behind the lines

Off Duty: The game goes on in “Military Moscow,” by Soviet painter Aleksandr Deyneka, which he completed in the span of wartime years 1941-46. The question is … which game is it? As I wrote in a book of mine, the story of how Russians came to the hockey we know involves a bit of a tangled provenance, a layer of mist, and a Chekhovian touch of men quarrelling offstage. Before 1946, Russians tended to play soccer in the summer and bandy — russki hokkei — when winter came. They’d been doing it, in one form or another, going back to Peter The Great’s time. Canatsky hokkei (ours) wasn’t unknown, especially in the Baltics, but mostly they bandyed, chasing a ball, with 11-man teams skating on a rink the size of a soccer field. Sticks were short and curled and wrapped in cord. Lawrence Martin says that there was a Canadian-sized hockey rink in a central Moscow soccer stadium going back to 1938, and that puck-hockey was introduced to phys-ed curricula starting in 1939. It was in ’46 that the first hockey league got going in a serious way. And so, here, under the barrage balloon? The sticks look fairly hockey-shaped, to me. There seems just to be the one goal, so it could be that they’re just taking shots. Either way, there’s no mistaking, or oppressing, the pure shinny spirit of the moment.

swede + sourpuss

Born in Sundsvall in Sweden on a Tuesday of this date in 1948, Inge Hammarstrom turns 72 today. Featured here on the cover of a Maple Leafs program from Febraury of 1974, Hammarstrom was 25 when he and his 22-year-old compatriot, Borje Salming, joined Toronto Maple Leafs for the ’73-74 NHL season. Celebrated in Toronto, where Hammarstrom’s speed and left-wing wile made an early impression on a line with Darryl Sittler and Rick Kehoe, the Swedes were not so kindly welcomed in other NHL markets. The Leafs went to Philadelphia to play the unruly Flyers two games into the season, losing by two goals to none. “I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming said after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.” Philadelphia winger Bill Flett told the Daily News that he’d chatted with Hammarstrom early on in the first period. “I told him that the first time he touched the puck, I’d break his arm.”

The Swedes showed no signs of intimidation. Hammarstrom finished his rookie season with a respectable 20 goals and 43 points; Salming, for his part, came in third in voting for the Calder Trophy that New York Islanders’ defenceman Denis Potvin won.

The Leafs fell to Boston’s Bruins in the first round of the playoffs that year. When in the fall of the following season they stumbled out of the gate, winning just five of their first 16 games, Leaf president and 70-year-old miserable curmudgeon Harold Ballard announced that the players should be ashamed to walk the streets of Toronto.

Coach Red Kelly wasn’t driving the team hard enough, Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin, and captain Dave Keon was derelict in his duty as Leafs’ leader. (Asked if he thought any of his Leafs were showing captainly qualities, Ballard singled out a winger the team had acquired in the off-season: Bill Flett.) On went Ballard’s rant, and on. “Things are too damned serene around here,” he griped. “That’s the trouble. I think we’re too fat.” No-one on the team was hitting. It was here that he (famously) picked on one of his second-year Swedes: “You could send Hammarstrom into the corner with six eggs in his pocket,” he sneered, “and he wouldn’t break any of them.”

If Ballard was hoping to jolt his team back to the win column, the bluster didn’t immediately do the job: the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them 8-5 next game out, and it took them five more outings before they eked out a victory. The Leafs did find eventually find their way into the playoffs the following spring, lasting two rounds before they were ousted by Philadelphia, the eventual champions.

Hammarstrom almost matched his rookie numbers that year, scoring 21 goals and 41 points. He’d skate for the Leafs in parts of three further seasons before a trade sent him to St. Louis in 1977. He played two seasons with the Blues before returning to finish his career at home in Sweden.

valeri kharlamov: love the game, for its beauty

Sylvan Scene: Valeri Kharlamov (left, showing a spectacular clog) with his Soviet national team line mates, Vladimir Petrov and Boris Mikhailov, in a forest, on a bridge.

“If you are talking about who is the greatest Soviet hockey player of all time, you’ll get an argument on whether it was Valeri Kharlamov or about five or six others. But if you’re talking about the most exciting player, there is no question. It was Kharlamov.”

That’s expert advice that Lawrence Martin received from a Muscovite contact in the fall of 1986 when Martin was stationed in the capital of the USSR for The Globe and Mail. Martin’s book on Soviet hockey, The Red Machine (1990), remains the best on that subject you’ll find in the West. If today, on what would have been Kharlamov’s 70th birthday, you’re on the scout for background reading on his talents and too-short life, start there.

