sorry not sorry

Ankleburner: Bobby Clarke’s daughter Jody took to social media during Canada’s quarter-final in the February, 2014 Winter Olympics to suggest a way forward. Tied 1-1 with Latvia after two periods, the Canadians won the game in the third on a Shea Weber goal, and went on, of course, to beat the United States and Sweden to secure a gold medal.

Ankleburner: Bobby Clarke’s daughter Jody took to social media during Canada’s February 19 quarter-final in the 2014 Winter Olympics to suggest a way forward. Tied 1-1 with Latvia through two periods, the Canadians won the game in the third on a Shea Weber goal, and went on, of course, to beat the United States and Sweden to secure a gold medal.

When the ’72 Summit Series Tour stopped in Toronto earlier this month, a third of Canada’s famous team stepped to the stage of the Sony Centre: Ron Ellis, Yvan Cournoyer, Brad Park, Bobby Clarke, Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Pete Mahovlich, Dennis Hull, and Pat Stapleton were on hand to reminisce, along with the head coach, Harry Sinden. Ottawa radio host and hockey enthusiast Liam Maguire emcee’d. With a fuller account to follow, could we concentrate our attention here, quickly, on something that wasn’t mentioned during the two hours of tale-telling, quips, and video highlights? I can’t speak for everyone in the small and attentive audience, but I’m willing to venture that as the evening’s narrative moved to Moscow and Game Six, I wasn’t alone in the expectation that there might be something to be said about Bobby Clarke, 67 now, and the Soviet Union’s late Valeri Kharlamov, viz. how the stick of the former found the ankle of the latter in that September 24 second period all those years ago.

No, though. Two hours of talking and nothing — what’s been called the “slash heard ’round the world” didn’t rate so much as a mention. It was only when Maguire asked for questions from the audience that the subject finally came up when a man (in his 50s, I’ll guess) advanced to a microphone in an aisle of the theatre. A transcript here, for the record, of how that went:

Questioner
This is for Bobby Clarke. You put a love-tap on [sic] Harmalov’s ankle [laughter] and I have to ask you — I think it changed the series — what are your comments on that?

Dennis Hull
I got a couple of love taps, too.

Liam Maguire
How many of you got slashed by Bobby?
[Mahovlich, Park, Cournoyer, and Hull all raise hands — big laughter]

Bobby Clarke
They deserved it.

I don’t think that that was that big a deal.
[Hard-to-interpret noises from crowd — intakes of breath? sighs of agreement? of censure?]

Those things were going on in that series. It was never … it was never mentioned for years and years, and then Paul Henderson made some statement that he didn’t want his grandson doin’ what I had done in that series with that slash. And all of a sudden it was a political incorrect thing to do. But really, all kinds of different things went on in that series and … ah … I whacked him, but it wasn’t that big a deal, really.
[Chuckling onstage]

Liam Maguire
It should be pointed out that Kharlamov didn’t … he finished the game, he missed Game Seven, he played Game Eight, he had an assist on the third goal, he set up Yakushev in the second period, it went unassisted because Canadians touched it so they didn’t give him a point, he played a regular shift, and they had three leads, no-one said a thing, like Bobby said, it was just one of those things, Phil got butt-ended in the mouth, Gary got kicked right through the shinpad, but a lot of emphasis is on that slash because they think Kharlamov didn’t play another shift, which as we know is total bs.
Next question.

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Boards Meeting: Clarke and Kharlamov kerfuffle in Moscow in September, 1972.

what we call the unseen hand

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The Canadians were ready in 1972 — at least, okay, maybe, no, not entirely prepared, exactly, but they were eager to shift from practicing to playing actual games. That, they were ready for. “We’ve had enough of this,” said forward Ron Ellis, “it’s time to get to work.” Phil Esposito didn’t care who was on his wings: “Regardless of whether I play with Roy Rogers and Trigger, just so long as we win.” Defenceman Gary Bergman insisted the team wasn’t overconfident when he said, “Look, we’re used to playing against the best forecheckers in the world — right in the National Hockey League. So we don’t have to learn to change our game to beat the Russians.” I don’t know whether centreman Bobby Clarke thought it was cockiness or not when he gave The Hockey News his prediction, below, but say this — it was in line with prevailing opinion in Canada as August came to an end and the pucks began to fly in earnest. Columnist John Robertson of The Montreal Star was a notable dissenter — his unpopular prognostication had the Soviets winning six of the eight games. And Canadian coach Harry Sinden was, notably, sounding notes of caution while others crowed Canadian domination. “We have to leave ourselves open and be ready to make big and quick adjustments,” Sinden said on the eve of the opening game. A sampling of Canadian self-regard (with bonus Soviet views, too) from the eve of the Summit Series of 1972:

