the steaks of 1972: everybody suspected sabotage

In Canada, all that matters is this: we won.

It was 40 years ago today that the best of our hockey best beat the Soviets in Moscow in the final and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series. It could have gone either way, as the sportscasters say: a last-minute goal by Paul Henderson was the difference. And not even a glorious goal, at that. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a show-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than a stick.

Doesn’t matter. Canadians know now, as they always have, why their team won: the game is ours + Canadian heart (almost) always trumps foreign skill + in the battle between our way of life versus theirs, no contest + Henderson, in Moscow that week, nobody was going to stop the guy.

And yet. In the flurry of this month’s 40th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting what may have been the fiercest of fuels in Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: they never should have messed with our chow.

Ever since Canadian hockey teams started going overseas, they’ve been carrying their own personal meat with them. I don’t actually know whether that’s true; it sounds like it should be. I can say that the East York Lyndhursts went to Sweden to contest the 1954 world championships (The Ottawa Citizen reported) “armed with a fighting spirit and a supply of vitamin pills.” In 1958, a member of the Whitby Dunlops arranged for his employer, Canada Packers, to send 150 steaks to Oslo to aid in the team’s effort.

Whereas teams like the Trail Smoke Eaters, in 1961, braving the local Czechoslovakian menu, were flustered to find eggs floating in their delicious asparagus soup.

That’s exactly the kind of thing the Canadians wanted to avoid in 1972. Heading over to Moscow that year, our boys wanted to be sure that there was a small corner of a foreign kitchen that would be, temporarily at least, made-in-Canada. So they brought their own steaks, lots of beer. What else does a hockey player need? Except that, guess what: the nasty Soviets pilfered it all.

It’s a tale of woe that’s long been woven into the legend of that momentous September, a prandial whodunit that’s been revived in several new books this fall, including memoirs by Paul Henderson and Brad Park, if not exactly solved.

What we know is that Team Canada was brimming with groceries when it arrived in Moscow on the night of September 20 all those years ago. Beefwise, Henderson says they were packing 300 pounds. Hockey Showdown, coach Harry Sinden’s ’72 memoir, says 300 steaks — which means, wow, so 16-ouncers, then.

We have Phil Esposito’s 2003 autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, to thank for the complete bar tab: Team Canada arrived in Moscow with 350 cases of beer, 350 cases of milk, 350 cases of soda.

Which is — hold on: they had 8,400 beers for nine days in Moscow? We’re talking here about a contingent of, say, 50 guys, players, staff, officials. That’s an allowance of 168 bottles for every man, or about 18.6 for each of the nine days they were in Moscow.

A few extenuating circumstances to consider: on September 20th, for instance, we know that the team didn’t get in until 8 p.m. which doesn’t leave a lot of time to down 18.6 beers. And what about the four disgruntled players who decided in the first few days that they were heading back home? I’m going to assume the defectors didn’t take their fair share of beers or steaks with them — as much fun as it is to imagine that they did.

In 1973, Paul Henderson told a magazine interviewer that the beer “disappeared.” After the fifth game, testifies Rod Gilbert. About a hundred cases, Brad Park swears. Assuming that the players downed half their daily ration before the heist, the quick math —

8,400 total bottles of beer to begin
minus 930 (consumed September 20)
minus 930 (consumed September 21)
minus 465 (consumed pre-game September 22)
minus 2,400 (stolen by Soviets September 22)
= 3,675 beers

— means that with 6 days remaining in Moscow, the team was down to 73.5 beers per man, which translates to an austerity ration of no more than 12.25 bottles each per day.

So you can see why the players were cranky.

I’m not just talking about Bobby Clarke going after Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle, or J.P. Parise threatening referees. To read the 1972 memoirs is to feel a remarkable heat of angry disgust, not just at the harassment to which the players felt they were being subjected, but to the general Moscowness of the place. The buses were late, is what Ron Ellis remembers in Over The Boards (2002). Vic Hadfield told his secret diary what he thought (and I quote, from Vic Hadfield’s Diary From Moscow To The Play-offs, published in 1974): “Uuggh.”  A gray place, said Frank Mahovlich. The only good thing about the whole entire country, according to Henderson, was the circus. Russian officials told him that they invented wine, rum, vodka. “Just terrible,” he thought. “Everything’s so dull — even the people. There’s no life to it.” Phil Esposito wanted to kill the KGB spies who travelled on the Canadian bus, with a gun.

As for the steaks, goalie Ed Johnston later confided that “a lot” of them “never made it through customs.” Hadfield wrote: “There must be a lot of thieves in Moscow. We brought our own beef with us — a lot of steaks — and they’ve been stolen. So has the Canadian beer, which we had shipped here. Everybody suspects sabotage.”

Except that, well, as Ken Dryden reports in Face-Off At The Summit (1973), that the steaks the team enjoyed at the hotel on their first night were excellent. Coach Sinden: “They were prepared well.”

According to Dryden, the real problem was that after a few days — “the great initial burst of big steaks” — the cuts began to shrink. Also, their cola was missing, causing the goalie to suffer a “Coke fit” one day after practice.

Frank Mahovlich was on to the hotel’s chefs. “They cut them in half, so we only had half a steak,” he recalls, pretty well annually, most recently in this fall’s Team Canada 1972: The Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summit Series. “So we complained. Before the third game, they cut the thickness in half. We complained again. It wasn’t until the last game that we finally got a whole steak.”

The ones that the profiteers didn’t get, that is. Henderson: “The Russian cooks sold the steaks to others in search of a decent meal, many of whom turned out to be our zany Canadian fans. For about ten dollars U.S. you could get just about anything you wanted, including those precious steaks! The only two Russian dishes that were acceptable to me were borscht and chicken Kiev. The rest was just terrible.”

Unless — also? — it may have been the Canadian Embassy commandeered the players’ meat. That’s what Phil Esposito was hearing. “But I can’t believe that. I believe the Russians stole it. They had nothing over there. And besides, what could we do about it? Nothing.”

For all their suffering, the players’ lot was better than what their wives had to endure. Eggs that were black and green! Fish-eyes soup! “I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served,” Dryden wrote in his Moscow memoir. “In fact, Lynda and some other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.”

According to Brad Park, this was where the Soviets really screwed up: “they pissed off our wives” with disrespect and “disgusting food.”

“The last thing you ever want to do is shit on the wife of a Canadian hockey player,” Park writes in his newly released memoir, Straight Shooter, “because she is going to make sure that her man is pissed off when he plays.”

Ahead of the last game, the Canadians had a team meeting to talk about the power play. Or — no. The coaches wanted to make sure that everybody knew just how quickly the team was going to get the hell out of town after the game. Then the players went for their naps. Then, with victory waiting just a few hours in the future, suppertime.

It must have been late that night when coach Sinden got to his diary, later published as Hockey Showdown. He’d played on that 1958 meat-fed Whitby Dunlop team in Oslo, so he knew whereof he spoke. “We should have had 100 steaks left for our pre-game meal but the Russians somehow misplaced them,” he wrote. “They claim it was poor Canadian arithmetic. In this country four times 50 is 300. We thought it was 200. So the kitchen staff here at the Intourist Hotel will have a few steak dinners on us in the next few weeks. I hope they choke on it like their team did on the ice tonight.”

A version of this post appears on Slap Shot, The New York Times hockey blog, at