the steaks of ’72: everybody suspected sabotage

 If a Canadian hockey player could be said to have a security blanket, that’s what it would look like: his wife, a thick steak, and a cold Canadian beer.

• John U. Bacon, The Greatest Comeback: How Team Canada Fought Back, Took the Summit Series, and Reinvented Hockey (2022)

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

It was 50 years ago this September gone by 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. No-one could call it a glorious goal. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a snow-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than the stick that Henderson actually brandished.

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

And yet. In the flurry of last month’s 50th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting a fundamental fuel of Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: the Soviets never should have messed with our chow.

The facts are … well, as we’ll discuss, they’re not easy to piece together. The gist: travelling to Moscow for the latter half of the Summit Series, along with sticks and skates, Team Canada shipped in a supply of steaks and beers to sustain its effort. The Soviets, cruelly, looted the lot — or a lot of the lot. The whole caper was quickly filed into the annals of Cold War history, to the extent that in a 1974 history, KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents, it huddles under the umbrella of intelligence operations that are “so petty and crude that they require no elaborate preparation.”

“The KGB harassed Canadian team members,” John Barron writes there, “by disrupting their pregame naps with anonymous phone calls and  absconding with most of the 300 pounds of steaks they brought along.”

In Canada over the years — this year, too — the story the steaks (and beers) of ’72 has mostly faded into the fabric. It hasn’t been forgotten, exactly: it remains well woven into the legend of that momentous September, a prandial whodunit that’s been standard fare in the many histories and memoirs that have been published over the years, including the several new books out this fall. Mostly now, though, it’s referenced in passing, as shorthand for the odds that were stacked against Team Canada and all the adversity that they heroically overcame.

It’s been a decade since I first wrote about the alimentary aspects of the ’72 Summit Series, with a special focus on the beef and the beer that Team Canada shipped over to the Soviet Union that long-ago September, along with the mystery surrounding the supposed theft/illicit butchery/black marketeering of said provisions. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed investigating the alleged scandal by way of newspaper archives and player memoirs. Taking the temperature therein, it wasn’t hard to piece together something like a hypothesis proposing that Canada’s heroic on-ice triumph in Moscow was as much a product of hungry outrage as it was hockey prowess.

I was, in this, mostly poking fun. Ten years on, I still am, and it’s in that spirit that I’m here to report further findings on the steaks of ’72. I will just add, as a not entirely fun aside, that in all this it’s also possible to perceive a pattern writ in Canadian paranoia and xenophobia. There was no shortage of that on offer all those years ago, whether or not we in Canada choose to recall it now.

We don’t, mostly. With an exception or two, the sour sides of the Summit haven’t really featured in the month-long anniversary retrospective we’re just coming out of in Canada. That’s not surprising. Who wants to talk about those bad-tempered in-between exhibition games in Sweden or the slash that Bobby Clarke laid on Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle when you can celebrate the way that Vancouver’s derision cemented Team Canada’s resolve or the Moscow concussion that Paul Henderson played through on his way to scoring all those decisive goals? What counts, in Canada, still: we won.

•••

For as long as Canadian hockey teams have been going overseas, they’ve lugged along their own personal meat supply. I don’t actually know whether that’s true; it sounds like it should be. I can say that when the East York Lyndhursts went to Sweden to contest the 1954 world championships, they were (per The Ottawa Citizen) “armed with a fighting spirit and a supply of vitamin pills.” That was the year that the USSR announced itself on hockey’s international stage, grabbing gold from Canada’s clutches. The captain of that team, of course, was Vsevolod Bobrov, coach of the ’72 Summit Soviets.

When, the following year in West Germany, the Penticton Vs reclaimed the world title on Canada’s behalf, they did so with an infusion of B.C. milk: when the Okanagan dairy cooperative learned that the Vs were losing weight abroad because they wouldn’t drink unpasteurized German milk, they arranged to fly in a daily supply to nurture the players.

Canadian teams would continue to brave their way into Europe, despite the hazards of foreign supper tables. The Trail Smoke Eaters may have navigated to gold in 1961 in Switzerland, but on the way there they were also severely flustered in Czechoslovakia to find eggs floating in their otherwise delicious asparagus soup.

Steaks of ’58: The Whitby Dunlops powered to gold in Oslo with the help of homegrown steaks.

