critics praising oft-maligned Hockey Night in Canada, the organization that produces regular NHL telecasts. Color commentator Tom Watt at one point assessed Team Canada “an offensive penalty for holding, while, expert-analyst Westfall grinned through half a dozen shows without uttering a single derogatory comment about any team. Perhaps reacting to the criticism, CTV executive producer Johnny Esaw belatedly hired Ken Dryden, one of hockey’s keenest students, for the last few telecasts.

In the tension of the Soviet-Canada match, most Canadians were willing to ignore the network’s miscues. Playing its best game of the tournament, Team Canada continually pressed the Soviets in their own zone, and refused to let Russian wingers take the long, breaking pass up ice. Canada’s most successful offensive ploy was replacing Esposito with hockey’s ablest stickhandler, Gilbert Perreault. “The toughest decision I’ve ever had is to put a fella like Phil Esposito on the bench,” said Scotty Bowman later. “But Perreault turned it around for us, setting up Hull’s goal and narrowly missing several others.” In fact, the score might have been higher but for the formidable Tretiak. “I frankly thought he kept them in the game,” noted Glenn Resch, who watched Tretiak from directly behind the Soviet net. “The more I see him, the more I marvel at his body control. He’s very seldom off balance. He’s almost like a ballet dancer.”

In the dressing room afterwards, even before the hair dryers had been turned off, Team Canada was looking ahead to its rematch with Czechoslovakia. Said captain Bobby Clarke: “The Czechs are better in their own end than the Soviets and they take the body better. They take you right out of the play.” The final, Clarke promised, would be one fine Canada Cup of its Own.

MICHAEL POSNER