 “We’re going to win.”
• Gordie Howe, former right wing, Detroit Red Wings

 “We will win eight games to nothing.”
• Alan Eagleson, director, NHLPA

“I bet a friend that we’ll win every game by at least three goals.”
• Bobby Clarke, centre, Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada

“The Russians could take a game or two, though I don’t think they will.”
• Jack Kent Cooke, owner, Los Angeles Kings

“To ask any team to beat another eight times in a row is to ask a lot. But if we play up to our capabilities, we can win every game.”
• John McLellan, coach, Toronto Maple Leafs

 “I believe Russia’s best will beat Canada’s best in hockey eventually. But not this year; I doubt if the Russians will win a single game next month in The Great Confrontation, either in Canada or in Russia.”
• Jacques Plante, former goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs

“If we play to our potential and, like I say, don’t take them lightly, we will be okay. I would be very disappointed if we don’t win all the games.”
• Jean Béliveau, former centre, Montreal Canadiens

 “I expect the Canadians to win every game. They’re that superior.”
• Billy Reay, coach, Chicago Black Hawks

“I don’t think the series will be a rout but I strongly believe we’ll beat them and beat them convincingly. I think we’ll win all eight games.”
• Ralph Backstrom, centre, Los Angeles Kings

“Our guys are pros and, in my opinion, the best hockey players in the world. If they play up to their potential, I can’t see how the Russians can win a game from them. Except for what we call the unseen hand — some fluky break that could make a difference. Barring that, it should be an eight-game sweep for Canada.”
• Scotty Bowman, coach, Montreal Canadiens

“I’m sure Team Canada is going to win. But I have a lot of respect for the Russians. Their conditioning is superb. They live together for 11 months of the year, and they’re like machines — their thinking is done for them. I don’t think they can react and act on instinct the way our players do. I think Team Canada will win all eight games.”
• Al Arbour, coach, St. Louis Blues

“You have said you will sweep us off the ice. We have said we would like to play and learn for the future. You must fulfill your boast. We will merely play our best, learning as we go.”
• Anatoli Tarasov, former coach, Soviet national team

 “We’ll give predictions for the games after the games. We won’t make any before.”
• Andrei Starovoitov, secretary, Russian Ice Hockey Federation

Sources: “What Experts Think — Most Favor Canada Sweep,” The Hockey News, September, 1972, p. 3; “Anxious To Start,” The Globe and Mail, September 1, 172, p. 36; “Jacques Plante Tells Why We Will Beat The Russians — This Year,” The Globe and Mail, 26 August, 1972, A14; “If We Lose Series Hockey Will Gain — Sinden,” September 2, 1972, p. 22; “No predictions, says Russian hockey official,” August 31, 1972, p. 26.

(Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Frank Lennon. Library and Archives Canada, e010933355 /)

confident canada

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Paul Henderson was there last night in Toronto on the eve of the World Cup, and that was meet and right, probably, because it’s September and as the temperatures starts to drop and hockey fires up, Canadian self-regard hits its peak.

That’s what happened, of course, this month in 1972, and while we’ve never before been quite as filled with hockey hubris as we were that famous year, we have been Septemberly sure of ourselves ahead of the 1976 and 1987 Canada Cups, and going into 1996’s inaugural World Cup. The United States won that last one, of course, but that doesn’t really change a thing: before it all started, we were pretty sure that there was no way anyone could beat us.

This year’s World Cup, which begins today, pits six of the world’s top hockey nations against one another and — well, there are those two “concept teams,” too, Europe and the U-23 North Americas, all battling for the title of the world’s best hockey nation, and/or continent and/or age group.

Is Canada favoured to win? Canada is. Not that there aren’t those who believe that the youth and speed of Connor McDavid’s North Americans might surprise everyone. And not that the Canadian team is proclaiming its superiority — not for public consumption, anyway. “I didn’t know we were the favourite,” defenceman Shea Weber told Ken Campbell from The Hockey News this week. “I think we all think we’re going to win,” coach Mike Babcock was saying, which sounds kind of cocky without the context — he was talking about all the teams in the tournament rather than all the players in his dressing room.

