the right way to rout: do not purposely avoid scoring against a team that has already lost

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.”

By The Banks Of The Not-So-Blue Danube: Wilf Paiement’s 1977 World Championships sweater, and the team in happier, pre-rout formation. (Image: Classic Auctions)

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 easypoor 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.”

 

olympics, 1976: supreme soviets

If a hockey tournament at a Winter Olympics fails to feature a Canadian team is it, in fact, really a hockey tournament at all?

Yes, in fact, it is. Having looked it up, I’m able to confirm that Olympic hockey does go on, even in years that Canadians choose to stay at home, as happened in 1972 and again 1976, during a dispute with the IIHF over the use of professionals in international hockey. In ’72, in Sapporo, Japan, Anatoli Tarasov’s team from the Soviet Union was only too happy to continue the golden streak that had begun two Olympics before, edging out the United States (silver) and Czechoslovakia (bronze).

The story ended the same way in 1976, in Innsbruck, in Austria, though the plot was a little different. Boris Kulagin was the Soviet coach this time, and Czechoslovakia looked like they possibly might — just maybe? — overthrow the champions. They were up 3-2, at least, with five minutes left to go in the February 14 final, looking good until … well, Aleksandr Yakushev scored to tie the game and then, 24 seconds later, Valeri Kharlamov netted the winner.

West Germany took the bronze that year, surprising everybody, including themselves. Led by Erich Kühnhackl (father of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Tom), the Germans lost comprehensively in medal-round games against the Soviets (7-3) and the Czechs (7-4), but beat Bob Johnson’s United States (4-1) to finish in third. They hadn’t done that since 1932, in Lake Placid, which made it modern-day German hockey’s finest hour right up until last night, when this year’s team won silver after looking like they possibly might — just maybe? — beat the Olympic Athletes from Russia for a miraculous gold.

 

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.

welcome to philadelphia

welcome-to-phi

“We never play such animal hockey,” CSKA Moscow coach Konstantin Loktev seethed after it was all over. Philadelphia captain Bobby Clarke shrugged when he heard that. “We’ve been called a lot of worse things,” he said. “This wasn’t one of our rough games.” On this night in 1976, his Flyers pummeled CSKA Moscow in a mid-winter exhibition game (they also happened to win it, by a score of 4-1.) A fuller accounting of what went on that night might read something like this; for a more graphic telling, there’s “The Check Heard ‘’Round The World” at Victory Journal, a print and digital magazine that, by its own lights, seeks to illuminate the intersection of sport and culture. It’s vital and vivid and worth your time, starting with the story (here) by writer David Hollander and artist Stephen Halker of the night Ed Van Impe got acquainted with Valeri Kharlamov.

(GIF courtesy Victory Journal)

sorry not sorry

Ankleburner: Bobby Clarke’s daughter Jody took to social media during Canada’s quarter-final in the February, 2014 Winter Olympics to suggest a way forward. Tied 1-1 with Latvia after two periods, the Canadians won the game in the third on a Shea Weber goal, and went on, of course, to beat the United States and Sweden to secure a gold medal.

Ankleburner: Bobby Clarke’s daughter Jody took to social media during Canada’s February 19 quarter-final in the 2014 Winter Olympics to suggest a way forward. Tied 1-1 with Latvia through two periods, the Canadians won the game in the third on a Shea Weber goal, and went on, of course, to beat the United States and Sweden to secure a gold medal.

When the ’72 Summit Series Tour stopped in Toronto earlier this month, a third of Canada’s famous team stepped to the stage of the Sony Centre: Ron Ellis, Yvan Cournoyer, Brad Park, Bobby Clarke, Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Pete Mahovlich, Dennis Hull, and Pat Stapleton were on hand to reminisce, along with the head coach, Harry Sinden. Ottawa radio host and hockey enthusiast Liam Maguire emcee’d. With a fuller account to follow, could we concentrate our attention here, quickly, on something that wasn’t mentioned during the two hours of tale-telling, quips, and video highlights? I can’t speak for everyone in the small and attentive audience, but I’m willing to venture that as the evening’s narrative moved to Moscow and Game Six, I wasn’t alone in the expectation that there might be something to be said about Bobby Clarke, 67 now, and the Soviet Union’s late Valeri Kharlamov, viz. how the stick of the former found the ankle of the latter in that September 24 second period all those years ago.

No, though. Two hours of talking and nothing — what’s been called the “slash heard ’round the world” didn’t rate so much as a mention. It was only when Maguire asked for questions from the audience that the subject finally came up when a man (in his 50s, I’ll guess) advanced to a microphone in an aisle of the theatre. A transcript here, for the record, of how that went:

Questioner
This is for Bobby Clarke. You put a love-tap on [sic] Harmalov’s ankle [laughter] and I have to ask you — I think it changed the series — what are your comments on that?

Dennis Hull
I got a couple of love taps, too.

Liam Maguire
How many of you got slashed by Bobby?
[Mahovlich, Park, Cournoyer, and Hull all raise hands — big laughter]

Bobby Clarke
They deserved it.

I don’t think that that was that big a deal.
[Hard-to-interpret noises from crowd — intakes of breath? sighs of agreement? of censure?]

Those things were going on in that series. It was never … it was never mentioned for years and years, and then Paul Henderson made some statement that he didn’t want his grandson doin’ what I had done in that series with that slash. And all of a sudden it was a political incorrect thing to do. But really, all kinds of different things went on in that series and … ah … I whacked him, but it wasn’t that big a deal, really.
[Chuckling onstage]

Liam Maguire
It should be pointed out that Kharlamov didn’t … he finished the game, he missed Game Seven, he played Game Eight, he had an assist on the third goal, he set up Yakushev in the second period, it went unassisted because Canadians touched it so they didn’t give him a point, he played a regular shift, and they had three leads, no-one said a thing, like Bobby said, it was just one of those things, Phil got butt-ended in the mouth, Gary got kicked right through the shinpad, but a lot of emphasis is on that slash because they think Kharlamov didn’t play another shift, which as we know is total bs.
Next question.

clarkecrunchkharla

Boards Meeting: Clarke and Kharlamov kerfuffle in Moscow in September, 1972.

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

cccp76

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

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.

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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