Like Penticton before them, the 1958 Whitby Dunlops had a plan to avoid the uncertainties of unfamiliar menus, one that formed the foundation of what Team Canada did when it went to Moscow 14 years later. Frank Bonello was the key figure in both cases.

In ’58, he was a centreman for the Dunlops. His day-job, outside of hockey, was as a salesman for Canada Packers, the Toronto-based meat-packing and processing company. The Dunlops spent nine weeks touring Europe that year before they got to Oslo for the world tournament, and by the time they did, Bonello had arranged to augment the Norwegian menu available to the players — lots of “fish and meatballs with rich sauces,” as he later recalled it. “Nice food, you know, except it wasn’t the type of thing which an athlete wants the day of a game.”

He made some calls and Canada Packers answered them, flying in 150 steaks to aid in the team’s effort, enough to feed the players before each game, including the gold-medal final in which they beat the Soviets 4-2. “Everybody,” Bonello said, “felt more at home.”

In 1972, Bonello was still in hockey, as GM of the OHA’s Toronto Marlboros (he went on to become the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting). He was still in, well, meat, too, at Canada Packers. That August, as Team Canada prepared to launch into the Summit Series, he read that organizer Alan Eagleson had concerns about the food that the players would be getting in Moscow. Bonello had a connection, and didn’t hesitate to call in: Canadian coach Harry Sinden had been a Whitby teammate — captain of the team, in fact — back when Canadian protein had yielded gold in Oslo.

So it was that Team Canada ordered up 300 New York-cut steaks for delivery to Moscow. In Toronto that August, Sinden and assistant coach John Ferguson stopped in to Canada Packers for a visit. “I was going to call Frank anyway,” Sinden said, “but he called me first. I remembered those great steaks we had in Oslo. They were beautiful.”

Meat ‘N’ Greet: In August of 1972, Team Canada coaches Harry Sinden (right) and John Ferguson stopped by Canada Packers in Toronto to visit with Sinden’s old Whitby Dunlop teammate, Frank Bonello (left).

And so a small corner of a foreign kitchen would feature, temporarily at least, familiar fare, grain-fed-in-Canada. But it wasn’t only steaks heading for Moscow. To wash them down, Hockey Canada secured a consignment of Labatt’s beer as well as, from Finland, a supply of milk.

Team Canada even lugged its own drinking water to Moscow, for use “in both hotel rooms and on the bench,” Montreal’s Gazette reported. “It’s natural spring water supplied by Canada Dry, and it comes from Caledon Hills, north of Toronto.”

Faithful Frank Bonello also chipped in three cases of Dial soap. “I understand their soap isn’t so good,” he said that August. “They use rough-type fats in making it, and it hasn’t a pleasant odor.”

The steaks were, we know, to be packed in dry ice and flown in for a September 20 Moscow arrival. That was a Wednesday, the same day Team Canada would be getting in from Sweden and checking into the Intourist Hotel; the Summit would resume Friday with Game 5. This timing is laid out in an External Affairs cable from Ottawa sent by Patrick Reid, the External Affairs official drafted in to oversee many of the diplomatic, political, logistical, and PR aspects of the series. It’s from this document (reproduced below) that we have a measure of the meat in question.

When it comes to trying to audit the foodstuffs of ’72, this is the only official documentation that I’ve come across. Everything else — and there’s almost as much on the steaks of ‘’72 as on the stakes — is anecdotal. Memories have faded, over the years, hearsay and impression have congealed into accepted truth. That means it’s impossible to determine, at this distance, just how much pilfering of Canadian supplies took place in Moscow, if any.

Even while we know that Team Canada was brimming with groceries when it arrived in Moscow, we don’t really have a good grip on specific quantities — beyond “total meat weight of 270 lbs,” I mean. That’s fairly straightforward.

In 2012, talking to Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, Alan Eagleson inflates the count to “800 to 900 steaks.” Usually, though, going back to Frank Bonello and the original press reports of August, ’72, the number cited is 300. If that was the guess, that would mean … a whole mess of hefty 14-ounce steaks.

Possible, I guess. Liquidly, lacking anything like an official bill of lading, we can look to a dispatch from Colin McCullough, the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in the Soviet capital, who on September 20 wrote about the Intourist’s manager (“a short dark man with a gold tooth”), learning that the hotel’s refrigerators had plenty of room “for the steaks and 200 litres of Finnish milk” that would be arriving with Team Canada.

