the steaks of ’72: everybody suspected sabotage

 If a Canadian hockey player could be said to have a security blanket, that’s what it would look like: his wife, a thick steak, and a cold Canadian beer.

• John U. Bacon, The Greatest Comeback: How Team Canada Fought Back, Took the Summit Series, and Reinvented Hockey (2022)

In Canada, all that matters is this: we won.

It was 50 years ago this September gone by that the best of our hockey best beat the Soviets in Moscow in the final and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series. It could have gone either way, as the sportscasters say: a last-minute goal by Paul Henderson was the difference. No-one could call it a glorious goal. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a snow-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than the stick that Henderson actually brandished.

Doesn’t matter. Canadians know now, as they always have, why their team won: hockey is ours + Canadian heart (almost) always trumps foreign guile and/or finesse + in the battle between our way of life versus theirs, no contest + Henderson, in Moscow that week, nobody was going to stop that guy.

And yet. In the flurry of last month’s 50th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting a fundamental fuel of Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: the Soviets never should have messed with our chow.

The facts are … well, as we’ll discuss, they’re not easy to piece together. The gist: travelling to Moscow for the latter half of the Summit Series, along with sticks and skates, Team Canada shipped in a supply of steaks and beers to sustain its effort. The Soviets, cruelly, looted the lot — or a lot of the lot. The whole caper was quickly filed into the annals of Cold War history, to the extent that in a 1974 history, KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents, it huddles under the umbrella of intelligence operations that are “so petty and crude that they require no elaborate preparation.”

“The KGB harassed Canadian team members,” John Barron writes there, “by disrupting their pregame naps with anonymous phone calls and  absconding with most of the 300 pounds of steaks they brought along.”

In Canada over the years — this year, too — the story the steaks (and beers) of ’72 has mostly faded into the fabric. It hasn’t been forgotten, exactly: it remains well woven into the legend of that momentous September, a prandial whodunit that’s been standard fare in the many histories and memoirs that have been published over the years, including the several new books out this fall. Mostly now, though, it’s referenced in passing, as shorthand for the odds that were stacked against Team Canada and all the adversity that they heroically overcame.

It’s been a decade since I first wrote about the alimentary aspects of the ’72 Summit Series, with a special focus on the beef and the beer that Team Canada shipped over to the Soviet Union that long-ago September, along with the mystery surrounding the supposed theft/illicit butchery/black marketeering of said provisions. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed investigating the alleged scandal by way of newspaper archives and player memoirs. Taking the temperature therein, it wasn’t hard to piece together something like a hypothesis proposing that Canada’s heroic on-ice triumph in Moscow was as much a product of hungry outrage as it was hockey prowess.

I was, in this, mostly poking fun. Ten years on, I still am, and it’s in that spirit that I’m here to report further findings on the steaks of ’72. I will just add, as a not entirely fun aside, that in all this it’s also possible to perceive a pattern writ in Canadian paranoia and xenophobia. There was no shortage of that on offer all those years ago, whether or not we in Canada choose to recall it now.

We don’t, mostly. With an exception or two, the sour sides of the Summit haven’t really featured in the month-long anniversary retrospective we’re just coming out of in Canada. That’s not surprising. Who wants to talk about those bad-tempered in-between exhibition games in Sweden or the slash that Bobby Clarke laid on Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle when you can celebrate the way that Vancouver’s derision cemented Team Canada’s resolve or the Moscow concussion that Paul Henderson played through on his way to scoring all those decisive goals? What counts, in Canada, still: we won.

•••

For as long as Canadian hockey teams have been going overseas, they’ve lugged along their own personal meat supply. I don’t actually know whether that’s true; it sounds like it should be. I can say that when the East York Lyndhursts went to Sweden to contest the 1954 world championships, they were (per The Ottawa Citizen) “armed with a fighting spirit and a supply of vitamin pills.” That was the year that the USSR announced itself on hockey’s international stage, grabbing gold from Canada’s clutches. The captain of that team, of course, was Vsevolod Bobrov, coach of the ’72 Summit Soviets.

When, the following year in West Germany, the Penticton Vs reclaimed the world title on Canada’s behalf, they did so with an infusion of B.C. milk: when the Okanagan dairy cooperative learned that the Vs were losing weight abroad because they wouldn’t drink unpasteurized German milk, they arranged to fly in a daily supply to nurture the players.