The headline atop another Mirtle story in the morning’s Globe and Mail is one they store in a drawer in the newspaper’s composing room, ready for times like these, ahead of international hockey tournaments:

Canada full of confidence

 It’s not just that we’re playing at home, although that is, of course, to Canada’s advantage. No, this is mostly a question of our ongoing dominance on the ice, not least at successive Olympics. “This is a roster of Canadian players that, as a group,” Mirtle writes, “have become this country’s golden generation, and they largely only know winning at best-on-best events.”

Ken Campbell cites the “ridiculous” success that the 23 players on Canada’s roster bring to the table: between them, they’ve won 14 Stanley Cups, 21 Olympic gold medals, 15 World Championship gold medals, and 17 World Junior Championship gold medals. “It should come as no surprise,” Campbell writes, “that Canada is the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament … It would be a major shock to see anyone other than the Canadians holding up the ugliest trophy in the history of sports once the tournament ends.

“How exactly does Team Canada not win the World Cup of Hockey?” Steve Simmons wonders in The Toronto Sun.

“Only two things can really beat Canada in this tournament. One, is Canada. The other is a red-hot opposing goalie. And the belief here is that neither of those are likely to happen.”

The European coach is Ralph Krueger who, born in Winnipeg, isn’t actually European. Nevertheless, he’s on a similar page. “It’ll take a magical day,” he said this week. “It’ll take a world-class goaltending performance.”

There are other pages, of course.

The Finns are said to be … well, they’re also confident. “We know that we can beat anybody if we manage to do our own things and play as best as we can,” a bright young forward, Patrik Laine, told the Canadian Press. “I think we can even win this tournament. I’m not afraid to say that.”

Canadian Blue: Belleville's McFarlands wore a blue leaf (and petiole) to the 1959 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Canadian Blue: Belleville’s McFarlands wore a blue leaf (and petiole) to the 1959 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Some Americans feel the same way. Montreal captain Max Pacioretty’s idea that Team USA can win is based on teammate Patrick Kane: “I feels he’s the best player in the game,” he told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

Kane himself? “We know that, hey, it’s time right now to get the job done,” he said. “Who knows how many opportunities there will be for a lot of us in the future to play for Team USA. This group is probably at its peak right now, this group that has been together for the last six years. We want to make sure it’s our time to get it done.”

The Czech Republic plays the home team in tonight’s opening game. Frank Seravalli talked to forward Jakub Voracek about the game this morning and heard him scoff “at the notion that his underdog team was taking on an unbeatable juggernaut.”

“We’re not going to war 10 guys against 100,” Voracek said. “We’re going to play a hockey game, start at 0-0.”

•••

Any other factors that might play into Canada’s chances over the next ten days? I wrote in 2010 that, historically, Canadian teams going abroad to seek hockey dominance did best when (1) they travelled by ship; (2) at least one player on the roster was, in name or spirit, a Bobby; (3) the maple leaf they wore upon their sweaters was depicted with its stalk — its petiole, to use the botanical term — intact.

I didn’t invent this formula, I just looked at the facts. It was the maple leaf that was my biggest concern for our team’s chances going into the Vancouver Olympics due to a change in the look of the maple leaf adorning Canadian sweaters that year. I was worried because (a) an anatomically messed-up maple leaf doesn’t look right and is (b) possibly unpatriotic not to mention (c) why was it necessary to be fiddling with the maple leaf as well as (d) was there a risk that its very redesigned ugliness might somehow jinx our team and jeopardize our chances and (e) why would anyone think that it was worth risking years of Canadian hockey glory for this?

Leaf enthusiasts will say that the petiole has no bearing on a hockey team’s performance on the ice. Botanists, I mean there — although Maple Leaf enthusiasts in Toronto could argue the very same thing.

Another thing, too: we won in 2010, stalkless leaves and all, and in 2014 it happened again, at the Sochi Olympics, with a new Canadian logo featuring a newly designed incomplete new maple leaf.

Is too late to love those Sochi sweaters and wish we had them back? Because the World Cup is, of course, a merchandising opportunity as much as it’s anything else (and maybe more), there were always going to be new sweaters to sell. This year’s maple leaf lacks both stalk and charm. It’s too angular, looks out-of-true. The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor thinks it looks like “a bleached marijuana plant,” but I don’t know. That would suggest that it once had some life in it.

It could be worse. The sweaters that the players from Team Europe and Team North America are wearing are each, in their own way, hideously bland — worse than anything I’ve seen in my laser-tag rec league, to borrow someone’s quip from Twitter. It’s not just that they’re generic, it looks like whoever designed them didn’t care how they turned out because it didn’t matter, so long as Connor McDavid would be putting one on, mobilizing shoppers across his home and native continent and beyond.

