Maybe not all problems; hockey, as we know, has trouble keeping its own house order on even the best days. That headline phrase was narrowly focussed when it appeared, 50 years ago, as a headline on a newspaper article by Anatoly Tarasov. This was 1971, when the ebullient coach known as the Father of Russian Hockey was still at the helm of the mighty Soviet national team.
Tarasov, who was born on this date in Moscow in 1918, had long been angling to arrange a meeting of his team with a deputation of the best Canadian professionals, i.e. NHLers. In April of ’71, when his team cruised to another World Championship, the Soviet Union’s ninth a row and 11th overall, hockey politics and hubris saw to it that Canadians were again missing from the action.
That September, Tarasov concentrated his thoughts on the subject into an article — and a challenge — for Sovetsky Sport. “We know that in Canada along with amateur hockey there lives professional hockey — original, rough, but bright at the same time, in which technique is perfect and sportsmen are fanatical to the limit. We had a feeling that this was a new type of hockey with many bright and talented performances. And our desire as coaches to meet with professionals was understandable.”
Why so shy, Canada and, specifically, the NHL? After years of hearing excuses from across the icy divide, Tarasov had no words left to mince. Again and again, he wrote, Canada’s “hockey leaders” had shown “the white feather.”
“It seemed to me that though they shout about the strength and invincibility of their hockey, they are subconsciously afraid of defeat, afraid to lose their indisputable authority.”
“It is clear to any reasonable person that self-isolation will be harmful only to Canadian hockey,” he wrote, building up to his big finale. Soviet teams would happily take on club teams. “If the NHL leaders do not want to risk their prestige, they can keep their leading clubs, such as Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, or Chicago Black Hawks, in reserve. We agree to start with team from St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Vancouver.”
But if Canada truly wanted to test its hockey mettle? “If they want to play against the united team of the USSR — world champions for nine years running — they are welcome; let them organize a team of professional hockey stars. We are ready to accept this challenge also.”
He finished with a flourish. “So now what is your answer, gentlemen from the NHL? Agree — and then your spectators in Canada and the USA, as well as Soviet spectators and hockey enthusiasts in Europe and in the whole world will be able to enjoy hockey games with the participation of sportsmen of two principally different schools. And though each team will strive for victory, world hockey will not lose; on the contrary, it will enrich itself.”
It was, of course, almost exactly a year to the day later that Canada’s bright professionals were processing the 7-3 loss to the team that Tarasov had forged over the years to open the 1972 Summit Series at the Forum in Montreal.
Tarasov himself was out, having lost his job as Soviet coach in February of that year in the wake of another gold-medal performance by his team at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan; for the Summit, he was replaced on the bench by Vsevolod Bobrov and Boris Kulagin.
Anatoly Tarasov died in June of 1995 at the age of 76.