Canadian teams would continue to brave their way into Europe, despite the hazards of foreign supper tables. The Trail Smoke Eaters may have navigated to gold in 1961 in Switzerland, but on the way there they were also severely flustered in Czechoslovakia to find eggs floating in their otherwise delicious asparagus soup.

Steaks of ’58: The Whitby Dunlops powered to gold in Oslo with the help of homegrown steaks.

Like Penticton before them, the 1958 Whitby Dunlops had a plan to avoid the uncertainties of unfamiliar menus, one that formed the foundation of what Team Canada did when it went to Moscow 14 years later. Frank Bonello was the key figure in both cases.

In ’58, he was a centreman for the Dunlops. His day-job, outside of hockey, was as a salesman for Canada Packers, the Toronto-based meat-packing and processing company. The Dunlops spent nine weeks touring Europe that year before they got to Oslo for the world tournament, and by the time they did, Bonello had arranged to augment the Norwegian menu available to the players — lots of “fish and meatballs with rich sauces,” as he later recalled it. “Nice food, you know, except it wasn’t the type of thing which an athlete wants the day of a game.”

He made some calls and Canada Packers answered them, flying in 150 steaks to aid in the team’s effort, enough to feed the players before each game, including the gold-medal final in which they beat the Soviets 4-2. “Everybody,” Bonello said, “felt more at home.”

In 1972, Bonello was still in hockey, as GM of the OHA’s Toronto Marlboros (he went on to become the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting). He was still in, well, meat, too, at Canada Packers. That August, as Team Canada prepared to launch into the Summit Series, he read that organizer Alan Eagleson had concerns about the food that the players would be getting in Moscow. Bonello had a connection, and didn’t hesitate to call in: Canadian coach Harry Sinden had been a Whitby teammate — captain of the team, in fact — back when Canadian protein had yielded gold in Oslo.

So it was that Team Canada ordered up 300 New York-cut steaks for delivery to Moscow. In Toronto that August, Sinden and assistant coach John Ferguson stopped in to Canada Packers for a visit. “I was going to call Frank anyway,” Sinden said, “but he called me first. I remembered those great steaks we had in Oslo. They were beautiful.”

Meat ‘N’ Greet: In August of 1972, Team Canada coaches Harry Sinden (right) and John Ferguson stopped by Canada Packers in Toronto to visit with Sinden’s old Whitby Dunlop teammate, Frank Bonello (left).

And so a small corner of a foreign kitchen would feature, temporarily at least, familiar fare, grain-fed-in-Canada. But it wasn’t only steaks heading for Moscow. To wash them down, Hockey Canada secured a consignment of Labatt’s beer as well as, from Finland, a supply of milk.

Team Canada even lugged its own drinking water to Moscow, for use “in both hotel rooms and on the bench,” Montreal’s Gazette reported. “It’s natural spring water supplied by Canada Dry, and it comes from Caledon Hills, north of Toronto.”

Faithful Frank Bonello also chipped in three cases of Dial soap. “I understand their soap isn’t so good,” he said that August. “They use rough-type fats in making it, and it hasn’t a pleasant odor.”

The steaks were, we know, to be packed in dry ice and flown in for a September 20 Moscow arrival. That was a Wednesday, the same day Team Canada would be getting in from Sweden and checking into the Intourist Hotel; the Summit would resume Friday with Game 5. This timing is laid out in an External Affairs cable from Ottawa sent by Patrick Reid, the External Affairs official drafted in to oversee many of the diplomatic, political, logistical, and PR aspects of the series. It’s from this document (reproduced below) that we have a measure of the meat in question.

When it comes to trying to audit the foodstuffs of ’72, this is the only official documentation that I’ve come across. Everything else — and there’s almost as much on the steaks of ‘’72 as on the stakes — is anecdotal. Memories have faded, over the years, hearsay and impression have congealed into accepted truth. That means it’s impossible to determine, at this distance, just how much pilfering of Canadian supplies took place in Moscow, if any.

Even while we know that Team Canada was brimming with groceries when it arrived in Moscow, we don’t really have a good grip on specific quantities — beyond “total meat weight of 270 lbs,” I mean. That’s fairly straightforward.

In 2012, talking to Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, Alan Eagleson inflates the count to “800 to 900 steaks.” Usually, though, going back to Frank Bonello and the original press reports of August, ’72, the number cited is 300. If that was the guess, that would mean … a whole mess of hefty 14-ounce steaks.

