canada’s cup 1976: the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled

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The Olympics go out, as they tend to do, in a salvo of light and colour and national pride. The stadium, one observer writes, is filled with the overwhelming goodwill of youth. A streaker who takes the field cavorts near dancing girls. spectacle and the striving Was it worth all that money? The questions float up and flutter among the flags. One flame goes out, a new one flickers its fingers. Leave it, maybe, to the novelist Morley Callaghan to pronounce: the Olympics are madness, he says, “and madness is beautiful regardless of price.”

Time, when it’s all over, for the hockey players to stand to the fore.

This year, it was Rio’s Olympics that’s giving way to the end of summer and a hockey World Cup pitting nation against nation against — well, of course, there’s a pair of continental teams, too, one of which is U23, so it’s a strangely asymmetrical tournament, a format that we’re still getting used to. Maybe we’ll even learn to love it.

Forty years ago, it was the Montreal Olympics that a great Canadian novelist lauded as they ended in August. The hockey players in question that year were participants in a more traditional international tournament spread among six old-fashioned national teams in the inaugural Canada Cup.

With all due respect to this year’s edition, Canada ’76 was loaded with talent and savvy and experience — and that’s just the braintrust. Montreal’s genius GM Sam Pollock was in charge of the whole operation, with Keith Allen as a principal aide and Toe Blake standing by as counsel. Then there was Pollock’s advisory committee of wise men: Jean Béliveau, Gordie Howe, and Syl Apps. Scotty Bowman was the first choice to coach, but he said no, at first: his Montreal Canadiens had just completed a successful Stanley Cup campaign, and his wife was pregnant with twins.

There was a rumour that Fred Shero had agreed to the step up, but Pollock said he hadn’t, in fact, spoken to the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end, Pollock decided four heads were better than one. Bowman was back in, joining with Boston’s Don Cherry, Bobby Kromm of the Winnipeg Jets, Al MacNeil, coach of Montreal’s AHL farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. There was so much enthusiasm to generate, Bowman said. “I used up much of my adrenalin during the past season and have another season ahead. Having four coaches spreads it around a little and eases the pressure.”

“This will be the coaching style of the future,” was Cherry’s take on it. “Each of us will contribute something. We’ll work in harmony. There won’t be any friction. We all want to win. We’re going to be the favourites and there’s going to be nothing but pressure on us. It would be too much for one man.”

Picking a preliminary 31-man roster in June, Pollock selected 29 players from the NHL with three more drawn from WHA clubs. The coaches would trim the squad in August to 25, 20 of whom would dress for each tournament game. Injuries ruled out several significant players, including goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent and defencemen Brad Park and Jim Schoenfeld.

There was uncertainty about Bobby Orr, too, coming off two 1975 surgeries on that troublesome left knee of his. He’d gone in for an arthroscopic exam in June, and his lawyer, at least, was hopeful. “Bobby is in A-1 condition,” reported Alan Eagleson, who also happened to be running the tournament as director, “and he’ll probably play in the Canada Cup.”

Even without the poorly, it was hard to see the Canadian roster as diminished, exactly.

Gerry Cheevers, Glenn Resch, and Rogie Vachon were among the goaltenders summoned to report to a 23-day training camp in Montreal in August. Defencemen included Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, and Guy Lapointe. Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Reggie Leach were competing were jobs on the right wing, with Bill Barber, Bobby Hull, Bob Gainey, and Steve Shutt over on the left. At centre: Bobby Clarke, Darryl Sittler, Phil Esposito, Gil Perreault, Marcel Dionne, and Pete Mahovlich.

In Montreal, the players moved into the Bonaventure Hotel. August 10 they headed for the ice for the first time at the Forum. Morning drills led to an afternoon scrimmage. In the evening, the team headed to Jarry Park to watch the Montreal Expos play ball with the San Francisco Giants. The next day, and for the rest of the camp, they started the morning with a three-mile run up Mount Royal.

“It was easily the toughest training camp I’ve ever attended,” Dionne was saying by the time it was over.

Bobby Orr stayed at his summer place, in Orillia, Ontario, working on his own — and making progress. “Two months ago there was no way I thought I could play but in the last month the knee has felt just super,” he updated. “I will skating hard and if there isn’t a bad reaction I will be going to Montreal.”

Bobby Hull was 37. Shut out of the Summit Series in 1972, he was thrilled to be aboard this time out. He was pleased, too, to be playing in a tournament where the hockey had evolved beyond the intimidation inherent in his home and native WHA. “It will be a pleasure to play without the worry about being stabbed in the back. Everyone will be back to hockey’s basics, the way hockey should be played and was played before the goons took over.”

