Vaclav Nedomansky was 30 years old in the summer of 1974, a star centre for Slovan Bratislava and captain of the Czechoslovakian national team, when he took his family to Switzerland for a holiday. They did some paperwork while they were there, applying Swiss authorities for asylum and, subsequently, to Canada for status as landed immigrants.
“The office in Berne is not a busy one,” a Canadian immigration official commented at the time, “and because of this, his application was processed quickly. He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”
“Czechs’ Gordie Howe” the Toronto Star called Nedomansky when he signed that July for the Toronto Toros of the WHA. He played two seasons in Toronto, then another pair in Alabama when the Toros moved and became the Birmingham Bulls. In 1977 he jumped to the NHL where he divided six seasons between the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and St. Louis Blues.
On Monday, Nedomansky will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Guy Carbonneau, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov, as well as builders Jim Rutherford and Jerry York.
While much of Canada slept Sunday morning, the team battling in our name at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark swept past South Korea by a score of 10-0. Maybe you woke up to watch the TV broadcast, but if not, and you relied on tidings from the internet, then it’s possible that you saw the victory framed as a kind of gratis Royal Caribbean vacation on the IIHF’s news-feed, where the headline over Andrew Podnieks’ report read: Canada Cruises At Korea’s Expense. A Team Canada “made up of NHLers started gently but poured it on,” he wrote. On Twitter it was deemed both a convincingand a dominant win; the Koreans were duly thrashed (Sportsnet.ca) and demolished (Hockey Night in Canada).
Was that really necessary, though? It’s the question that comes up after lopsided wins against lesser opponents, if not for those players on the ice perpetrating the lopsiding, then for some certain observers at home with an interest in sportsmanship and mercy. Could the Canadians have let up a bit yesterday — after, say, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in the second period to make it 5-0? Or what about closing it down for the third, at the start of which Canada, ranked first among hockey nations, was leading the Southern Koreans, 18thin the world, by a score of 8-0? Wouldn’t that be a kinder way of administering a whomping?
There’s no easy answer, of course. You can’t really expect a parcel of NHL players notto do what they’re trained to do, i.e. skate and score right to the end. And in a round-robin tournament, wherein goal-difference can be a deciding factor, there’s no such thing as an excess of goals.
If you want the original written ruling on the matter, well, in fact the book that’s considered to be hockey’s very first has something to say. Arthur Farrell, a Hall-of-Fame forward, published Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, the same year he helped the Montreal Shamrocks to the first of their two successive Stanley Cup championships. Over the course of 122 pages, Farrell waxes long and eloquent on everything from history and equipment to conditioning and tactics.
Hockey, he’ll tell you, is as salubrious an occupation as you’re going to find anywhere. “The very adhering to the rules,” he advises, “the spirit of fair play that characterizes a manly game, the overcoming of all fears and all difficulties, the modest victory, the frank acknowledgement of defeat, all tend to build up, to educate, the mental faculties, just as the long practice, the swift race, and the hard check help to develope [sic] the physical man.”
Keep fighting is advice that features, too, as in never give up. “It is a mistake,” he counsels, “to lose courage because your opponents score the first three or four goals.” Don’t start fighting, though, as in punch somebody: “Do not begin to play roughly because you are losing.”
And if you’re winning? Pour it on, Farrell counsels. “Do not purposely and ostentatiously avoid scoring against a team that has already lost, because even if a bad beating does discourage them they would rather suffer it than be humiliated by any such show of pity.”
Sound advice, I guess, though I’d maybe prefer to hear it direct from the badly beaten and downright discouraged themselves.
Were the Swedes glad to go unpitied to the tune of 12-1 when the met the Canadians at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920? What about the team they sent at Chamonix in 1924, losers to that year’s Canada by 22-0?
W.A. Hewitt was the manager of those Canadian teams, Foster’s father, and he was at the helm again in 1928 in St. Moritz when the University of Toronto Grads wore the maple leaf. Canada opened the tournament against Sweden, surging to a 4-0 first-period lead that … displeased Hewitt. The newspapers back home reported it next day: the boss “became impatient at the slow rolling up of the score.” The players calmed him down, apparently: they thought it best “to let nature take its course.”
Final score: 11-0.
Some of the Grads were still talking about the propriety of running up scores when Canada went to the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy and rolled over Austria by a score of 23-0. “It’s no credit to Canada,” opined Dr. Joe Sullivan, Grad goalie in ’28. “They shouldn’t beat these weak teams by more than ten goals.”