Possible, I guess. Liquidly, lacking anything like an official bill of lading, we can look to a dispatch from Colin McCullough, the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in the Soviet capital, who on September 20 wrote about the Intourist’s manager (“a short dark man with a gold tooth”), learning that the hotel’s refrigerators had plenty of room “for the steaks and 200 litres of Finnish milk” that would be arriving with Team Canada.

Also in 2012, Eagleson offered up a bar tab: “We brought over our own beer — 500 cases.”  Phil Esposito’s 2003 autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, has Team Canada arriving in Moscow with “350 cases of beer, 350 cases of milk, and 350 cases of soda.”

The beer was Labatt’s, who happened to be a big-time sponsor of the tournament. Company president W.F. Read said he was only too happy to support the team “by making Canadian beer available in Russia for use on the dining table.”

“It will also come in handy,” he added, “for the toasts at the conclusion of what has been one of the most exciting series ever played.”

If we err on the side of Esposito’s 350 cases, that’s — hold on: Team Canada had 8,400 beers for nine days in Moscow?

We’re talking here about a contingent of, say, 50 guys, players, staff, officials. That’s an allowance of 168 bottles for every man, or about 18.6 for each of the nine days they were in Moscow.

A few extenuating circumstances to consider: on September 20th, for instance, we know that the team didn’t land until 8 p.m., which doesn’t leave a lot of time to down 18.6 beers. And what about the four disgruntled players who decided in the first few days that they were heading back home? I’m going to assume that Vic Hadfield, Gilbert Perreault, and the others who quit the team in Moscow didn’t take their fair share of beers or steaks back home with them — as much fun as it is to imagine that they might have.

In 1973, Paul Henderson told a magazine interviewer that the beer “disappeared.” After the fifth game, testified Rod Gilbert. About 100 cases, Brad Park swore. Assuming that the players downed half their daily ration before this heist, the quick math —

8,400 total bottles of beer to begin
minus 930 (consumed September 20)
minus 930 (consumed September 21)
minus 465 (consumed pre-game September 22)
minus 2,400 (stolen by Soviets September 22)
= 3,675 surviving beers

— means that with 6 days left to go in Moscow, the team was down to 73.5 beers per man, which translates to an austerity ration of no more than 12.25 bottles each per day.

You can see how that would upset a man.

As for the investigation, I don’t know that it was all that thorough.

Patrick Reid looked back on his long diplomatic career in a 1995 memoir, Wild Colonial Boy, but his Summit memories include no Moscow heists.

Gary Smith was second secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in 1972 and as such, a key cog in the organization of the Summit. He has a memoir of all that out this fall, Ice War Diplomat, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of insight into the fate of Canada’s beer. “No one knows for sure what happened to it,” he writes. “The embassy had lots of backups, though — just not Labatt’s.”

The players, certainly, were in no doubt that they’d been robbed. Year after year, in interviews and autobiographies, they’ve pointed the finger again and again.

Vic Hadfield, diarizing in 1974: “There must be a lot of thieves in Moscow. We brought our own beef with us — a lot of steaks — and they’ve been stolen. So has the Canadian beer, which we had shipped here. Everybody suspects sabotage.”

“They can have our steaks,” Peter Mahovlich said, slipping into the historical present in in 1992, “but they can’t take away our beer.”

Don Awrey, in 2000: “They stole our steaks and our beer.”

Rod Gilbert, in 2002: “They stole our food and our beer. Can you beat that? Stealing our beer!”

Wayne Cashman, also in 2002: “When someone stole our beer, that really pissed us off.”

To read the 1972 memoirs is to feel a remarkable heat of angry disgust, not just at the harassment to which the players felt they were subjected, but to the general Moscowness of the place.

The buses were late, is what Ron Ellis remembers in Over The Boards (2002). Vic Hadfield formed his impression before he bailed out (and I quote, from Vic Hadfield’s Diary From Moscow To The Play-offs, published in 1974): “Uuggh.”

A gray place, said Frank Mahovlich. The only good thing about the whole entire country, according to Paul Henderson, was the circus. Otherwise? “Just terrible,” he thought. “Everything’s so dull — even the people. There’s no life to it.”

