As the teams warmed up for the third and decisive game of the Challenge Cup the second weekend in February, the National Hockey League All-Stars blasted randomly bouncing pucks at a goaltender who had just stepped onto the ice. Youngsters hung over the boards screaming for some little acknowledgement from their demigod heroes. At the other end of the rink, the red-sweatered Soviet National Team sprinted from blue line to goal line and the team’s captain flipped pucks to alternate corners of the net as the goaltender gradually flexed and stretched. The white jerseys swarmed in, two against a defenceman, slapping passes that drifted into the corner boards, managing one shot in three against the goalie. The red sweaters, meanwhile, flew in a figure eight, first to their backhand, then to their forehand, dancing the goalie from left to right.
With New York’s Madison Square Garden’s ice glistening, thousands of partisans roaring and millions of fans around the world fixed to their television sets, the crucible of Canada’s unofficial national sport was unveiled. Moments after the contest began, Bryan Trottier rubbed his leather glove in the face of Alexander Skvortsov, Lanny McDonald menaced Helmut Balderis with the butt end of his stick and Don Marcotte slammed Valeri Vasilyev into the boards. When the final buzzer mercifully sounded with the Soviets ahead 6-0, Ed Snider, owner of the NHL s Philadelphia Flyers, called it a monstrosity, “the worst disgrace in hockey history.”
If ever there was a touchstone of national pride, a focal point of unanimity that transcended language and distance among Canadians, it was hockey. Since the late 1800s, it has been called our own, an island of superiority unique, unchallenged, undefended. It was.
Arrogant rowdies had condescended to waltz and elbow their way past the weak-ankled, timid pretenders of midcentury, as the nation smirked. But when the international crown was usurped by their amateurs, when our redefined idealists couldn’t win it back, there was always the National Hockey League—executor of the true jewels of the sport. They were finally uncased in the third quarter of the century and defeated the Soviets only by feverish emotion and last-minute miracles. A weaker Soviet assault was turned back in 1976, but only just.
This time, this “Series of the Century,” this three-game Challenge Cup of 1979 was to be different. This time the $200,000-a-year pearls were to be in peak physical condition at their midseason, play on their size of ice surface, with their fans and their officials in two games. And it was different. On Feb. 11, the touchstone exploded on foreign soil, the NHL myth disintegrated and the crown travelled 5,000 miles to the east, probably never to return.
The teams faced each other amid the most grandiose blare the NHL could muster and New York and the American media have ever ignored. For two periods of the first game, Canadian fantasies, hoarded over the last two decades, were given some substance. From then on, the vapors evaporated in the Soviet swirl and the NHL and its disciples were left with the truth. During the 180 minutes of play, the Soviets dominated for 140, outscored the NHL 13-8 and held them scoreless for the final 94 minutes and 54 seconds while scoring nine times.
All the elbows, high sticks, crosschecks, boardings, punches, threats and body slams rang hollow as Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov laughed in their faces and the Soviets, as a team, displayed pure hockey skills demonstrated only by individuals in the history of North American hockey.
With eight months to prepare, the NHL introduced the All-Stars to each other three days before Game 1. The league packaged the event with the hope of attracting a much-needed U.S. television contract and making money for the players’ association pension fund. They succeeded only in proving
that a team isn’t formed in a week, that U.S. television isn’t interested and likely never will be and that international hockey makes money ($3 million gross with more than $1 million expenses). The humiliating defeat at the hands of the Soviets demonstrated that the entire project was ill-advised but, more important, that the NHL style of play is poverty-stricken, that the highly paid and once hero-worshiped stars of the league are light-years behind the Soviets in physical conditioning and that the fundamental skills of skating, puck handling and passing have eroded in the NHL just as they have been honed to excellence by the Soviets.
NHL Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau stood in the runway under Madison Square Garden as the shell-shocked NHL All-Stars solemnly trooped past. Beliveau shook his head. “Astounding. The Soviets are in such terrific shape and are such beautiful skaters. You know, the greatest difference between the NHL now and my day is the mobility of the defencemen. Now their defencemen are much faster and more mobile than ours. They have shown us that hockey is a game of speed and we have never had a team as fast as theirs. We must regroup and
examine what we have lost.” Before the Challenge Cup, Fred Shero, coach of the New York Rangers, had said, “I don’t use any of their training techniques over here. We don’t do any dry-land work. Oh, we tried it in Philadelphia with the Flyers. You can get away with it in training camp because some of the players may not have signed contracts and they want to impress you. But after that, they complain.”
A white-faced Borje Salming likened the waves of red sweaters pouring over the blue line to playing the Montreal Canadiens, but added: “The Soviets are faster.” All-Star and Canadien Coach Scotty Bowman agreed that “sometimes we look like that, but we couldn’t play a whole game at that pace.”
Excuses, tumbled forth since the last Canadian team won a world title in 1961, no longer worked. The Soviet superiority was too dramatic, its skills (like Helmut Balderis breaking over the blue line, teasing the defence by dropping the puck into his skates, then kicking it back onto his stick—at full speed) were too evident. Minor, intermediate, junior and college coaches, rudely shocked out of their complacency, now searched for tangible results from the millions of federal dollars poured into the sport in the last decade.