Here, let’s just note in passing that Kharlamov was born on a Wednesday in Moscow, in 1948. He was 33 when he died in 1981 in a highway accident that also killed his wife, Irina.

My favourite phrase describing the verve and artistry with which Kharlamov played the game is Martin’s: “this Chagall of hockey,” he called him. If you go back watch that Montreal shocker of a first Summit game from September of 1972, the way Kharlamov spoons the puck around Canadian defencemen is enough to drop your jaw off its hinges. He had “the fakir’s ingenuity in handling the puck” Anatoli Tarasov said, by which I think he meant “dervish.” (I’m interested, either way, in learning where those ascetics acquired their pucks.) Harry Sinden, Canadian coach from ’72, was plainer in his Kharlamov praise: “He’s a helluva hockey player,” he conceded, later, after the series was over.

“I like to play beautifully,” is something Kharlamov himself said. Also, another thing: “For me hockey provides a chance for self-assertion. What are we worth? The answer to this question can be also found on the ice rink.”

There’s an argument (more or less sarcastic) to be made that the highest accolades conferred on Kharlamov by Canadians during his career involved elbowing him whenever the chance afforded itself, or slashing his ankle. Back in the 1970s, our admiration of his luminous skills was expressed in trying to erase them from the rink — we had no higher praise.

But we won’t linger there. To end off the day’s Kharlamov miscellany, here’s an exchange he apparently had with Bobby Orr in late 1977. Orr was was not-quite-finally-retired from the Chicago Black Hawks at this point, though almost. Trying to rest his troublesome knees for one last effort to get back on the ice, he was serving the team as an assistant coach that winter when he travelled to Moscow to scout the Izvestia tournament. While he was there, Soviet Life set up an exchange between the two hockey greats. I don’t know how it went in person, but by the time it made it to the page, it was a stilted item indeed, and reads (fair warning) as though it were translated and possibly re-imagined by the dullest of overtired humourless staff propagandists.

flyers and soviets, 1976: when al capone’s mob ambushed the bolshoi ballet dancers

Impe-ish: A 2013 sale of hockey memorabilia by Montreal’s Classic Auctions featured a selection of Ed Van Impe’s cherished mementoes from Philadelphia’s famous 1976 encounter with Moscow’s Red Army. Included in Lot #18 was a game program and a copy of the NHL’s official scoresheet. Also, as seen above: the wristwatch that Van Impe received as a gift from the Soviets, along with an 8 x 10 photograph of Kharlamov prone on the ice in the moments after Van Impe hit him in the game’s first period. They all could have been yours, though they’re not: they sold to somebody else for the princely sum of US$242. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Impe-ish: A 2013 sale of hockey memorabilia by Montreal’s Classic Auctions featured a selection of Ed Van Impe’s cherished mementoes from Philadelphia’s famous 1976 encounter with Moscow’s Red Army. Included in Lot #18 was a game program and a copy of the NHL’s official scoresheet. Also, as seen above: the wristwatch that Van Impe received as a gift from the Soviets, along with an 8 x 10 photograph of Kharlamov prone on the ice in the moments after Van Impe hit him in the game’s first period. They all could have been yours, though they’re not: they sold to somebody else for the princely sum of US$242. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

It’s 40 years since the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow — the legendary Central Red Army — played what lots of people say was the best hockey game ever. Todd Denault wrote a whole book to that effect, and more: in The Greatest Game, he argues that their 3-3 tie on New Year’s Eve of 1975 actually saved hockey from the violence and cynicism that was dragging it under, reminding us all what a beautiful game it is while redeeming and returning it to righteousness.

If that’s the case, hockey and Central Army both had a short detour they had to follow first, south, to Philadelphia, home of the reigning Stanley Cup champions. While the game in Montreal may have showed hockey in all its competitive finery, the Soviets’ meeting on Sunday, January 11, 1976, with the Flyers is remembered for its bruising and bitterness — not to mention the fact that the game was very nearly abandoned midway through the first period.

Two enhanced Soviet teams had arrived in North America before Christmas that winter on a much anticipated exhibition tour of NHL cities: the Super Series. Krylya Sovetov — the Soviet Wings — were bolstered by four of Moscow Spartak’s best players, and their tour saw them beat Pittsburgh, Chicago, and the New York Islanders before they lost to the Buffalo Sabres.

