Sports

The greatest show (and guy) on ice

MICHAEL POSNER September 6 1976
Sports

The greatest show (and guy) on ice

MICHAEL POSNER September 6 1976

The greatest show (and guy) on ice

Sports

He had been waiting at ice level for an hour or more, as patiently as it is possible for small boys to wait. Finally, its practice over, Team Canada filed off the ice toward the dressing room and the boy made his approach. “Can I have your hockey stick?” he said to Dave Burrows. The Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman looked at him and said, “I’m sorry. It’s a new stick. Maybe when it gets banged up a bit.” Behind Burrows was Bobby Hull. “Can I have your hockey stick?” the boy repeated, determined. “The sticks are brand new,” rasped Hull, his voice sounding like sandpaper on varnish. “But I’ll go into the dressing room and see if we have any old ones lying around.” Minutes later, Hull reappeared—stick in hand.

The anecdote is vintage Hull: promise given; promise kept. After 19 years in professional hockey, 15 with the National Hockey League’s Chicago Black Hawks and four with the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets, Robert Marvin Hull is still the game’s first ambassador, a 16hour-a-day advertising campaign for the sport.

This month, Hull’s whirlwind pace is

even more frenetic than usual, as he leads 25 of the nation’s best players into what has been billed as the best hockey tournament ever, the Canada Cup. Officially, of course, the Canada Cup is nothing more than a six-nation hockey series, a round-robin followed by a best-of-three game final. Unofficially, it represents a world championship of hockey, the professionals of North America against the professionals of Europe, the ultimate test of supremacy on ice. After two previous Soviet-Canada match-ups and last year’s eight game NHLRussia exhibition series, the Canada Cup is an idea whose time has come. “The whole thing is so logical and sound,” says one nameless Team Canada official, “that it can survive even the authorship of R. Alan Eagleson,” who organized and now chairs the event.

The most eloquent confirmation of just what is at stake was Team Canada’s 23-day training camp in Montreal, a rigorous three-hours-a-day regimen of land exercise and on-ice practice. To build endurance and leg strength, the players ran three miles every morning up the inclines of Mount Royal. “It was,” says Marcel

Dionne, “easily the toughest training camp I’ve ever attended. We didn’t take a day off for eight days, and nobody let up. You just had to keep pushing because if you didn’t push you fell behind—and risked not making the team.” (Of the 31 players who turned up at camp, only 25 were selected to play). Said Al MacNeil, one of four Team Canada coaches: “We knew we had all kinds of talent here, but unless you have conditioning you have nothing, so that’s where we concentrated our efforts. We had 31 guys out there hustling like rookies.” Predictably, perhaps, no one hustled more than Bobby Hull. Whether it was in post-scrimmage wind sprints or circuit training on Mount Royal, Hull was the pacesetter. On one occasion, he stopped at the push-up station to help some Montreal youngsters learn the proper technique. “If you want to be a professional hockey player,” he told them, avoiding a partisan nod to either the NHL or the WHA, “you’ve got to learn to do these things right.” In fact, Hull’s exuberant approach to the fitness program briefly backfired. “When I push too hard too suddenly, the muscles in my back go into spasm,” he said, although

the muscular strain kept him off the ice only one day.

But if Hull was out in front, his teammates weren’t far behind—largely because of personal training routines begun even before the opening of camp. Winger Steve Shutt, whose ability to accelerate rapidly is the result of special attention to leg muscles, had been running three miles and playing 27 holes of golf every other day. Centreman Dionne logged five miles a day and played paddleball. And defenseman Bobby Orr spent a week working out of his Orillia, Ontario, camp before setting foot in Montreal. “You know, it wasn’t just the question of his knee that kept him away that long,” said Team Canada coach Scotty Bowman. “I mean he knew the guys here were working hard and Bobby Orr wasn’t about to embarrass himself or his teammates by coming here in anything less than near peak condition.”

Everywhere, the stories seemed scripted by the same writer. The players had arrived in high spirits, willing to work hard, cognizant of the stakes. “There’s very few excuses left anymore,” noted goalie Ken Dryden, whose own knee injury (torn ligaments) kept him out of the series. “Before we could say we were unprepared, or we weren’t in shape or we weren’t sending our best players against their best players. We

can’t say that anymore. It’s reached the stage where what you see on the ice is all you’re going to get.”