A teammate, centreman Hugh Plaxton, agreed. “I don’t think it does hockey any good.”
One last case study might be worth considering. Austria hosted the IIHF’s 1977 World Championships in Vienna, though they didn’t have a team in the tournament, and so didn’t have to worry about humiliations on the ice. Not so Canada. Here was a rare of instance of one of ourteams finding itself at the suffering end of a rout and, with it, a chance to see how we’d react.
Canada was back at the Worlds for the first time in seven years, and this time they’d be icing a team of professionals. Not quite the front-line accumulation that had won the 1976 Canada Cup, of course: this one would be staffed by NHLers from teams that hadn’t made the playoffs, or hadn’t lasted far into them. GM Derek Holmes had marshalled Jim Rutherford and Tony Esposito for the Canadian goal, Dallas Smith and Carol Vadnais on defence. Pierre Larouche, Ron Ellis, and Rod Gilbert were up at forward along with captain Phil Esposito, who was also named as a playing assistant to coach Jimmy Wilson of the Colorado Rockies.
Phil E. stressed the need for team unity. He’d seen in 1972 what effect dissension could have on a venture like this. “We must have complete harmony if we expect to do well,” he said. The team was young and the players didn’t know one another. “The results in the first exhibition games might give some people in Canada cause for alarm, but overall, we will be all right.”
Things did not, shall we say, get off to an auspicious start in Europe. After a pre-tournament stop in Sweden, the Canadian played West Germany in Dusseldorf, where they won, 8-1, in a penalty-filled game, and were jeered by 10,000 fans, many of whom threw their seat-cushions on the ice when it was all over.
A report in The Globe and Mail insisted that the barrage was ironic, “mock rage that actually was a favorable reaction to the hard hitting and sometimes cheap penalties the Canadians received.” As for the German press, they reported that Phil Esposito might have been drunk.
“There they go, mistaking me for my brother Tony again,” Phil said, laughing, when he heard that. “Actually, if I had been drinking, it doesn’t say much for their hockey club.”
Of his refusal to shake hands after the game with one of the Germans, Esposito said, “I guess I do not like him. He speared me in the private parts on the first shift and it got worse from then on.”
The Canadians did peaceably dine with the Germans, post-game, I should report. Then they left for more exhibitions in Prague. “That is when it is down to serious business,” Esposito confided.
The Canadians lost both of the exhibitions they played against Czechoslovakia, 7-2 and 4-1. The Czechs paid a price, losing one of their players in the first game to a bad knee injury and another to a broken arm. “If ice hockey follows the path shown by Canadians on Saturday,” one local newspaper warned, “one can only wonder if it will survive beyond this century.”
In Austria, there was a kerfuffle regarding the IIHF’s insistence that all players wear helmets. Several Canadians complained, saying headgear gave them headaches, and the team doctor gave them medical certificates to that effect. But the IIHF wouldn’t relent. Unhappy, the Canadians still fared well enough in their opening game, beating the US 4-1. The next game didn’t go so well: the Swedes we took such care to whup through the 1920s now prevailed 4-2.
Next up, the powerful Soviet Union, winners of the two most recent Olympics as well as eight of the previous ten world championships. They had Vladislav Tretiak in the crease, and ahead of him, the likes of Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Helmut Balderis.
Final score: USSR 11, Canada 1.
And how did Canada respond to finding itself thrashed and demolished and paying for Soviet cruising?
Larouche called the winners the best team he’d ever seen. Phil Esposito was quoted calling them “a helluva hockey club.”
That’s as gracious as we got. On to self-doubt and recrimination.
“It was humiliating,” coach Wilson said.
GM Derek Holmes announced his disappointment, which was bitter.
Montreal’s Gazette topped its front page the next morning with the bad news, leading with a story that included the words worst drubbing, romped, embarrassingly easy, poor sportsmanship and shoddy play in the opening two paragraphs.
“The prestige and credibility of Canadian hockey was destroyed on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube,” George Gross wrote in The Toronto Sun. In the hours that followed, politicians in Ottawa took up the cry, with Ontario NDP MP Arnold Peters calling for Canadian hockey officials to be called to face a House of Commons committee to explain why we’d sent “second-rate players” to represent us.
The Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport was in Vienna, Iona Campagnolo, and she said this wasn’t something the government would get involved in. She was concerned about the conduct of our players. “I really don’t care whether we lose 20-1 or 2-1,” she said, “as long as we do it in a fashion that portrays us as true sportsmen.”