Also in 2012, Eagleson offered up a bar tab: “We brought over our own beer — 500 cases.”  Phil Esposito’s 2003 autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, has Team Canada arriving in Moscow with “350 cases of beer, 350 cases of milk, and 350 cases of soda.”

The beer was Labatt’s, who happened to be a big-time sponsor of the tournament. Company president W.F. Read said he was only too happy to support the team “by making Canadian beer available in Russia for use on the dining table.”

“It will also come in handy,” he added, “for the toasts at the conclusion of what has been one of the most exciting series ever played.”

If we err on the side of Esposito’s 350 cases, that’s — hold on: Team Canada 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 land 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 that Vic Hadfield, Gilbert Perreault, and the others who quit the team in Moscow didn’t take their fair share of beers or steaks back home with them — as much fun as it is to imagine that they might have.

In 1973, Paul Henderson told a magazine interviewer that the beer “disappeared.” After the fifth game, testified Rod Gilbert. About 100 cases, Brad Park swore. Assuming that the players downed half their daily ration before this 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 surviving beers

— means that with 6 days left to go 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.

You can see how that would upset a man.

As for the investigation, I don’t know that it was all that thorough.

Patrick Reid looked back on his long diplomatic career in a 1995 memoir, Wild Colonial Boy, but his Summit memories include no Moscow heists.

Gary Smith was second secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in 1972 and as such, a key cog in the organization of the Summit. He has a memoir of all that out this fall, Ice War Diplomat, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of insight into the fate of Canada’s beer. “No one knows for sure what happened to it,” he writes. “The embassy had lots of backups, though — just not Labatt’s.”

The players, certainly, were in no doubt that they’d been robbed. Year after year, in interviews and autobiographies, they’ve pointed the finger again and again.

Vic Hadfield, diarizing in 1974: “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.”

“They can have our steaks,” Peter Mahovlich said, slipping into the historical present in in 1992, “but they can’t take away our beer.”

Don Awrey, in 2000: “They stole our steaks and our beer.”

Rod Gilbert, in 2002: “They stole our food and our beer. Can you beat that? Stealing our beer!”

Wayne Cashman, also in 2002: “When someone stole our beer, that really pissed us off.”

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 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 formed his impression before he bailed out (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 Paul Henderson, was the circus. Otherwise? “Just terrible,” he thought. “Everything’s so dull — even the people. There’s no life to it.”

Fiery Phil Esposito felt that, given a gun, he would have had no problem shooting the KGB minders who kept watch on the Canadians as they commuted between hotel and the rink. “I hated Russian society … so much,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I would have killed those sons of bitches on the bus.”

All this from the victors. Can you imagine how dark things might have gotten if these guys had lost?

A month after Team Canada returned from Moscow, Henderson was still hot about — well, several things, including Soviet vanity and the heist of Canada’s victuals. “If you listen to them, they invented wine, rum, and vodka,” he told a reporter in October. “They have the world’s best beef, the tallest buildings, and the freshest vegetables. If they have the best beef, how come they stole the 300 steaks we brought with us? We brought over our own beer and that disappeared, too. And we took for granted our rooms were bugged.”

Goaltender Ed Johnston later revealed that “a lot” of the steaks “never made it through customs.”

Esposito also seemed to think that the thieving happened either at the airport or on the way to the hotel: according to him, only “half” of the beer + milk + soda + “steaks and other food” made it to the Intourist. He was also hearing rumours that the Canadian embassy might have been in on the filching. “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.”

Esposito remembered well the regular Intourist menu. “One time,” he wrote, “they served us crow. Blackbird, they called it.” Also: bear steaks. “They were tough but they weren’t bad. We ate horse steaks. Wasn’t bad. It was lean. We didn’t tell the girls [i.e. their wives] what we were eating.”

Paul Henderson believed that the hotel kitchen was the scene of the crime. “The Russian chefs soon ended up selling them,” he wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012).

In an earlier memoir, Shooting For Glory (1997), he was more specific: “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.”

Scott Morrison has a new history, 1972: The Series That Changed Hockey Forever, and in it he quotes Rod Seiling.

“I was back to Moscow a number of years ago,” said Seiling. “I was sitting at table and we got talking about 1972 and our beer disappearing, our steaks being cut in half, and I’m sitting at a table with this gentleman and he says, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s all true — I was selling it on the black market.’”