To a roster that already featured names like Kharlamov, Tretiak, Petrov, and Mikhailov, Central Army added a pair of Dynamo Moscow ringers, Alexander Maltsev and Valeri Vasiliev. Their swing started with a win over the New York Rangers before the game in Montreal, which they followed with a win in Boston over the Bruins.

The Russians had a few days free in Philadelphia before Sunday’s game with the Flyers. On Friday, January 9, the Flyers gave them lunch. Saturday many of the players went to see Jaws. Ahead Sunday’s afternoon game, there was a kerfuffle involving signs in the Spectrum protesting the Soviet government’s treatment of Jews, a threat of Russian withdrawal — but NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson talked to Flyers’ president Ed Snider and had the signs removed.

Once the hockey got going, rancor ruled. If you don’t recall, maybe we’ll let a few headlines from next morning’s (North American) papers frame it for you:

Flyers Whip Reds, No. 1 in the World

Russians Cry Uncle As Flyers Fly, 4-1

Reds Balk, Take Loss

Grumbling Soviets Fall To Flyers

Philadelphia defenseman Ed Van Impe was, if not the star of the show, then certainly its accelerant. Released from the penalty box where he’d been serving a first-period tripping call, he made a beeline for Valeri Kharlamov, whom he belted. Referee Lloyd Gilmour looked, but called no penalty. Stephen Cole describes the scene in his latest book Hockey Night Fever (2014): “Kharlamov squirmed, tried to get up and then collapsed.”

Army coach Konstantin Loktev called his goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, to the bench. Cole says the idea was to give Gilmour time to reconsider. Instead, the referee assessed Army a minor for delay of game. Exit the Soviets withdrew to their dressing room in a snit.

The delay that followed lasted nearly 20 minutes. Furious negotiations ensued, with NHL president Clarence Campbell joining Eagleson and Snider in discussions with Vyacheslav Koloskov, head of the Soviet hockey federation, and Loktev. The story that’s popularly told is that the Soviets returned because they were told that they wouldn’t be paid if they refused to finish the game, but that, as we’ll see, has been persuasively denied by several of the principals involved. One version has Snider telling the Soviets they’ll have to reimburse the fans in the building: that sound more likely.

Once the game resumed, the Flyers went ahead 3-0 on goals by Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, and Joe Watson. Victor Kutergin scored for Army before Larry Goodenough added another Philadelphia goal in the third.

That’s the story, pretty much, in sum. Here following, a detailed account of the game (and its acrimony) as those who took part saw it, with quotes culled verbatim from contemporary accounts in newspapers and magazines as well as from books published later — sources below — starting off with a few choice cuts from the roast-beef luncheon the Flyers hosted on the Friday ahead of the game.

Fred Shero, Philadelphia coach

We welcome this great Russian team to the cradle of liberty. We have the two greatest teams in the world, and we hope the teams conduct themselves in a professional manner.”

Konstantin Loktev, CSKA coach

I hope it will be an enjoyable game for the fans.

sherofog

Fred Shero

It was the biggest game in Flyers history. We had to win or else.

Konstantin Loktev

This is just a friendly game.

Fred Shero

They are experts at retaliating when the ref’s not looking. They spear, they hook. The same way they play soccer over there … bloody murder.”

Jay Greenberg, Philadelphia Daily News

Bobby Clarke, whose vicious slash had put Soviet star Valery Kharlamov out of the 1972 series, was asked to reflect on his lingering status as villain in the USSR. “It wasn’t premeditated,” said the Flyer captain. “He had speared me and it wasn’t a clean series from the start.

“I don’t care. I hate the sons of bitches, anyway.”

Vladislav Tretiak, Red Army goaltender

Even during the reception, two days before the game, they made it perfectly clear that they had no intention of associating with the Soviet players. The Stanley Cup winners demonstrated their highly unfriendly, if not hostile attitude. Nobody came over to welcome us. Even the local press was shocked by such blatant inhospitality.

Mel Bridgman, Philadelphia centreman

We had pep talks in our dressing room from the strangest people. Clarence Campbell couldn’t stand us, the way we played or anything about us … He was in there telling us we represent the NHL and all the rest and ‘Go and play your game.’ And we did.

Fred Shero

We’re in a weird position. All year long people keep telling us that we’re bad for hockey, bad for the NHL, bad for Canada because we’re too rough. Now we’re supposed to save the game for the NHL, for Canada, for everyone. Hah! For the first time we’re the good guys.