Old Foliage: Guy Charron's Canada sweater worn at the 1977 World Championships.

Old Foliage: Guy Charron’s Canada sweater worn at the 1977 World Championships in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

that perfectly nice blue sweater

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Photojournalist Rosemary Gilliat Eaton travelled to Canada’s eastern Arctic in 1960, stopping that August in what was then Frobisher Bay, N.W.T. — today’s Iqaluit, Nunavut. Someone she met there was a boy named Moosa (her notes also refer to him as Mosha, Moshah, and Mosher), seen here in his Leaf warms, preparing polar bear meat for a stew.

British-born in 1919, Eaton settled in Canada, in Ottawa; later she went to Nova Scotia, making her home in a community that may not then have been much on the national hockey map but is now: Cole Harbour. She died in 2004. The archive of her life’s work runs to 100,000 images, most of which are divided between Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa and the Cole Harbour Heritage Farm Museum.

(Photo: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton / Library and Archives Canada / e010799968)

wheelman

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Ted Green wasn’t much for the pre-season. “I never liked exhibition games,” the long-serving Boston defenceman wrote (with Al Hirshberg’s help) in a 1971 memoir, High Stick, “because of the chances of getting hurt before the regular season started.” As for shaping himself up for the long campaign ahead, he took care of that on his own time in the summer — late in August of 1968, for example, above, just ahead of his ninth year on the Bruins’ blueline.

“I kept myself in condition during the off-season at my home in St. Boniface, just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba,” he wrote. “The only reason I cared about training at all after I made the club was to get into skating shape, which never took more than a few weeks.

It was a year later, September 21, 1969 in Ottawa, that Green got into a grievous stick fight with Wayne Maki during an exhibition game with the St. Louis Blues. When it was over, Green went to hospital with a life-threatening compound skull fracture. After three brain surgeries and a year’s gruelling recovery, Green spent the summer of 1970 facing the law and his hockey future. Ottawa Police had charged both players with assault causing bodily harm, though after Maki was tried and acquitted, Green’s charge was reduced to common assault, of which he, too, was cleared.

Back in Boston, he went to work with a personal trainer, a Hungarian who’d trained Olympic boxers, and a new regime: “running on a treadmill, operating wall pulleys, riding a stationary bicycle, doing deep knee bends, push-ups, high kicks, chin-ups, arm stretching, tossing the medicine ball, forward and backward somersaults, 60-yard sprints, and working on a devilish contraption called the Swedish wall ladder.”

Training camp was in London, Ontario, that September. “I went,” Green wrote later, “not knowing if I could play hockey again or not.” He could: helmeted, now, he played another two seasons for the Bruins before jumping to the WHA, where he skated a further eight.

(Photo used with the permission of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-3786-001neg)

stopping a salming

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The Canadians had a simple plan: stop a Salming.

Tuesday, September 7 was the day Sweden and Canada clashed, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in that September of 1976. The home team had opened its account at the first Canada Cup with a merciless mincemeating of Finland: 11-2 was the final. Next day, Sweden beat the United States by a count of 5-2. Canada went on to master the U.S., too, 4-2, while the Swedes shared a 3-3 tie with the Soviet Union.

Canada’s plan for the Swedes had two parts, the first of which precipitated a line-up adjustment: out went a couple of goalscoring wingers, Reggie Leach and Danny Gare, in came a pair with recognized defensive chops, Bob Gainey and Lanny McDonald.

Part two: smother a Salming.

There were two of them to choose from, both defencemen. Stig, the elder at 28, didn’t worry Canada too much, not in the way that his younger brother did, the Maple Leafs’ own Borje, who was 25. If Lars-Erik Sjöberg was the Swedish captain, Salming Minor was their on-ice leader, not to mention an offensive threat — he’d scored a goal in each of the first two games.

There was no secret to Canada’s strategy. “He’s too good,” Gainey said. “If you let him skate, he’s going to hurt you.”

“It’s nothing new, eh?” captain Bobby Clarke told the Toronto Star’s Jim Proudfoot afterwards. “Just like playing the Leafs in the National Hockey League. Everybody knows you’ve got to control Salming or he’ll murder you. The Swedes built their whole offence around him. He’s the guy who brings the puck out of their zone, and he’s the man they want to get the puck to on the powerplay.”

“Everybody had the same instructions — get in there quick and take Salming before he gets underway,” coach Scotty Bowman said afterwards.