Morrison talked to some of the former Soviet players, too, including Alexander Yakushev and Vladislav Tretiak, and got their take on the alleged “provocations,” which included theories that someone Soviet was bugging Canadian rooms at the Intourist and (as Yakushev puts it) that “someone ate their meat and drank their beer.”

“Well,” Tretiak offered, “the meat part might be true, but not bugging through chandeliers. Who would listen? And for what purpose?”

I should say that we do have sightings in the wild (as it were) of Canada’s (allegedly) purloined steaks.

The Toronto Star’s Trent Frayne traveled with the team from Stockholm on Wednesday the 20th, and he was in on the “surprise” awaiting players, team officials, and newspapermen when they got to the Intourist:

An area of the main dining room had been set aside where dinner consisted of steak, French-fried potatoes, canned peas and a lettuce-and-tomato salad.

And a Russian combo, including two trombones, a trumpet and an electric guitar, played such haunting old favourites as the theme from Love Story and Moon River.

Those could have been local equine or ursine cuts, I suppose. If so, Ken Dryden had no qualms about them, writing inFace-Off At The Summit (1973) that the steaks the team enjoyed that first night were excellent. Coach Sinden: “They were prepared well.”

Thursday night Dryden was back to tell his diary: “After dinner — another steak — we went to see the Moscow Circus.”

Friday, Ted Blackman of the Gazette caught Canada’s players at unhappy post-game repose after their 5-4 Game 5 loss.

“Those bastards should have been in Siberia at the end of the second period,” [Paul] Henderson was saying back at the Intourist Hotel where Team Canada’s puzzled personnel sat sullenly over post-game steaks with wives who dared not speak. “We had them beaten, had them off stride, and we were pulling away. Siberia, that’s where they were headed. Then we let ’em off the hook.”

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, incidentally, Team Canada’s cola was missing, causing the goalie to suffer a “Coke fit” one day after practice.

“If I had been smart,” Dryden wrote in that Moscow diary of his, on which Mark Mulvoy from Sports Illustrated earned a primary assist, “I would have done what all the other guys did: they bought extra luggage packs at the Stockholm airport and filled them with six-packs of Coke and something called Joly Cola from Denmark.”

There was supposed be an entire suite at the hotel filled with Cokes — room 1774 — but as Dryden learned, that was just a rumour. “There will be Cokes for the players after the game tonight, though,” he noted on September 22. “Come to think of it, that’s a heck of an incentive to get into the starting line-up.”

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 original 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 disclosed in his 2012 memoir, Straight Shooter, “because she is going to make sure that her man is pissed off when he plays.”

Alan Eagleson had yet another version, one that he laid out for Jim Prime in his 2012 book How Hockey Explains Canada.

“We brought steaks over from Canada and they were confiscated,” Eagleson charged, “but not until we won a game, which goes to show how the heat was turned up as the series went on.”

Games 6 was Sunday, September 24. “Ken Dryden had a great game,” Eagleson recalled. “We won 3-2 after having lost the first 5-4 in Moscow. We got there in a roundabout way, but they confiscated our steaks. At that point the Russians thought, Geez, maybe this is not a shoe-in They still thought they’d win, but they made life miserable, starting right then.”

The veins of confusion about the fate of the Canadian meat continue to marble the Summit narratives: they’d do a choice cut of Wagyu proud.

It’s not as though the passage of years has clarified things, either.

Despite what Harry Sinden jotted down in the moment for Hockey Showdown, by 2016 he had a new version of events. The coach was on a nostalgia tour that year with a handful of his players, talking ’72 again to audiences across Canada. I caught the show in Toronto and in the Q&A session stood up to ask the question that was on everybody’s mind: what happened to the meat?

“Well,” the coach was quick to explain, 44 years later, “I don’t think you can outright say it was stolen, it just never showed up. We had it shipped from Canada to Finland, then from there, over to Moscow. That’s how we did it. And the shipments — especially the steak, because in those days, players were eating steak, prior to a game — the steaks never made it. They — for some reason, they were shipped, supposed to be delivered to our hotel. When the time came, they didn’t have them. So, obviously that story grows and grows and grows. That, you know, the kitchen staff stole them, and they made hamburger out of them. It didn’t happen. We were fine. We survived.”

Six years later, Sinden had come up with a new new angle.

Writing The Greatest Comeback, a thorough accounting of the Summit out this month, John U. Bacon had the support and cooperation of many of the veterans of Team Canada, though he goes out of his way to make clear that it’s not an “official” history: he maintained his independence. His foodie findings are presented with authority, if not detailed sources. “At least 100 of their 300 steaks, and the entire supply of Labatt’s were gone,” he writes, “probably sold on the black market, where it would fetch good money.”