Ross Lonsberry, Philadelphia left winger

You know, I woke up on Friday night from this dream and I was in a cold sweat. We were behind 5-1 late in the second period. So I went back to sleep to get back to the dream and I succeeded. We came from behind to win.

Peter White, The Globe and Mail

Flyers were playing on high emotion, which was helped before the game by the preliminaries. They must surely have startled the Russians; they saw nothing like it in three previous games against NHL teams. The lights were dimmed for introductions with big spotlights picking up the players. A recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America was picked up by the crowd, which belted out the song along with her. Moreover, it was in the Spectrum that the Russians were first booed.

Fred Shero

I told them to hold the puck for a face-off if they didn’t have a good shot. They’re not very good at face-offs, anyway.”

Roger Kahn, The New York Times

The Soviets began with a razzle-dazzle Icecapadeski in their own zone, which the Flyers ignored. Then, as they tried to move, the Flyers, notably Terry Crisp, forechecked beautifully. Up ice, the Flyer defensemen took their customary inhospitable view of rival forwards. The Soviets could control neither the puck nor the flow of the game. They had got off two shots to the Flyers’ 12, when Ed Van Impe dumped Valery Kharlamov.

Jay Greenberg

Philadelphia started hitting.

“It wasn’t planned,” said Tom Bladon later. “We were just wound up because of the pressure on us. I think it was more emotional than anything.”

Reggie Leach, Philadelphia right winger

Bodies started flying in every direction, and not all of the hits were clean.

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Joe Watson, Philadelphia defenceman

The way we figured it, we had to hit the Russians and hit them again every time we had the chance. If you let them skate around and play dipsy doodle with the puck, they’ll kill you. If you hit them, though, they’ll play just like any ordinary hockey team.

Mark Mulvoy, Sports Illustrated

For the first 10 minutes on Sunday the Flyers did not just hit the Soviets, they assaulted them. Dave (Hammer) Schultz rubbed his glove in Boris Mikhailov’s face. Andre (Moose) Dupont waved his stick under Mikhailov’s nose. Ed (Zorro) Van Impe tattooed the stomachs of Alexander Maltsev and Boris Alexandrov. Bill Barber rearranged Valery Vasiliev’s helmet. And Clarke reintroduced his hockey stick to Valery Kharlamov’s ankle. Clarke had damaged that ankle in the Team Canada-Soviet series of ’72. “They didn’t like it,” Watson said.

Dave Anderson, The New York Times

The temperature inside the Spectrum was as chilly as the atmosphere, as if somebody had left a window open in Siberia somewhere. The chill developed into a freeze when the Soviet team returned to its dressing room for 16 minutes during a scoreless first period in a protest of the Flyers’ tendency to use their (a) shoulders, (b) elbows, (c) sticks, (d) all of the above.

Ed Van Impe, Philadelphia defenceman

I had just come out of the penalty box. He was looking down to pick up the puck. And when he looked up, I was there.

Reggie Leach

Eleven seconds after he returned to the ice, he elbowed Kharlamov, who was streaking down the right side, and the star player fell to the ice. It seemed like someone had shot the guy with a gun. To this day, Eddie says Kharlamov ran into his elbow!

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Ed Van Impe

It was a sucker pass. I could see the play developing. The winger made a sucker pass and Kharlamov had to turn his head to get it. I remember watching it, almost in slow motion. And the same time the puck connected with Kharlamov, I connected with him and flattened him. I just wanted to welcome him to Philadelphia.

Lloyd Gilmour, NHL referee

It was a helluva check — a clean check.

Ed Van Impe

I bumped him pretty good, but I don’t think he was hurt as all that, rolling around looking dead.

Gene Hart, Philadelphia TV broadcaster

Kharlamov went down as if he’d been shot, and while it may have been a hard check, it wasn’t that hard! In fact, Bill Barber had earlier dealt a tougher blow to one of the Soviet defensemen along the boards, without causing any such theatrics.

Clarence Campbell, NHL president

They used the pretext of the injury to Kharlamov but I noticed he played on the next shift and started the second period. I didn’t see anything wrong with him.

Robin Herman, The New York Times

The Soviet walkout was prompted by the attack of Ed Van Impe, a Flyer defenseman, who knocked down Valery Kharlamov, a key Soviet Olympic forward, from behind. No penalty was called by Lloyd Gilmour, the referee, and Konstantin Loktev called in his goalie. The referee then meted out a delay-of-game penalty against a delay-of-game penalty against the Russians and Mr. Loktev ordered his team to the dressing room.