Minister of Sport Iona Campagnolo has said, “The real problem begins when the child enters hockey,” and she hopes that part of the problem will be revealed in the government’s soon-tobe-released $200,000 Canadian Hockey Review. High on the list will be the baffling (to Europeans and the Soviets especially) multiple voices and interne-
cine struggles of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, Hockey Canada and Alan Eagleson.
After acknowledging the Soviets’ diplomatic post-series comments that the NHL could ice 10 quality teams to their one, and as the shock and anguish swept from coast to coast, even washing up on the floor of the House of Commons, the NHL governors returned to business as usual, putting thoughts of hockey skills in the back of their minds and almost looking forward to facing red ink rather than sweaters.
From a six-team professional league and self-proclaimed global supremacy, major North American pro hockey, as played by Canadians and a handful of Swedes and Americans, has devolved to
17 teams and decided international inferiority. The World Hockey Association has contracted faster than it expanded and the NHL has merged two teams while barely holding its position as a sport of regional interest.
“Just take a look at a place like Washington,” says Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. “Not a bad hockey club, with a turnaround in attendance, and the owner is probably going to lose $1 million to $1.5 million this year. Colorado draws 5,000 a game and has to blow $2 million. St. Louis used to draw 18,000now it’s getting 6,000 and 7,000. I have to think that the owners must wonder whether they should go it again next year.”
The Boston Bruins’ general manager, Harry Sinden, says there are not enough talented hockey players for more than 16 or 18 teams: “Once you lower the skill level below major-league, how can you sell it? How low can you let it go?” As Eagleson points out, the St. Louis Blues used to beat Montreal and Toronto the odd time but “now they’re just trying to keep the score down. I would like to see the NHL contract to maybe 14 or 12 teams and then grow in a proper manner. Right now we have three or four franchises that must be wondering—fans, players and owners alike—what they’re doing in the NHL.”
The average salary in the league is well over $90,000 and as Philadelphia Flyer owner Ed Snider says, “We’re a gate-receipt league in the States. The teams just can’t afford the salaries. I don’t know how much the owners want to lose and for how long, but there
comes a time when everyone throws in the towel.”
Stubborn NHL owners have blocked moves to incorporate the WHA to end the rivalry, which could also create a national base for the game to attract TV networks, and moves to reduce protected rosters to share what talent there is. “There’s a total lack of co-operation in the NHL at the league level,” says Snider. “The Canadian clubs aren’t sympathetic to the U.S. clubs’ problems, which is very shortsighted.”
Sonny Werblin, the man who made the American Football League by signing Joe Namath and who brought the Swedish connection, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, to the New York Rangers, agrees that the NHL’s problems stem from the top. “They either lack awareness of merchandising or just don’t know how to do it.” As for the NHL’s latest PR coup of inviting embarrassment at the hands of the Soviets, he would rather not comment. “Any league does better with more frequent competition between division rivals. The way the league is set up, natural and regional rivals come to town about three times a year. Fans don’t have a chance to identify with the teams.
“The greatest names in hockey— Orr, Howe, Lafleur—aren’t known throughout the States. The top players on the Rangers are faceless in New York. It’s a question of merchandising, of going out and selling the product.”
The NHL is the only major-league sport in the U.S. without a television contract. Harry Sinden says the NHL “might survive without one.” Werblin says, “If we don’t get TV revenue, then
the salaries and the league will be in trouble.” The last contract was bungled when the league demanded too much for renewal and the latest Challenge Cup bait turned into a one-period nibble by CBS which blacked out the second game from hockey strongholds like Philadelphia.
The NHL, in the wake of the Soviet conquest, must now face the mirror and the echo of half-empty arenas as the Rockies, Caps, Blues, Canucks, North Stars et al come to town. The veil has been lifted from the league’s Dorian Gray and those who pay the tariff, and the networks don’t like the picture. The Challenge Cup was a hard but necessary lesson and one the league invited. The message is clear and directed at Cana-
dian hockey’s power brokers and czars from house leagues to Parliament Hill. This is not its first coming and it has been ignored before. But at least, as AllStar defenceman Serge Savard hoped after the Soviet series, “It will be a lesson to the NHL owners to get back and develop hockey players instead of developing goons.”
Like Leon Spinks, set up then put in his place by Muhammad Ali, the NHL players want another shot at their tarnished crown. Alan Eagleson is demanding that the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association be barred from international negotiations to allow him to organize a Canada Cup series in September. The weight of potential revenue from a rematch, a “Thrilla in Taranta,” makes it almost inevitable. Down and bloodied, the players want another chance to fly heart and emotion in the face of discipline and superior craftsmanship.
The people will come, whatever the price, because Canadians still love hockey, because the NHL and WHA regular season and championships are now more meaningless than ever and because they are starved for wellplayed hockey. But if games with the Soviets, Czechs, Swedes and Finns are ever to become more than profit makers, if the government or concerned Canadians value hockey supremacy, then our entire approach to the game must be reworked. We must take helmet in hand and learn from the Soviets, introduce their training and style to our youngest players and—perhaps a generation from now—we may legitimately challenge for their cup.
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