“Somehow half our steaks disappeared,” was Sinden’s revised take, according to Bacon. “The hotel staff probably had a feast and made a fortune. The food we ate was horrible. They gave us peaches that were about as big as a marble. It was no way to get ready for some of the biggest games ever played.”

In Ken Dryden’s new book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now, he basically repudiates what he and Mark Mulvoy committed to the page, steakwise, 49 years ago.

Now, as part of a cataloguing of the many distractions and discombobulating strangenesses Team Canada encountered in Moscow, there’s this:

Our breakfasts were buffets of cold cuts, smoked fish, white cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and chocolate-coloured bread that was hard and not chocolate. Our pre-game meals, our steaks that had been brought from home and had somehow “disappeared” into Moscow air, steaks that had always made us feel strong and ready, instead were tough, random-sized, random-shaped hunks of meat.

1973-Ken Dryden, let’s recall, is on the record as having quite enjoyed the steaks Team Canada were served early on. The problem, as detailed in an entry from the diary he (and/or Mulvoy) jotted down for September 24, was one of diminishment rather than disappearance:

The quality of our meals has gone down. The great initial burst of big steaks has become a retreat to mini-steaks. We never get Cokes, though they are talked about all the time. But I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served. In fact, Lynda and some of the other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.

That jibes with what Frank Mahovlich has recalled, pretty well annually, including in Andrew Podnieks’ Team Canada 1972: The Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summit Series (2012), in which he rounded on the chefs working the Intourist kitchen. “They cut them in half, so we only had half a steak. 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.”

Now we may be getting somewhere —  which is to say, as close to the truth of the matter as we may ever get. Could it be that the steaks were bureaucratically butchered rather than actually stolen?

Back to Gary Smith from the embassy. In 2012, he said that he was on the case in ’72. I had to look into the case of the stolen steaks,” he told Patrick White. “I think it was likely some guy involved with the hotel, rather than someone thinking the Canadians wouldn’t be able to play without their steaks.”

In Ice War Diplomat, his updated view combines a reasonable explanation with an unexpectedly specific indictment of the hospitality industry worldwide:

After the first night’s steak dinner for the Canadian players in their hotel, some extremely large steaks disappeared from the refrigerators and were replaced by cuts half their size. Apparently, this wasn’t part of a nefarious Soviet plot but the result of a Canadian staffer telling the hotel chefs that portions had to be reduced to ensure the supply lasted until the end of the series. After some hungry players complained, the full-size steaks returned. No doubt there may also have been some pilfering of quality meat, as often happens in hotels around the world.

Whatever actually happened, I guess maybe the bottom line — and the final word? — is that Team Canada believed that they and their appetites were wronged. Did that motivate them more than they would have been otherwise motivated? Impossible to say.

I’ll leave the last word to Harry Sinden, in Hockey Showdown. He knew what it was to win a well-fed world championship with Whitby in Oslo, after all, and he was convinced he and his team went without in ’72.

On September 28, ahead of the Summit’s last and decisive game, he convened a team meeting to talk about the power play. Or — no: he and his assistant John Ferguson just wanted to make sure that everybody understood just how quickly the team planned 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.

“We should have had 100 steaks left for our pre-game meal,” Sinden writes, “but the Russians somehow misplaced them. 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.”

pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall

Stamp Act: From 2017, Canada Post’s Official First Day Cover for a new stamp commemorating Paul Henderson and his 1972 Summit Series teammates.

The second day of September was a Saturday in 1972, and in Montreal the forecast called for the morning’s sun to give way to clouds and afternoon showers with no chance whatever, come the evening hours, for a Soviet win over our invincible homegrown hockey heroes.

It’s 48 years ago today that the momentous Summit Series first hit the ice, at Montreal’s famous Forum. For Canadians, nothing went as it was supposed to that night, of course, with the good guys ending up on the wrong end of a 7-3 rout. For a sense of just how much that result dazed and confused the nation, I’ll refer you to the prophecies that hockey’s non-Russian cognoscenti were making on the morning of that shocking day, weighing in with predictions for the eight-game series.

“Canada will win handily,” ventured Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell; “they might lose one in Moscow. Say seven to one.”