Fiery Phil Esposito felt that, given a gun, he would have had no problem shooting the KGB minders who kept watch on the Canadians as they commuted between hotel and the rink. “I hated Russian society … so much,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I would have killed those sons of bitches on the bus.”

All this from the victors. Can you imagine how dark things might have gotten if these guys had lost?

A month after Team Canada returned from Moscow, Henderson was still hot about — well, several things, including Soviet vanity and the heist of Canada’s victuals. “If you listen to them, they invented wine, rum, and vodka,” he told a reporter in October. “They have the world’s best beef, the tallest buildings, and the freshest vegetables. If they have the best beef, how come they stole the 300 steaks we brought with us? We brought over our own beer and that disappeared, too. And we took for granted our rooms were bugged.”

Goaltender Ed Johnston later revealed that “a lot” of the steaks “never made it through customs.”

Esposito also seemed to think that the thieving happened either at the airport or on the way to the hotel: according to him, only “half” of the beer + milk + soda + “steaks and other food” made it to the Intourist. He was also hearing rumours that the Canadian embassy might have been in on the filching. “But I can’t believe that. I believe the Russians stole it. They had nothing over there. And besides, what could we do about it? Nothing.”

Esposito remembered well the regular Intourist menu. “One time,” he wrote, “they served us crow. Blackbird, they called it.” Also: bear steaks. “They were tough but they weren’t bad. We ate horse steaks. Wasn’t bad. It was lean. We didn’t tell the girls [i.e. their wives] what we were eating.”

Paul Henderson believed that the hotel kitchen was the scene of the crime. “The Russian chefs soon ended up selling them,” he wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012).

In an earlier memoir, Shooting For Glory (1997), he was more specific: “The Russian cooks sold the steaks to others in search of a decent meal, many of whom turned out to be our zany Canadian fans. For about ten dollars U.S. you could get just about anything you wanted, including those precious steaks! The only two Russian dishes that were acceptable to me were borscht and chicken Kiev. The rest was just terrible.”

Scott Morrison has a new history, 1972: The Series That Changed Hockey Forever, and in it he quotes Rod Seiling.

“I was back to Moscow a number of years ago,” said Seiling. “I was sitting at table and we got talking about 1972 and our beer disappearing, our steaks being cut in half, and I’m sitting at a table with this gentleman and he says, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s all true — I was selling it on the black market.’”

Morrison talked to some of the former Soviet players, too, including Alexander Yakushev and Vladislav Tretiak, and got their take on the alleged “provocations,” which included theories that someone Soviet was bugging Canadian rooms at the Intourist and (as Yakushev puts it) that “someone ate their meat and drank their beer.”

“Well,” Tretiak offered, “the meat part might be true, but not bugging through chandeliers. Who would listen? And for what purpose?”

I should say that we do have sightings in the wild (as it were) of Canada’s (allegedly) purloined steaks.

The Toronto Star’s Trent Frayne traveled with the team from Stockholm on Wednesday the 20th, and he was in on the “surprise” awaiting players, team officials, and newspapermen when they got to the Intourist:

An area of the main dining room had been set aside where dinner consisted of steak, French-fried potatoes, canned peas and a lettuce-and-tomato salad.

And a Russian combo, including two trombones, a trumpet and an electric guitar, played such haunting old favourites as the theme from Love Story and Moon River.

Those could have been local equine or ursine cuts, I suppose. If so, Ken Dryden had no qualms about them, writing inFace-Off At The Summit (1973) that the steaks the team enjoyed that first night were excellent. Coach Sinden: “They were prepared well.”

Thursday night Dryden was back to tell his diary: “After dinner — another steak — we went to see the Moscow Circus.”

Friday, Ted Blackman of the Gazette caught Canada’s players at unhappy post-game repose after their 5-4 Game 5 loss.

“Those bastards should have been in Siberia at the end of the second period,” [Paul] Henderson was saying back at the Intourist Hotel where Team Canada’s puzzled personnel sat sullenly over post-game steaks with wives who dared not speak. “We had them beaten, had them off stride, and we were pulling away. Siberia, that’s where they were headed. Then we let ’em off the hook.”

According to Dryden, the real problem was that after a few days — “the great initial burst of big steaks” — the cuts began to shrink. Also, incidentally, Team Canada’s cola was missing, causing the goalie to suffer a “Coke fit” one day after practice.