Phil Esposito was feeling renewed after the shock of the trade that had taken him from Boston to New York the previous November. “It affected me mentally,” he was saying, “and because of it I couldn’t function properly. It just devastated me.” But: he was ready now, he said. Don Cherry, for one, thought it showed. “Espo was showing the snap I hadn’t seen for a couple of years,” his former coach said after the team’s first workout.

He was one of the vets from ’72, Espo. Savard, Lapointe, Clarke, and Mahovlich had played in the Summit Series, . That epic series was even fresher in the national mind, of course, than it is today, with coaches and players vowing that they wouldn’t be making the same mistakes they’d made back then. Arrogance wasn’t a word they were using: mostly what they mentioned were matters of conditioning and team unity.

They wasn’t much joy, looking back. There was wariness, weariness , grim memories tinged at the edges by the unshakeable sense of just how near run a thing it had been. Even as he and his team readied this new challenge, Serge Savard talked to Montreal Gazette columnist Tim Burke about how very, very exhausted the Canadians were, four years earlier, how disarrayed, how downspirited, who knows what might have happened if they’d hadn’t left the country after the first four games.

Lessons had been learned. Exhibition games would help, this time around. “Mental preparation is also important,” said Harry Sinden, the coach in ’72. “We went into that series saying to ourselves we couldn’t lose. We now know what we’re up against and that’s in our favour.”

Not that we weren’t still having problems imagining anything other than victory. What else was there? Our game, our tournament. “If ever a team appeared to be invincible,” Tim Burke effused in that same Savard-quoting column, “I’d put my dough on this lot.” What we had here, he’d decided, no doubts, was “the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled.”

The Soviets, if they showed up, would be lacking in their line-up. Valeri Kharlamov was recovering for a summer car accident, Alexander Yakushev had a bad knee. Veteran Vladimirs, Petrov and Shadrin, weren’t coming, and nor was Boris Mikhailov. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was supposed to be staying home, too — to study for military exams, the word was.

Esposito, for one, wasn’t fooled. “A psyche job,” he warned in August.

“The Russians are clever. They’re leaking these stories in hopes it will throw us off our game. When they arrive, they will be tough.”

Team Canada sent Tom Watt, coach of the University of Toronto, across the Atlantic to scout the Soviets and Swedes. “Objectively,” he said on his return, “I think Team Canada has the talent to win. But sometimes you find a kid with a high IQ doesn’t do very well in math. Performance and talent are always two different things.

But maybe the Russians wouldn’t come at all — that was a possibility, for a while. As the Olympics drew to a close in early August, the Soviet Olympic Committee was threatening both to pull out of the Game’s remaining events, and there was talk that the hockey team would stay home, too. A 17-year-old diver, Sergei Nemtsanov, had asked for and been granted asylum in Canada — defected — and the Soviets were livid.

He’d been abducted, they said, maybe drugged, certainly brainwashed. There was a meeting involving the diver, his lawyers, and Soviet and Canadian officials that proved, to the Soviets, that he was not in his right mind. Why was his face so pale, his look so absent? Why did he repeat, “like a parrot,” “I want freedom, I want freedom.”

A Russian official charged that “a group of terrorists” had been roaming the Olympic Village, preying on Soviet athletes.

Other press reports noted that young Sergei had an American diver as his girlfriend, and that this was all about her, though the girlfriend’s family released a statement to say firmly that she wasn’t Sergei’s girlfriend.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau weighed in: he said it was up to the diver to decide what he wanted to do. Which he did: after a week or two in Toronto, concerned for his “aged and ailing grandmother,” he elected to go home. Continue reading

hockey night in the east room: when prime ministers and presidents dine

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Trophy Case: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes (and gloats over) the Stanley Cup to the White House’s East Room on February 18, 2016. The Chicago Blackhawks were also on hand.

“Canada exports two things to the United States: hockey players and cold fronts. And Canada imports two things from the United States: baseball players and acid rain.”
• Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, speaking at a lunch ahead of Major League’s Baseball’s 1982 All-Star Game, as reported by Michael Farber of the Montreal’s Gazette

Thirty-nine years after Justin Trudeau’s father last dined officially at the White House, Canada’s prime minister will end a busy day of Washington business with a state dinner tonight at President Barack Obama’s place. While we’ve been alerted to what’s on the menu — baked Alaskan halibut casserole; Colorado lamb — what we don’t know at this hour is just how much hockey the two leaders will be talking.

The White House has a long and nuanced hockey history. But ahead of the festivities in the executive mansion’s East Room, a review of earlier White House state dinners for Canadian prime ministers tells us that the game has come up but rarely in the history of official talking — the toasts, the speeches of welcome — that go on when PMs and presidents converge in Washington.