Mark Mulvoy, from Sports Illustrated, was just as generous: “Canada, seven to one.”

“Here’s a flatly positive that Canada will win at least seven of the eight games,” wrote Southam columnist Jim Coleman. “This prediction isn’t based on flag-waving chauvinism. This is a cold-blooded prognostication.”

Foster Hewitt, who’d be up in the gondola on play-by-play when he puck dropped: “Canada’s two goals a game better. It looks like eight to nothing Canada.”

 “The NHL team will slaughter them in eight straight,” advised Gerald Eskenazi from The New York Times.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltender Jacques Plante agreed: “Eight straight for Canada.”

Fran Rosa, from Boston’s Globe? “Eight to nothing Canada — and that’s the score of the first game.”

Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes had placed his bet a few days earlier. “Make it Canada eight games to zero. If the Russians win one game, I will eat this column shredded at high noon in a bowl of borscht on the front steps of the Russian embassy.”

To his credit, if not his digestive delight, Beddoes was true to his word, and took his soup a few days later.

buddy o’connor: a hart, a byng, a razzle dazzle past

Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.

By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”

McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”

Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.

Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.

But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.

O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”

O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.

Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”

In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.

Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.

 

 

 

jean ratelle: among stooges and pirates and marx brothers madness, a stylist supreme

The New York Rangers stowed away Rick Nash’s sweater today, numbered 61, when they traded him to the Boston Bruins ahead of tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline. Jean Ratelle knows what that’s like. It was November of 1975 when the Rangers shipped him and Brad Park to the Bruins in a seismic exchange that brought Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais back the other way. Tonight, Ratelle, who’s 77 now, is back in New York to see the Rangers retire the number he wore for most of the 14 New York seasons he played before that. Ratelle’s number 19 will rise to the rafters of Madison Square Garden in a ceremony ahead of the game in which the modern-day Rangers go Nashless against the Detroit Red Wings.

“The trade began a seven-season seminar in poise and determination.” That’s from a 1980 editorial in The Boston Globe just after Ratelle announced his retirement at the age of 40 to move back of the Boston bench as an assistant coach. That’s right: the Globe saluted him with an editorial when he finally ended his playing days. As revered as he was in New York, Ratelle was, very quickly, beloved in Boston. In both cities the affection had to do with his skill and scoring prowess, and the trophies he won — a Masterton in 1971 along with two Lady Byngs (’72 and ’76) — but there was more to it than that.

Everybody knew how good he was, Globe columnist Leigh Montville effused on another page in 1980. “Not so much how good he was as a player — though he was very good indeed — but how good he was as a person.” He continued:

In the arms-and-elbow game in which the best disposition might be that of a pirate, Jean Ratelle was able to play 20 years on top of a pedestal. He was religious. He was a family man. He was a gentleman. He scored 491 goals and collected 776 assists and totaled 1267 points. He was a hell of a player.

On an ice surface filled with Marx Brothers madness and Three Stooges shenanigans, he was Fred Astaire in full glide. He was the maitre’d of hockey, the stylist supreme, top and tails and ease. The ragged and well-publicized fringes of the game never interested him or bothered him. He worked its heart, goal to goal, back and forth, follow the puck. He was a purist, an artist, a painter of perfect miniatures doing his job on a street filled with car horns and busy shoppers.

Rod Gilbert was a childhood friend of Ratelle’s in Montreal long before they ever played together in New York. He thought he could have been an actual artist. “He would really have excelled in any area of his life,” Gilbert said in 1981. “He showed beauty. If he was a writer or a painter, he would have done well.”

Also: “In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jean Ratelle swear. Not once. Never.”

“It’s amazing, really, that he was able to play the game,” Brad Park said. “That might be the most amazing thing of Jean Ratelle’s career. That such a tranquil man could play such an aggressive game and survive.”

Not that he was fragile. Back in that editorial-page endorsement, the Globe maintained that for all his Astaire-ness, Ratelle was also “as tough as John Wayne,” as “eager young defencemen found out after bouncing off Ratelle’s strong forearms intent on guiding the puck to a teammate.”

“Others skate,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 1976, “but Ratelle glides.” His passes? “Feather-soft, accurate, and there’s only one thing to do if you’re playing on a line with him: keep your stick on the ice because he’s going to put the puck on it.”