She did think that the Austrian press was making too much fuss, and the wrong kind. “It almost looked exultant,” she said. “One of the headlines I read was Canada Executed.”
Günter Sabetzki, president of the IIHF was concerned. He suggested that plans for a 1980 Canada Cup might now have to be reviewed. “We are not at all happy with the team representing the country we all considered to be the father of hockey.”
Had they learned nothing from history? “In 1954,” he said, “when the Canadians went to Stockholm, they thought they couldn’t be beaten and they ended up losing to the Russians. They were drinking too much whisky. This Canadian representative is also lacking in conditioning. I do not know whether they are drinking too much whisky, but I have heard the reports.”
Canada did go on to post a 3-3 with the Czechs, the eventual champions. We finished fourth in the end, just behind the Soviets.
Back at the rout, Al Strachan of The Gazette was on hand to document Canada’s failure to heed Arthur Farrell’s 1899 guidance on going goon in a losing effort. Rod Gilbert “swung himself off his feet” taking a “a vicious two-handed swipe” of his stick at a passing Soviet, while Wilf Paiement “acted like a malicious buffoon” swinging his stick at, and connecting with, the head of another Soviet player. “I figured I might as well hit somebody,” he said, later, “maybe hurt somebody. I don’t know. I wanted to do anything to win.” Canada was down at the time by 8-0.
You’d think those Soviets would have shown show respect, but no, they kept on with the scoring. Having argued to avoid putting helmets on, some of the Canadian players now refused to remove them once the game was all over and the teams lined up to hear the victor’s national anthem.
Centre Walt McKechnie of the Detroit Red Wings was one such, and he later shared his reasoning. “I didn’t ant to look at them,” he said. “I hate them. I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink. They’re great hockey players, you’ve got to give them that, but I hate everything about them. Am I supposed to stand there at attention when their flag is flying? Never in a million years. I’m no hypocrite.”
The Edmonton Mercurys carried off the gold on Canada’s behalf at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. On this very day they plundered the Swiss by a score of 11-2; the very next, they won their sixth game in a row in a 3-2 squeeze past the Swedes.
The talk of the tournament that week was all about how brash and bumpingly the North Americans insisted on playing their hockey. Canada’s 4-1 win over Czechoslovakia was the stormiest of the tournament: “slashing, hooking, holding were thrown in,” Jack Sullivan of the Canadian Press wrote, “even a mild fistic display by Canada’s Gordie Robertson.” An 8-2 U.S. win over Switzerland saw an American defenceman, Joe Czarnota, ejected from the game for an attack on Gian Bazzi. From the stands, Norwegian fans threw orange peels in protest, and barracked (the AP noted) the Americans, calling them “Chicago gangsters.” The Swiss wanted Czarnota suspended. The IIHF didn’t think that was necessary, though they did see fit to ask the U.S. and Canada to behave.
Norwegian Prime Minister Oscar Torp didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Or — did: the problem was that his people didn’t know hockey. Getting worked up about on-ice kerfuffling was the result, he said, of “ignorance.”
“People should understand penalties make hockey a human game,” the PM explained. “When the boys get so het up that they do something wrong or get too rough — okay, give them two minutes to cool down and think it over.”
Canadian coach Lou Holmes thought that tournament was, all told, a wholesome affair. “Some of the penalties that were given against Canadian players would not have been awarded in Canada,” he offered after it was all over, “since these European referees are obviously not accustomed to hard bodychecking.”
In their final game, the Canadians and Americans tied, 3-3, at Oslo’s Jordal Arena in front of a crowd of 10,000 or so. “The match was correct, and unmarred by incidents,” was the word from The New York Times’ correspondent. With the U.S. having previously lost to Sweden, it was enough to secure the gold for Canada, leaving the U.S. with the silver. The Mercurys celebrated by tossing Coach Holmes in the air and singing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” The Times:
At this point several hundred youngsters engaged the police in a battle to reach the Canadians. The kids’ wedge pierced the police lines and the Canadian players gave the lucky first-comers their hockey sticks as souvenirs.
A playoff was needed to decide the bronze. A 4-0 final-day win by Czechoslovakia over Sweden left the teams with identical records, so they played again the following day. This time the Swedes prevailed by a score of 5-3. That’s Sweden’s Göte Blomqvist here, above, having just scored his team’s winning goal.
