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.
How to solve a problem like the Ottawa Senators? A hundred years ago, as the NHL headed into its third season, a helpful fan of the city’s original Sens thought he’d share his blueprint by way of his local newspaper. The he is a guess, based on this is 1919 we’re talking about and, also, because men.
Some notes for the margins: the league was a four-team affair that year, with a 24-game schedule that faced-off late in December. Pete Green was Ottawa’s new coach for 1919-20, insofar as this was his first season steering in the team in the young league: in the team’s pre-NHL days, he’d been involved with seven Stanley Cup-winning teams as trainer and coach going back to 1903.
Jack Darragh, a winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, had been playing for Ottawa since 1910, but now, at 29, he was negotiating a new contract by talking about retiring. He signed just before the season got underway. Darragh, who played all but one game that season, at home and away, finished fifth in NHL scoring.
The Senators were in the market for another defenceman: by mid-December, Coach Green was looking to add a man on the line to aid captain Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn. He didn’t, in the end, electing to move a forward back to help out, Georges Boucher.
I can’t speak to the state of the roof at Dey’s Arena, which stood on what is today Laurier Avenue on the site of Confederation Park. I can report that in April of 1920, the Senators did win their first NHL Stanley Cup beneath it, defeating the PCHL’s Seattle Metropolitans in five games. Jack Darragh decided it in the last of those: his game-winning goal was one of three he scored in a 6-1 Senators’ romp. I don’t have good information on whether or not his pants had been recently laundered.
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!
Canada Post launched its newest line of hockey stamps this week with six sticky-backed forwards. “The 2016 NHL® Great Canadian Forwards stamps highlight some of the greatest goal-scorers ever to play in the NHL,” the press release touts, and yes, it is an impressive cadre: Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, and Sidney Crosby.
Hard to fathom how the crown corporation came up with this particular group. Crosby, of course, is a natural — who wouldn’t want Canada’s own captain on their lettermail? But if it is indeed meant to reflect distinguished goal-getters, then why no Wayne Gretzky, best of them all? He already got on a stamp, of course, in 2000, so maybe that’s all he gets. Same with Gordie Howe and Marcel Dionne, the next ones down the all-time list of high-scoring Canadians. If that’s how the choosing was done, statistically, then, yes, Phil Esposito is deserving. But what about Mike Gartner, who outscored both Messier and Yzerman? Nothing against Lafleur, but he’s way down the list, well below Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille. Is that really fair? And what about Dave Andreychuk? How do you think Andreychuk feels knowing that Sittler got in ahead of him having scored 170 fewer career goals? How would you feel, philatelically speaking?