A year before he hung up his skates, Steve Marantz from the Globe was marveling how good he still was at the age of 39: “no slippage, no coughing an sputtering, no sudden gasp and wheeze.” Bruins’ coach Fred Creighton: “He does things with the puck that young players coming up don’t even know about.”

The highest praise you’ll come across in all the annals of Ratelle-related enthusiasm? I’m going to go with Bobby Rousseau’s ode from 1973. He’d skated the Montreal Canadiens’ wing for ten years in the 1960s, of course, before joining the Rangers in 1971.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to play with two of the greatest centreman in the National Hockey,” Rousseau said, “Jean Béliveau at Montreal and Jean Ratelle with the Rangers.”

I’ve played against Jean Ratelle, I’ve played on a team with him the past two years, and for the past few games I’ve played on a line with him. He’s the same height, same personality, same temperament, same talent as Jean Béliveau. Because of the way he is, Ratty will probably be annoyed with me for saying these things. I don’t think Jean Ratelle has ever been given the credit he’s deserved.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-057285)

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

a lot can happen in thirty-four seconds

7797443810_17f85c0b35_o

It’s been coming around every year on this day, since 1972, and every year we duly give bow our heads and give our thanks while observing the anniversary with small gestures of national relief (whew, we almost lost) and self-congratulation (wow, are we great). Yes, that’s right, on this day, September 28, 44 years ago, 34 seconds remained in the final ill-tempered game of the long grim Summit Series pitting many of Canada’s best hockey players against a squad of the Soviet Union’s. The clock at the Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium stopped at 19:26 of the third period, you’ll recall: that’s when Paul Henderson scored his timely goal to give the Canadians a 6-5 lead in the game. Accounts of the series describe the euphoria of that moment; they also tell of how the remainder of the game unfolded. A sampling of the latter, including a touch of the former:

Roy MacSkimming
Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972 (1996) by Roy MacSkimming

The Canadian bench empties. Even Dryden goes lumbering all the way down the rink to join the ecstatic mob of white sweaters hugging, patting, squeezing and slapping Henderson.

The Soviets skate sluggishly about, stunned, their faces drained of hope, their cause apparently lost. Yet thirty-four seconds remain to play, and the Soviets are gifted with the power to score a sudden goal. It’s easy to imagine them tying this one up in thirty-four seconds, thus tying the series, and going on to claim victory on goal-differential.

Sinden stays with Stapleton, who was on the ice for the goal along with Savard. He sends out White and his two steadiest defensive forwards, Ellis and Peter Mahovlich, to join the indefatigable Esposito. The five don’t let the Soviets anywhere near Dryden. Even the Soviets themselves go halfheartedly through the motions, as if they don’t really expect to score. As if it were somehow ordained the Canadians would win.

With Gusev the last Soviet player to touch the puck, with the Canadian fans absolutely roaring out the countdown of the final seconds, Dryden hands off to Stapleton. Carefully, Stapleton carries the puck behind his net and passes up the boards to Mahovlich as the final horn sounds. Mahovlich lets the puck go by, Stapleton races after it, and the fans, as Foster Hewitt says, go wild.

Brad Park
Straight Shooter: The Brad Park Story (2012) by Brad Park and Thom Sears

When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal, I was on the bench. I had just got off the ice, maybe 20 seconds before. When he scored the winner, I was jumping out of my jockstrap!

Dennis Hull
The Third Best Hull (2013) by Dennis Hull and Robert Thompson

After Henderson scored, the whole team jumped out on the ice, but the game wasn’t over and Harry knew it. There were still 34 seconds remaining, but the Russians never really tried after Paul scored. They were finished. They didn’t pull the goalie, they didn’t rush, they didn’t give it all their effort.

Paul Henderson
Shooting For Glory (1997) by Paul Henderson with Mike Leonetti

I skated back to the bench and told Sinden, “Harry, I’m done.” I knew I couldn’t play those last 34 seconds. I was physically and emotionally drained. In any event, we held them off to win 6-5 and take the series four wins to three wit one game tied.

Ron Ellis
How Hockey Explains Canada: The Sport That Defines a Country (2012), by Jim Prime and Paul Henderson

When Paul scored that goal, I was one of the first guys over the boards. We were all huddled together. We started chanting, ‘We did it, we did it …’ but we still had 34 seconds to kill off. I was actually very honoured. Harry Sinden sent Pete Mahovlich and myself and Phil Esposito on to kill off that final 34 seconds. I remember Paul saying to me when the game was over, ‘That guy wasn’t going to go anywhere.’ I had him so wrapped up! For me, for myself I was pleased that Harry had enough confidence in me because a lot can happen in 34 seconds.