“If I had been smart,” Dryden wrote in that Moscow diary of his, on which Mark Mulvoy from Sports Illustrated earned a primary assist, “I would have done what all the other guys did: they bought extra luggage packs at the Stockholm airport and filled them with six-packs of Coke and something called Joly Cola from Denmark.”

There was supposed be an entire suite at the hotel filled with Cokes — room 1774 — but as Dryden learned, that was just a rumour. “There will be Cokes for the players after the game tonight, though,” he noted on September 22. “Come to think of it, that’s a heck of an incentive to get into the starting line-up.”

For all their suffering, the players’ lot was better than what their wives had to endure. Eggs that were black and green! Fish-eyes soup! “I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served,” Dryden wrote in his original Moscow memoir. “In fact, Lynda and some other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.”

According to Brad Park, this was where the Soviets really screwed up: “they pissed off our wives” with disrespect and “disgusting food.”

“The last thing you ever want to do is shit on the wife of a Canadian hockey player,” Park disclosed in his 2012 memoir, Straight Shooter, “because she is going to make sure that her man is pissed off when he plays.”

Alan Eagleson had yet another version, one that he laid out for Jim Prime in his 2012 book How Hockey Explains Canada.

“We brought steaks over from Canada and they were confiscated,” Eagleson charged, “but not until we won a game, which goes to show how the heat was turned up as the series went on.”

Games 6 was Sunday, September 24. “Ken Dryden had a great game,” Eagleson recalled. “We won 3-2 after having lost the first 5-4 in Moscow. We got there in a roundabout way, but they confiscated our steaks. At that point the Russians thought, Geez, maybe this is not a shoe-in They still thought they’d win, but they made life miserable, starting right then.”

The veins of confusion about the fate of the Canadian meat continue to marble the Summit narratives: they’d do a choice cut of Wagyu proud.

It’s not as though the passage of years has clarified things, either.

Despite what Harry Sinden jotted down in the moment for Hockey Showdown, by 2016 he had a new version of events. The coach was on a nostalgia tour that year with a handful of his players, talking ’72 again to audiences across Canada. I caught the show in Toronto and in the Q&A session stood up to ask the question that was on everybody’s mind: what happened to the meat?

“Well,” the coach was quick to explain, 44 years later, “I don’t think you can outright say it was stolen, it just never showed up. We had it shipped from Canada to Finland, then from there, over to Moscow. That’s how we did it. And the shipments — especially the steak, because in those days, players were eating steak, prior to a game — the steaks never made it. They — for some reason, they were shipped, supposed to be delivered to our hotel. When the time came, they didn’t have them. So, obviously that story grows and grows and grows. That, you know, the kitchen staff stole them, and they made hamburger out of them. It didn’t happen. We were fine. We survived.”

Six years later, Sinden had come up with a new new angle.

Writing The Greatest Comeback, a thorough accounting of the Summit out this month, John U. Bacon had the support and cooperation of many of the veterans of Team Canada, though he goes out of his way to make clear that it’s not an “official” history: he maintained his independence. His foodie findings are presented with authority, if not detailed sources. “At least 100 of their 300 steaks, and the entire supply of Labatt’s were gone,” he writes, “probably sold on the black market, where it would fetch good money.”

“Somehow half our steaks disappeared,” was Sinden’s revised take, according to Bacon. “The hotel staff probably had a feast and made a fortune. The food we ate was horrible. They gave us peaches that were about as big as a marble. It was no way to get ready for some of the biggest games ever played.”

In Ken Dryden’s new book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now, he basically repudiates what he and Mark Mulvoy committed to the page, steakwise, 49 years ago.

Now, as part of a cataloguing of the many distractions and discombobulating strangenesses Team Canada encountered in Moscow, there’s this:

Our breakfasts were buffets of cold cuts, smoked fish, white cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and chocolate-coloured bread that was hard and not chocolate. Our pre-game meals, our steaks that had been brought from home and had somehow “disappeared” into Moscow air, steaks that had always made us feel strong and ready, instead were tough, random-sized, random-shaped hunks of meat.

1973-Ken Dryden, let’s recall, is on the record as having quite enjoyed the steaks Team Canada were served early on. The problem, as detailed in an entry from the diary he (and/or Mulvoy) jotted down for September 24, was one of diminishment rather than disappearance:

The quality of our meals has gone down. The great initial burst of big steaks has become a retreat to mini-steaks. We never get Cokes, though they are talked about all the time. But I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served. In fact, Lynda and some of the other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.