Before tonight, Canadian prime ministers have banqueted seven times at the White House. The first time was in November of 1945 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King paid a visit to Harry Truman. Discussing with reporters a telephone call he’d had with the PM a month before the dinner, Truman was asked whether they’d talked atomic bombs at all. “We discussed every subject,” said the President, “in which Canada and the United States are interested, but I am not at liberty to make any statement.”

Which all but confirms that the two leaders were engaged in bilateral talks regarding how well Bill Mosienko was clicking that fall with the brothers Bentley, Doug and Max, for Chicago’s Black Hawks. Come the actual state dinner — well, British PM Clement Attlee was on hand for that, too, so just to be polite at that point in the post-war world they had more pressing matters to talk about

It continued quiet in terms of high-level hockey-talking. John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower supped together in 1960 without exchanging so much as a token hockey cliché.

Same thing when Diefenbaker met with John F. Kennedy in Washington on February 20, 1961. The Trail Smoke Eaters were over in Czechoslovakia preparing to play for the world championships; in Detroit, Gordie Howe had just scored his 500th NHL goal. The two leaders had no comment, either way.

Lyndon Johnson hosted Lester Pearson on January 22 of 1964. This was a luncheon, mind you, in the White House’s State Dining Room, which means, well, I guess, early in the day and therefore not as momentous a meal as dinner? There were toasts, and President Johnson began his like this:

The Prime Minister asked me if I was going to make a speech and I told him I was going to attempt to, not over three minutes in length, but I would expect loud and vociferous applause.

I choose to feel that this is not just a meeting today between two heads of government, but rather a reunion of neighbors who meet around the dining table in friendship and with affection. Mr. Prime Minister, we in this country are proud of your achievements and we are joined in your purpose. We have applauded your craftsmanship and approved of your leadership from your major role in the creation of the United Nations to your winning of the Nobel Peace Prize and even your performance as defenseman on the Oxford hockey team.

None of the leaders went on the record regarding Bobby Orr, Miracles On Ice, or indeed any hockey matter during Pierre Trudeau’s successive state dinners with Richard Nixon (1969) and Jimmy Carter (1977).

It wasn’t a state occasion in December of 1974 when Trudeau supped at the White House — The Globe and Mail described it as “a stag black-tie dinner” given by President Gerald Ford. They were in the Blue Room, and at 9.15, postprandially, the President toasted his guest. Trudeau responded:

Mr. President, gentlemen, and friends:

When Canadians travel abroad, Mr. President, they spend lots of time explaining to other people how they are different from the Americans. There is a great belief in other lands that Canadians and Americans are exactly the same. I am particularly distressed to find this when I am dealing with the Common Market. We are different, and we have different problems and different economic requirements.

But it does happen that we have to show how similar we are and how close our two peoples are. And the best example I can find, when I have to explain that kind of thing, is to talk about in summer, in the baseball stadium in Montreal where tens of thousands of Canadians get together to cheer for the Canadian team against the visiting American team when every one of the players on both sides is American! [Laughter]

When I have stayed in some of your American cities, it is another story. In winter at your hockey forums, they cheer for the local team, and probably 95 percent of the players on both sides are Canadians — and the best ones.

And this, I think, shows really how close the people are in their goals, in their ways of living, in their love of sports, in their values, even in standards of their own lives.

Brian Mulroney was known to vary a Trudeauvian theme or two: to most Americans, he once said, Canada means snowstorms and Wayne Gretzky.

He followed Trudeau père to the White House, too, when Ronald Reagan had him over, twice, in the 198os.

“Mr. Prime Minister, welcome,” President Reagan said in 1986 when Mulroney stopped in for supper for the first time in 1986. “Allons-y a travail.” Mulroney returned in April of 1988 when, again, nowhere in any of the official wordings did anyone have anything to say about hockey.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one feels sure, would have had a quip or two to offer, about John Ross Robertson, Toronto’s old Blue Shirts, Bruce Ridpath, but our erstwhile hockey-historian-in-chief never made it to the White House for a state dinner.

And tonight? The chances that there will be mentions of hockey when the leaders rise to speak their pieces are, I’m confident, fair to good, if only to continue the bright banter they began last month.

As presidents like to do, Barack Obama had the Stanley Cup over in February to congratulate the holders from Chicago. “It is always fun to have the Stanley Cup here,” he said in remarks that included thoughtful tributes to Kimmo Timonen and Scott Darling. “It truly is the best trophy in sports.” With the Blackhawks having won three Cups during his presidency, he felt he was owed some thanks. “I think it’s pretty clear the kind of luck I’ve brought to this team.”

He was already thinking of tonight, too. “And,” he said, “by the way, we’ve got a state dinner with Canada coming up, so we may just leave it right in the middle of the room.” [Laughter and applause] “We’ll see. We could gloat a little bit. Just to gloat a little bit.” [Applause]

Prime Minister Trudeau wasn’t long in replying, on Twitter:

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