Jack Ludwig
Moscow Diary (1972) by Jack Ludwig

In time the game began again, but it was all count-down, the longest loudest triumphant cry-out numbers may have ever received. “O Canada” roared out suddenly: Canadians for this moment softened, and gave up trying to sound like a lynch mob.

In the final seconds it was the tour’s end, wedding, anniversary, christening, bar mitzvah, birth, birthday, New Year’s Eve, carnival, Day of Misrule — yes, and the Dieppe that ended with V-E Day!

Paul Henderson
The Goal of My Life (2012) by Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

I went back to the bench exhausted. I said, “Harry, I’m done, the tank is empty!” There was no way I was going back out there for the final thirty-four seconds. We killed those seconds off, the clock wound down, and we had the greatest victory of our lives. We were desperate to win and it showed, and that was the difference really. We didn’t want to go don in history as the team that couldn’t lose to the Russians but did … and thanks to that third-period rally, we didn’t!

Phil Esposito
Thunder and Lightning: A No B.S. Memoir (2003) by Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock

After Pauly scored, we were ahead for the first time with only thirty-four seconds left in the game. I figured Harry Sinden wanted me to come out, but I looked at him like, Don’t you dare take me out. I was determined not to let them score.

I never left the ice. I was not going off until the whistle blew. I was bad that way, but I could not help myself. I felt I had to stay out there.

The puck came around the back of our net, and I got it, and I looked up to see that the time was running out, and when the horn blew, I looked up and cheered, and all the Team Canada players on the ice went crazy. The trumpeter from the Montreal Forum was sitting in the stands blowing loudly, and the Canadian fans in the stands — three thousand of them — were going crazy.

When the game ended I found myself right beside Ken Dryden, and I grabbed him. All the guys came over. The emotion we all felt more than anything else was relief.

I skated past the Russian coach, Kulagin, a big fat guy with a fat face who we nicknamed “Chuckles.” I said, “Too fucking bad, you fucking Commie prick.”

Harry Sinden
Hockey Showdown: The Canada-Russia Hockey Series (1972) by Harry Sinden

As I remember it now, we didn’t believe it for a split second. Our bench seemed to freeze. Maybe it was too good to be true. Suddenly, all the players were over the boards smothering Henderson. I looked at the clock — 34 seconds. I thought we had more time left than that, but I wished it were only four. I got the players who were going to be on the ice for the final half minute — Ellis, Espo, Peter — and told them not to take any chances. Just dump the puck out of the zone and keep them at center ice. The Russians never came close. When the game ended, Fergie, Eagleson, and I threw our arms around one another and ran across the ice like little kids. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our necks. I kept telling them, “Never in doubt, was it, fellas?”

Ken Dryden
Face-Off At The Summit (1973) by Ken Dryden with Mark Mulvoy

Then I realized there were still thirty-four seconds to play. The Russians had scored twice in nine seconds the other night. It was, without doubt, the longest thirty-four seconds I have ever played. It seemed like thirty-four days, but after everything we had been through, we weren’t going to let anything crush us now. We checked furiously and they never got off a decent shot. It was over. 6-5. The Canadians were singing “O Canada” in the stands and waving their miniature Canadian flags. And then they started that incessant cheer: “We’re No. 1, We’re No. 1.”

We are.

34

(Top photo: Frank Lennon, Library and Archives Canada, e010933343; Headline: The Globe and Mail, September 29, 1972)

jet blue

The American artist LeRoy Neiman didn’t get to the rink until he was well into his career as a painter, but he did keep coming back once he’d arrived. This 1972 serigraph, “Blue Hockey,” was his first hockey work; others include this one and this. Above, that’s Bobby Hull, numbered nine, in Chicago garb of fanciful blues, on his way to the New York Rangers’ net. The goaltender there would be, I suppose, Ed Giacomin, with Jean Ratelle, 19, attending. Could be anyone at the far post, most likely a defenceman. Brad Park? Jim Neilson? Might as well make the other Hawk Pit Martin. By the time the hammer fell on this particular signed edition at a sale last June of hockey art and artifact by Montreal’s Classic Auctions, the bidding had reached US$711. (Image: Classic Auctions)

trademarked

Deal Him Out: Trades made Phil Esposito depressed and angry.

Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”

Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading