thirty seconds in september

For the Russians, the vast Ukraine-like wheatlands of Manitoba and a rather dour crowd of 10,000 provided what Coach Vsevolod Bobrov described as “the most suitable environment yet.”

“We are very happy with Winnipeg. We found the people much like our own.”

• Tim Burke, Montreal Gazette, September 7, 1972

September 6 was a Wednesday in 1972. Four days had passed since the Saturday when Canada’s hockey team lost, shockingly, to the visiting Soviets in a rout. They’d redeemed themselves, a little, to the west, with a Monday win in Toronto. Now the teams had moved on to Winnipeg, where they were preparing to meet again under the gaze of the world’s largest rink-portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Tuesday, in Munich, at the Olympics there, eight Arab terrorists had made hostages of 11 men from the Israeli team. After long hours of violence and blood, false hopes and failed negotiations, rescue efforts that didn’t succeed, the Israelis were dead.

The sports went on. Tuesday morning, even as the crisis continued, the International Olympic Committee’s American president, Avery Brundage, announced that the Games would continue as planned. “Canoe racing had already begun,” Red Smith wrote in his New York Times column. “Wrestling started an hour later. Before long, competition was being held in 11 of the 22 sports on the Olympic calendar.”

Not until 4 p.m. did some belated sense of decency dictate suspension of the obscene activity, and even then exception was made for games already in progress. They went on and on while hasty plans were laid for a memorial service tomorrow.

Wednesday morning 80,000 people filled the Olympic Stadium to mourn and pay tribute. “This service,” said an IOC statement issued beforehand, “should make clear the Olympic idea is stronger than terror and violence.”

I don’t know that there was any talk of cancelling the hockey game in Winnipeg. There was a discussion about how the hockey players might honour those who’d died in Munich. A minute’s silence before the puck dropped seemed like an appropriate gesture. A couple of directors from Hockey Canada wanted to go further: Maple Leaf Gardens president Harold Ballard and Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, decided that Team Canada should wear black armbands. Ballard hoped all the players would. “But I don’t know,” he said, “if the Russians will go for it.”

Ballard had other plans, too. He was going to organize some kind of trophy, or plaque. “It’ll have the names of the Israelis engraved on it,” he told Dick Beddoes for The Globe and Mail. “I’d like to have Mark Spitz dedicate it for the Hockey Hall of Fame before the first Leaf game in the Gardens this fall.”

Georgi Guzinov was the Soviet team’s trainer. The day before the first game in Montreal, he’d predicted that after three games the teams would have a win each to their credit along with a tie. He was right, of course: in Winnipeg the score was 4-4.

Paul Henderson blamed himself. “I blew three chances,” he said afterwards. Tim Burke wrote in The Gazette that if not for the goaltenders, Canada’s Tony Esposito and Vladislav Tretiak for the USSR, the score might have been 10-10.

Canada’s assistant coach, John Ferguson, said he was relieved “to settle for half a loaf.” Canada had been leading by 3-1 before they surrendered two shorthanded goals in the second period. Canada’s scorers were J.P. Parise, Jean Ratelle, Phil Esposito, and Paul Henderson while Vladimir Petrov, Valery Kharlamov, Yuri Lebedev, and Alexander Bodunov got the Soviet goals.

The Munich tribute didn’t go quite as planned. A few hours before the game, officials from the two teams met to discuss the armbands. Canadian coach Harry Sinden announced the outcome: there wouldn’t be any. “We decided that as one group of athletes paying tribute to another group of athletes, the minute’s silence was sufficient.”

He was half-right, anyway. On the ice, so as not to interfere with timing for the TV broadcast, that hushed minute was cut down to 30 seconds.

As for Ballard’s trophy, not sure what happened there. Mark Spitz was absent when the Leafs opened their season at home to Chicago on October 7, as was the Leafs’ Moscow hero, Paul Henderson, who was day-to-day (The Globe suggested) with aches and emotional drainage.

I’m not even sure that Ballard was at the game. But then he did have a lot on his mind that fall. He’d been convicted in August of fraud and theft, and he watched Canada and the Soviets play while he was free on $50,000 bail. Lawyers had agreed to postpone sentencing until after the all-important series was over. It wasn’t until October 20 that he learned he was going to a penitentiary for three years.