Bill Barber was the first to hit Salming hard in the first period, before Bobby Hull applied himself. “He threw two clean checks,” Scott Young wrote, “with all the power of the strongest physique in North American hockey.”

Salming had one long shot on goaltender Rogie Vachon — Proudfoot rated it the hardest he had to handle all night — but otherwise the Leafs’ defenceman wasn’t prominent in the 4-0 win that Canada composed. Bob Gainey had been assigned the job of checking Anders Hedberg, but he found time to score a pair of goals, too, with Hull and Marcel Dionne counting the others.

“The man said he wanted us to hit Salming,” Hull said after the game. “I’m just here to please.” Canada’s back-up goaltender, Gerry Cheevers, agreed that Salming hadn’t been the force he’d been in his team’s previous games. “We can thank Hull for that. Those hits would have stopped a Clydesdale.”

(Canada Cup poster by Thomas Ross McNeely. Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

canada’s cup 1976: the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled

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The Olympics go out, as they tend to do, in a salvo of light and colour and national pride. The stadium, one observer writes, is filled with the overwhelming goodwill of youth. A streaker who takes the field cavorts near dancing girls. spectacle and the striving Was it worth all that money? The questions float up and flutter among the flags. One flame goes out, a new one flickers its fingers. Leave it, maybe, to the novelist Morley Callaghan to pronounce: the Olympics are madness, he says, “and madness is beautiful regardless of price.”

Time, when it’s all over, for the hockey players to stand to the fore.

This year, it was Rio’s Olympics that’s giving way to the end of summer and a hockey World Cup pitting nation against nation against — well, of course, there’s a pair of continental teams, too, one of which is U23, so it’s a strangely asymmetrical tournament, a format that we’re still getting used to. Maybe we’ll even learn to love it.

Forty years ago, it was the Montreal Olympics that a great Canadian novelist lauded as they ended in August. The hockey players in question that year were participants in a more traditional international tournament spread among six old-fashioned national teams in the inaugural Canada Cup.

With all due respect to this year’s edition, Canada ’76 was loaded with talent and savvy and experience — and that’s just the braintrust. Montreal’s genius GM Sam Pollock was in charge of the whole operation, with Keith Allen as a principal aide and Toe Blake standing by as counsel. Then there was Pollock’s advisory committee of wise men: Jean Béliveau, Gordie Howe, and Syl Apps. Scotty Bowman was the first choice to coach, but he said no, at first: his Montreal Canadiens had just completed a successful Stanley Cup campaign, and his wife was pregnant with twins.

There was a rumour that Fred Shero had agreed to the step up, but Pollock said he hadn’t, in fact, spoken to the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end, Pollock decided four heads were better than one. Bowman was back in, joining with Boston’s Don Cherry, Bobby Kromm of the Winnipeg Jets, Al MacNeil, coach of Montreal’s AHL farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. There was so much enthusiasm to generate, Bowman said. “I used up much of my adrenalin during the past season and have another season ahead. Having four coaches spreads it around a little and eases the pressure.”

“This will be the coaching style of the future,” was Cherry’s take on it. “Each of us will contribute something. We’ll work in harmony. There won’t be any friction. We all want to win. We’re going to be the favourites and there’s going to be nothing but pressure on us. It would be too much for one man.”

Picking a preliminary 31-man roster in June, Pollock selected 29 players from the NHL with three more drawn from WHA clubs. The coaches would trim the squad in August to 25, 20 of whom would dress for each tournament game. Injuries ruled out several significant players, including goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent and defencemen Brad Park and Jim Schoenfeld.

There was uncertainty about Bobby Orr, too, coming off two 1975 surgeries on that troublesome left knee of his. He’d gone in for an arthroscopic exam in June, and his lawyer, at least, was hopeful. “Bobby is in A-1 condition,” reported Alan Eagleson, who also happened to be running the tournament as director, “and he’ll probably play in the Canada Cup.”

Even without the poorly, it was hard to see the Canadian roster as diminished, exactly.

Gerry Cheevers, Glenn Resch, and Rogie Vachon were among the goaltenders summoned to report to a 23-day training camp in Montreal in August. Defencemen included Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, and Guy Lapointe. Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Reggie Leach were competing were jobs on the right wing, with Bill Barber, Bobby Hull, Bob Gainey, and Steve Shutt over on the left. At centre: Bobby Clarke, Darryl Sittler, Phil Esposito, Gil Perreault, Marcel Dionne, and Pete Mahovlich.