Jaromir Jagr’s long lustrous NHL career ended yesterday with a waive. Offered up on Sunday by the Calgary Flames to any team that might want to take him on, the 45-year-old Czech winger went unclaimed, leaving the Flames free to loan him to HC Kladno of the Czech League — his hometown team and one he happens to co-own.
It’s not a proper farewell for a player so (as The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur wrote yesterday) preposterously talented, so outrageously coiffed, so effective for so long, so fun to watch. He deserves better. I’d read Arthur’s ode to him, if I were you. Then, if I (which is to say you) were still in a reading mood, I’d circle back to the Jagresque oral history that Kristina Rutherford, Ryan Dixon, and Gare Joyce put together for Sportsnet a couple of years ago — you would, I mean. You wouldn’t stop there, either: next up, necessarily, would be Rob Vollman’s statistical overview of Jagr’s career at NHL.com. Supplemented, maybe, by a look to ESPN’s review of some of the man’s amazing numbers? That’s on you.
I’m especially fond of some math that ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan reporter tosses into her appreciation of number 68. “Jagr,” she writes, “has reportedly been doing 1,000 squats per day since he was seven years old. That means he has done nearly 14 million squats.”
I can’t improve on that, but I can keep going with the reading recommendations. Browsing the Jagr bibliography, you’ll find Petr Cermak’s Člověk Jágr: Hokejova Bible (2003) and Jagr: An Autobiography (1997), the man’s own testament of himself, written with Jan Smid’s help.
Intrigued as I am by the title of the former — Jagr Man: The Hockey Bible is the translation I’m getting — I lack the Czech to get through it. The latter I’ve really only browsed. Again it’s a frivolous stat I’d like to draw your attention to: writing about fan mail in the pages of his memoir, Jagr mentions the 1,000 or so letters he was receiving a month, and how his mother did her best to answer them all. “Every letter I receive means a lot to me,” 21-years-go-Jagr writes, “even if I have to admit I don’t finish reading all of them. Sometimes a single letter will be about ten pages long, but I almost never get past the third page.”
This is a while ago, of course, and I’m assuming that the 1,000 is a number that can’t have remained consistent over the years, especially in these post-stamp times we live in. That doesn’t mean we can’t spin up some imaginary totals. If the mail did keep up, month after month, for all of Jagr’s 24 NHL seasons, he and his mother would be looking at a truly impressive career postal accumulation of some 288,000 notional letters.
Finally, can any haphazard miscellany of Jagriana really be counted complete without referencing everybody’s favourite hockey opera? I’m saying no, it can’t. It may be the only hockey opera, actually. As Czechs remember (and Canadians try not to), Canada didn’t win the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Japan, the Czechs did, beating Canada and Russia in succession. The operatic version, by composer Martin Smolka abetted by librettist Jaroslav Dusek, premiered in 2004 in Prague: it’s called Nagano. “At first glance there is a contradiction here,” Smolka has noted, “the aristocratic genre of opera” juxtaposed with hockey’s “profane spectacle with maximum appeal to the masses, with sweat, violence, yelling, and crudity.”
Does it work? It’s something to behold is what I’ll say here. Watch some of it, if you will. A couple of translated excerpts seem like they’re in order here, starting with operatic-Jaromir Jagr joining in duet with Ice Rink, sung by a women’s chorus:
What a chilly, chilly plain of ice.
ICE RINK (women’s chorus):
You’re mine, I’m yours. Mine, yours.
You can be treacherous, treacherous, oh plain of ice!
Jaromir is shivering and trembling.
How I’ll tame you today, you plain of ice!
You’ll writhe like a snake. What, are you afraid? Are you afraid you will have to give up the ghost?
In the NHL the rink is thirty meters at most. Chilly, treacherous.
My hero, my hero, my hero, mine, mine.
Later, as actual-Jagr did in 1998, opera-Jagr heads out at the end of the semi-final shootout to face a Canadian goaltender in the shoot-out. In life as in dramatic composition, he hit the post.
I am Jagr.
Ne-ne, ne-ne, never never fear.
I am Jagr.
I, I, I Jagr.
Ne-, never, never, ne…
I am, I, I Jagr.
Ne- ne-, never, fea- fea- fea- fear.
I, I, I Jagr.
Ne-, never, never, fea-fea-fear.
I am Jagr.
I am I!