Even the Canada Cup schedule favored Team Canada—the Canadians opening the series against the weaker Finns and Americans before taking on the stronger Swedes, Czechoslovaks and Soviets. And while the visiting teams were commuting between Philadelphia and Quebec and Winnipeg, the Canadians were playing all their games in the hospitable surroundings of the Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens and Ottawa’s Civic Centre. In short, if this edition of Team Canada could not beat the Soviets, Swedes et al, then presumably no Team Canada could—a contingency few Canadian hockey fans were anxious to entertain or willing to believe.

Certainly Team Canada 1976 contains as much sheer offensive power as any hockey club ever assembled: no less than six 50-goals (or more) scorers last year, and another five with more than 40—excluding New York Ranger Phil Esposito, who finished his worst season in nine years with 35 goals. “I was very depressed,” the gregarious Espo admits. “At one point I even considered quitting altogether. Then I looked at myself in the mirror one morning and said, ‘Wake up, you fool. Where else are you going to make this much money?’ ” The self-evident answer to that question had produced a revived Esposito, a reincarnation of the player that won the NHL scoring title four consecutive years (1970-74).

Among those joining Esposito were

Philadelphia Flyer Reggie Leach, owner of the hardest shot in hockey; Gilbert Perreault, the game’s shiftiest puck handler; Bobby Clarke, indisputably the wielder of the meanest stick in the NHL. (Says one Team Canada all-star: “Clarkie’s so vicious that he’ll even spear you in practice. He doesn’t intend to injure or maim. He just does whatever he has to do to get the puck.”) And the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, at 37 still a marvel of machismo. The five-foot 10-inch, 195-pound frame that physiologists once called the “perfect mesomorph” still supports the most muscular body in the game, with biceps bigger than Muhammad Ali’s. A former teammate recalls trying to bump him off the puck. “You literally bounce right off him. His power was absolutely raw.” His face bears more lines than a map of Montreal and the golden curls have been replaced by a thatch of uncertain origin, but Hull’s strength seems undiminished. “He actually told me he used to shoot the puck twice as hard as he does now,” says New York Islander goalie Glen Resch. “Hell, if that’s half-strength, I’d hate to have faced him five or 10 years ago. The shot is devastating.” Last year, in leading the Jets to their first World Hockey Association championship, Hull collected 53 goals and 70 assists, ample evidence that his skills have scarcely declined. Says Bobby Kromm, who coaches Hull in Winnipeg and is also part of Team Canada’s coaching quartet: “Hull is a very determined guy. He likes to see that red light go on.” Hull’s achievements off the ice are no

less staggering—if only for their numbers. “Nobody of his era has gone out of his way as much or is more gracious than Bobby Hull,” says Ken Dryden. A career diplomat of the sport, Hull praises the virtues of hockey to peewee windup banquets from coast-to-coast, turns up at shopping plazas and auto dealerships for ticket-selling campaigns, poses for pictures with other men’s girl friends, flips practice pucks over the boards to souvenir-hungry spectators, gives interviews to any reporter who asks. “Other guys call you to tell you why they can’t make it,” says a Toronto ad executive who worked with Hull on a sports equipment account. “Bobby just shows up on time.” At training camp, a French-language radio reporter requested a short interview. Hull briefly demurred. “My French isn’t good enough,” he apologized, flashing the famous dimpled smile. “Besides, there’s lots of guys here who speak French.” “Ah, yes,” countered the reporter, “but there’s only one Bobby Hull.” Hull later gave the interview and the reporter termed his French “flawless.”

With Hull and Co. up front, the Canadians are not expected to have much difficulty scoring goals, but their strength behind the centre line may be suspect. Without Dryden and Philadelphia Flyer goalie Bernie Parent (also out with an injury) Team Canada’s three goalies represent the second rank—all gifted, but not brilliant. Gerry Cheevers, who starred in the 1974 series with the Russians, is the most unorthodox of the trio. “Cheesey’s a calculated gambler,” says Glen Resch. “The old cliché says the goalie should never make the first move on a shooter. Well, Gerry will sometimes defy that. He’ll come out and make the first move and maybe force you to make your own move too soon or throw off your timing. He’ll do whatever he has to do to stop the puck, regardless of what it looks like.” Vachon, at five-feet seven-inches the shortest of the group, is also the quickest. “He’s just a good, solid, fundamental goalkeeper,” says Resch, who deliberately patterned his

own style after Vachon. “He’s so consistent, and that’s the whole secret of successful goalkeeping.”

Team Canada may also encounter some problems moving the puck out of their own zone. Even last month against the Americans, a team that seemed destined to lose every game in the tournament, the Canadians occasionally floundered defensively, freezing the puck against the boards to relieve the U.S. pressure. Explains Dryden: “No matter what shape you’re in, you’re not as in good shape as you will be later in the year. When you’re conditioning isn’t just so, the first thing that goes is defensive play. Defensive play is grinding. It’s work. Also, getting out of your own end requires timing and precision. To move out smoothly and cleanly, a defenseman must know instinctively just where along the boards his forward will be positioned. I don’t think Team Canada has quite reached that stage yet.”

But when the Canadians are severely pressed, they will undoubtedly turn to Bobby Orr, arguably the best hockey player in history. Orr’s celebrated left knee, five times under the surgeon’s scalpel, is—temporarily—sound and none the worse for two exhibition games in which he killed penalties, played the power play and a regular shift, scored one goal and added five assists. In his first serious scrimmage in nine months, he moved as fast as the Orr of old, but with less abandon, carefully picking his spots. His agility on skates—the ability to fight off defenders with one hand and stickhandle with the other—is still uncanny and his sense of anticipation—of where to put the puck and when—still unrivaled. Beyond his unique skills, Orr is the one player who can change and control the tempo of a hockey game.

On paper, then, Team Canada seemed nearly invincible, but they would face stiff competition from the Soviet Union, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. The Soviets have begun a new era in their national team program. Players that had become as familiar to Canadians as Hull and Orr—Yakushev,

the rangy winger, Petrov, the playmaking centre, Mikhilov, the wily veteran, did not appear—nor Valery Kharlamov, who broke both ankles in a recent car accident. In their stead, the Russians sent a crop of younger, more aggressive players. “It’s not a wholesale realignment,” says Tom Watt, the University of Toronto hockey coach who scouted the Soviets last month in Sweden. “They’re still bringing Tretiak in goal; they’ve still got Gusev and Vasiljev on defense. They’ve still got Maltsev and Kapustin and Lebedev up front. It’s not 20 new faces.” Nevertheless, the new faces were expected to make a big impression, especially those belonging to Helmut Balderis, a Latvian winger described by Watt as “very good with the puck and very nasty,” and Boris Alexandrov, who played briefly with the Central Red Army squad during the 1975 exhibition series.

Team Canada officials were also expecting strong performances from the Swedes, bolstered by the addition of four NHL and six WHA players, including Borje Salming of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. “The Swedes have some outstanding players,” says Watt. “I’m just not sure they have enough. Conditioning? Very good, but not as good as the Soviets. In the second exhibition game, the score was 2-2 after two periods. In the third period, Sweden collapsed and Russia won 4-2.”

Team Canada’s least known and perhaps most powerful opponent was considered to be Czechoslovakia, near-winners of the 1976 Olympic gold medal. Ahead 21 with seven minutes remaining at Innsbruck, the Czechs took a bad penalty, surrendered a goal and eventually lost 3-2 to the Soviet Union. The next month, that same Czech team, including defenseman Frantisek Pospisil and forwards Jiri Holik and Ivan Hlinka, captured the world championships.

Little hope, however, is held for Team Finland or Team U.S.A. The Americans are playing with one crippling handicap— minimal talent. “We recognize that we’re not going to have the puck an awful lot,” says U.S. team coach Bob Pulford. “We just hope we can go out and keep it close and get a break or two.” The Finns are likewise given no chance of winning but could play spoilers, having beaten every country at least once in previous international play.

“Objectively,” says Tom Watt, “I think Team Canada has the talent to win. But sometimes you find a kid with a high IQ doesn’t do very well in math. Performance and talent are always two different things.” But all that was theory. As Team Canada settled down to the business at hand, Canadian hockey fans were hoping Bobby Hull—competing in what could be his last international tournament—would repeat his performance of the 1974 series, when, as Soviet coach Boris Kulagin dryly noted after each game: “Mr. Hull, he got he his usual goal.”

MICHAEL POSNER