In Montreal, the players moved into the Bonaventure Hotel. August 10 they headed for the ice for the first time at the Forum. Morning drills led to an afternoon scrimmage. In the evening, the team headed to Jarry Park to watch the Montreal Expos play ball with the San Francisco Giants. The next day, and for the rest of the camp, they started the morning with a three-mile run up Mount Royal.

“It was easily the toughest training camp I’ve ever attended,” Dionne was saying by the time it was over.

Bobby Orr stayed at his summer place, in Orillia, Ontario, working on his own — and making progress. “Two months ago there was no way I thought I could play but in the last month the knee has felt just super,” he updated. “I will skating hard and if there isn’t a bad reaction I will be going to Montreal.”

Bobby Hull was 37. Shut out of the Summit Series in 1972, he was thrilled to be aboard this time out. He was pleased, too, to be playing in a tournament where the hockey had evolved beyond the intimidation inherent in his home and native WHA. “It will be a pleasure to play without the worry about being stabbed in the back. Everyone will be back to hockey’s basics, the way hockey should be played and was played before the goons took over.”

Phil Esposito was feeling renewed after the shock of the trade that had taken him from Boston to New York the previous November. “It affected me mentally,” he was saying, “and because of it I couldn’t function properly. It just devastated me.” But: he was ready now, he said. Don Cherry, for one, thought it showed. “Espo was showing the snap I hadn’t seen for a couple of years,” his former coach said after the team’s first workout.

He was one of the vets from ’72, Espo. Savard, Lapointe, Clarke, and Mahovlich had played in the Summit Series, . That epic series was even fresher in the national mind, of course, than it is today, with coaches and players vowing that they wouldn’t be making the same mistakes they’d made back then. Arrogance wasn’t a word they were using: mostly what they mentioned were matters of conditioning and team unity.

They wasn’t much joy, looking back. There was wariness, weariness , grim memories tinged at the edges by the unshakeable sense of just how near run a thing it had been. Even as he and his team readied this new challenge, Serge Savard talked to Montreal Gazette columnist Tim Burke about how very, very exhausted the Canadians were, four years earlier, how disarrayed, how downspirited, who knows what might have happened if they’d hadn’t left the country after the first four games.

Lessons had been learned. Exhibition games would help, this time around. “Mental preparation is also important,” said Harry Sinden, the coach in ’72. “We went into that series saying to ourselves we couldn’t lose. We now know what we’re up against and that’s in our favour.”

Not that we weren’t still having problems imagining anything other than victory. What else was there? Our game, our tournament. “If ever a team appeared to be invincible,” Tim Burke effused in that same Savard-quoting column, “I’d put my dough on this lot.” What we had here, he’d decided, no doubts, was “the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled.”

The Soviets, if they showed up, would be lacking in their line-up. Valeri Kharlamov was recovering for a summer car accident, Alexander Yakushev had a bad knee. Veteran Vladimirs, Petrov and Shadrin, weren’t coming, and nor was Boris Mikhailov. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was supposed to be staying home, too — to study for military exams, the word was.

Esposito, for one, wasn’t fooled. “A psyche job,” he warned in August.

“The Russians are clever. They’re leaking these stories in hopes it will throw us off our game. When they arrive, they will be tough.”

Team Canada sent Tom Watt, coach of the University of Toronto, across the Atlantic to scout the Soviets and Swedes. “Objectively,” he said on his return, “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 maybe the Russians wouldn’t come at all — that was a possibility, for a while. As the Olympics drew to a close in early August, the Soviet Olympic Committee was threatening both to pull out of the Game’s remaining events, and there was talk that the hockey team would stay home, too. A 17-year-old diver, Sergei Nemtsanov, had asked for and been granted asylum in Canada — defected — and the Soviets were livid.

He’d been abducted, they said, maybe drugged, certainly brainwashed. There was a meeting involving the diver, his lawyers, and Soviet and Canadian officials that proved, to the Soviets, that he was not in his right mind. Why was his face so pale, his look so absent? Why did he repeat, “like a parrot,” “I want freedom, I want freedom.”

A Russian official charged that “a group of terrorists” had been roaming the Olympic Village, preying on Soviet athletes.

Other press reports noted that young Sergei had an American diver as his girlfriend, and that this was all about her, though the girlfriend’s family released a statement to say firmly that she wasn’t Sergei’s girlfriend.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau weighed in: he said it was up to the diver to decide what he wanted to do. Which he did: after a week or two in Toronto, concerned for his “aged and ailing grandmother,” he elected to go home. Continue reading