Bobby Hull couldn’t wait for the Canada Cup to be over in September of 1976. Hull didn’t play in the Summit Series in 1972 — wanted to, was disinvited, complained bitterly, fought to go, failed — but he was there in ’76, starring in Canada’s victory in the tournament that ran ahead of the NHL and WHA seasons. On a team that included Bobbys Orr and Clarke, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito, Rogie Vachon, and Bob Gainey, Hull would be a dominant force, scoring three game-winning goals in Canada’s seven games and assisting on two decisive others.
Still, by the time Canada got to the best-of-three final against Czechoslovakia in mid-September, he was sounding more than a little jaded. Canada won the first game in Toronto by a score of 6-0. “I think everybody’s had enough of this series,” Hull moped ahead of the second game, “as far as wanting to get it over with in a hurry.”
In Montreal, the Czechs took Canada to overtime in the second game, where Darryl Sittler scored the game and tournament winner.
“This is the greatest team in the world,” he told a Canadian Press reporter later in the dressing room. His teammates concurred, mostly.
“I don’t think you’re ever gong to see a team as great as this again,” Marcel Dionne warned.
Hull: “How can I forget playing with such a great bunch of guys and for such a great country? I have never played with a better team. I know my family enjoyed me participating, even though I was away for so long. It is always worth the effort when it means so much to so many people.”
The Brandon Sun was one paper that ran the CP story containing that generous thought. Right next to it on the page was a fuller account of Hull’s contribution to Canada’s success. In that one, he was sipping a beer when he was asked: how big a thrill is this all?
“I’m too old to get any more thrills in hockey,” the 37-year-old winger confided. “Maybe if I were a little younger it would be a thrill. It’s more a fond memory than a thrill. Being a part of this team is something. Playing on the same team with a lot of guys like Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke, Vachon, and the whole bunch. I get my thrills out of watching my kids.”
Clarke was on the same page, apparently. Yes, he was thrilled, he admitted — but also happy to be heading home to his family. His children had just started school. “This running around and skating and stuff doesn’t mean anything to them,” he said in the Team Canada dressing room. “They want to know when I’m coming home.”
Phil Esposito was nearby, explaining how this victory differed from the feeling of winning a Stanley Cup. “For one thing,” he said, “we have to start playing again all over again in training camp on Saturday. If you win the Stanley Cup, you get four months off to relax.”
(Image: Two Hockey Players, Aislin alias Terry Mosher, 1976, felt pen and ink on paper, 25.5 x 30.9 cm, M988.176.289, © McCord Museum)
It was on this day in 1948 that the RCAF Flyers wrapped up the hockey gold medal for Canada at the V Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Twelve years and a world war had passed since Canada’s awkward loss at the previous hibernal Olympics in 1936 and, this time, the Canadians made no mistake.
Well, next to none.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t as straightforward as Canadians hoped it would be.
Having overcome the Swedes (3-1) and Britons (3-0), the airmen shellacked the Poles (15-0), lacquered the Italians (21-1), and enamelled the Americans (12-3). On February 6, the varnishing stopped: Canada could only muster a 0-0 tie against Czechoslovakia. “Real playoff hockey,” said Mike Buckna, the Czech’s Canadian coach. Canada was able, subsequently, to glaze both the Austrians (12-0) and Swiss (3-0) and thereby outrun the Czechs on goal average. The hosts from Switzerland secured the bronze.
Congratulations poured in from Canada. By the following day, the team had received more than 200 cables from home, including greetings (above) from Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. There were salutations as well from the Chiefs of Army and Naval Staff and from RCAF Headquarters. Colin Gibson, Minister of National Defence For Air, sent his cheers to the team for lived up to the RCAF motto, Per Ardua Ad Astra (Through adversity to the stars).
Hockey’s Hall of Fame — the original one, in Kingston, Ontario — sent a telegram, and so did (very sporting) members of 1936 British Olympic team, who wired, “Congratulations to the new champions from the Ex-.”
The cable that the players liked best came from the father of Pete Leichnitz, a 21-year-old spare forward on the Canadian team. “Congratulations,” Mr. Leichnitz wrote from Ottawa, “and what if it did cost me 10 bucks? Paw.”
The coach of the Flyers was RCAF Sergeant Frank Boucher, son of George (Buck) Boucher and nephew of his namesake uncle, the legendary New York Rangers centreman, coach, and (later) GM. The Flyers would not be able to reply individually to all the telegrams, Frank the younger said, but he asked the newspapermen to convey to Canada the team’s “warmest thanks.”
(Image: Library and Archives Canada, R15559-17-9-E)