Dave Anderson

Some of the Russians later contended that Van Impe had slugged him with his gloved hand.

Ed Van Impe

It was my right shoulder.

John Robertson, The Kitchener Record

Bob Cole, broadcasting the game for Hockey Night in Canada, could hardly believe what was occurring. “They’re going home!” he kept repeating.

Ed Van Impe

If he had done that to me, I would’ve just gone to the bench. It was ridiculous to take the team off the ice.

Fred Shero

I wasn’t sure they would come back at first, I really wasn’t.

Bill Barber, Philadelphia right winger

I really thought they might be leaving.

Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia centreman and captain

I knew they’d come back, because they wanted the money.

Clarence Campbell

I don’t think they intended to leave the ice permanently. The Soviet coach reacted precipitously but his point of view wasn’t even support by the chief of his own mission. Their argument was that the Flyers’ team as playing too rough.

The Toronto Star

Moments after the Soviets walked off the ice in a pique over a penalty, there was Canadian Howie Meeker on the screen saying that if they didn’t return to play, “we should never allow them back in this country again.”

Alan Eagleson, NHLPA executive director

I feel it was an emotional move by Loktev who’s an emotional coach.

Konstantin Loktev

When Eagleson and Campbell came, I told them we wouldn’t go back because of the rough tactics. I could have sent younger players on the ice and it wouldn’t matter if they fought or not. I said to Eagleson, maybe we should have an agreement before the game. If we kept out Mikhailov, Petrov and Kharlamov, and Shero kept out Leach, Clarke and Barber, it would be fair. They couldn’t get hurt. But if we did that, the fans would be booing.

Alan Eagleson

It’s not hard to understand. Remember there was an emotional coach not to mention myself in 1972 who walked out in Russia. It took me a lot longer to settle then.

Scotty Morrison, NHL Chief of Referees

They told us they wanted to take their players back to the Soviet Union in one piece, not on stretchers. As far as I was concerned, they were trying to intimidate Gilmour into calling a one-sided game.

Dave Anderson

In the negotiations the Russians requested that their two-minute penalty for delay of game should be erased, but Campbell remained firm.

“You can’t change the rules,” said the one-time military attorney at the Nuremberg trials, “in the middle of the game.”

Scotty Morrison

They wanted a guarantee of no fighting the rest of the game, and they wanted us to rescind that delay-of-game penalty. No way.

Frank Orr, The Toronto Star

Campbell said no mention was made to the Soviets of withholding their $25,000 per-game take from the eight-game series.

Ed Snider, Philadelphia president

I think I made it obvious they wouldn’t get a nickel from our club if they pulled out of the game. I think they understood that.

Clarence Campbell

Never did I mention the money angle. Somebody on the periphery mentioned it, that’s all.

Ed Snider

Then I was the guy on the periphery. I told them they weren’t going to get paid unless they finished the game.

Konstantin Loktev

Wrong. We had received all the money on the first day we arrived in North America, before the series started. So how could they not pay us?

Vladislav Tretiak, Red Army goaltender

Only after prolonged assurances on the Flyers’ part that the game would be played according to the rules, did our team decide to go back on the ice. We returned, totally frustrated. Everything was turned inside-out; we did not play, we merely skated.

Moose Dupont, Philadelphia defenceman

Those guys are actors. I think he was playing Hamlet or something the way he went down. Continue reading

viktor tikhonov, 1930—2014

tikhonov 1From Moscow, Monday’s early morning brings word that legendary Soviet-era coach Viktor Tikhonov has died after a long illness. He was 84. Three times his national teams won Olympic gold, and his world championships were eight. “He was a man consumed by hockey,” Lawrence Martin writes in The Red Machine (1990). “For him it was like gambling or alcoholism, an addiction. He had to win and win again — and keep winning.” He was repairing buses in the 1940s when Vsevolod Bobrov took note of his soccer and ball-hockey exploits in the depot yard, which led to a place on defence on Vasily Stalin’s Air Force hockey team. Martin quotes Tikhonov explaining his coaching credo:

All that I know of myself is that nothing was ever given to me without effort, not when I first stepped out on the ice or now, when I am carrying the coach’s burden. Stubborn labour, self-sacrifice, fanatical devotion to a favoured activity, tireless perfection of athletic professionalism — these are, in my understanding, the key to success for every hockey player and every athlete. And these principles I always and everywhere defend.