That jibes with what Frank Mahovlich has recalled, pretty well annually, including in Andrew Podnieks’ Team Canada 1972: The Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summit Series (2012), in which he rounded on the chefs working the Intourist kitchen. “They cut them in half, so we only had half a steak. So we complained. Before the third game, they cut the thickness in half. We complained again. It wasn’t until the last game that we finally got a whole steak.”

Now we may be getting somewhere —  which is to say, as close to the truth of the matter as we may ever get. Could it be that the steaks were bureaucratically butchered rather than actually stolen?

Back to Gary Smith from the embassy. In 2012, he said that he was on the case in ’72. I had to look into the case of the stolen steaks,” he told Patrick White. “I think it was likely some guy involved with the hotel, rather than someone thinking the Canadians wouldn’t be able to play without their steaks.”

In Ice War Diplomat, his updated view combines a reasonable explanation with an unexpectedly specific indictment of the hospitality industry worldwide:

After the first night’s steak dinner for the Canadian players in their hotel, some extremely large steaks disappeared from the refrigerators and were replaced by cuts half their size. Apparently, this wasn’t part of a nefarious Soviet plot but the result of a Canadian staffer telling the hotel chefs that portions had to be reduced to ensure the supply lasted until the end of the series. After some hungry players complained, the full-size steaks returned. No doubt there may also have been some pilfering of quality meat, as often happens in hotels around the world.

Whatever actually happened, I guess maybe the bottom line — and the final word? — is that Team Canada believed that they and their appetites were wronged. Did that motivate them more than they would have been otherwise motivated? Impossible to say.

I’ll leave the last word to Harry Sinden, in Hockey Showdown. He knew what it was to win a well-fed world championship with Whitby in Oslo, after all, and he was convinced he and his team went without in ’72.

On September 28, ahead of the Summit’s last and decisive game, he convened a team meeting to talk about the power play. Or — no: he and his assistant John Ferguson just wanted to make sure that everybody understood just how quickly the team planned to get the hell out of town after the game. Then the players went for their naps. Then, with victory waiting just a few hours in the future, suppertime.

“We should have had 100 steaks left for our pre-game meal,” Sinden writes, “but the Russians somehow misplaced them. They claim it was poor Canadian arithmetic. In this country four times 50 is 300. We thought it was 200. So the kitchen staff here at the Intourist Hotel will have a few steak dinners on us in the next few weeks. I hope they choke on it like their team did on the ice tonight.”

ranger rollick

Net Gain: The current edition of the New York Rangers ran up a 9-0 romp last night at Madison Square Garden at the expense of the visiting the Philadelphia Flyers, but this isn’t that: from 1967, here’s LeRoy Neiman’s impression of Ranger Rod Gilbert (#7) buzzing Glenn Hall’s Chicago net, with Vic Hadfield (#11) and Jean Ratelle (#19) in attendance. Not a Black Hawk defenceman in sight, shamefully, though Bobby Hull (#9) is on hand to witness the goal.

department of throwing stuff: bernie parent’s mask

Fling a waffle to the ice in Toronto in the early decades of this parlous young century of ours and chances are you’ll end up kicked to the Bay Street curb and banned for ever more from the premises. Lobbing a catfish you happen to have been carrying around in your underwear in Pittsburgh may well get you arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime, and disrupting meetings and processions.

Maybe, in Pittsburgh, the charges won’t go forward. The outrage associated with the waffle and what it represents will, in time, fade away, even if the ban persists. The overall message, though, is clear: today’s NHL (or, I guess, yesterday’s) has decided that the time has come to break hockey’s vivid tradition, long and lustily favoured by fans, of expressing themselves by hurling whatever they might have at hand at the ice.

Fans were throwing stuff well before 1917, but it was in the NHL that the practice truly evolved into (a messy, disruptive, and often dangerous) art form. In Montreal, fans used to toss toe rubbers by the dozens to express their approval of the all-conquering Canadiens; in Chicago, live rabbits, dead squirrels, whisky bottles, and a life-sized dummy of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich used to rain from the upper balconies of the old Chicago Stadium. Cataloguing hockey’s debris is an ongoing effort — evidence of my attempt to keep is in my 2014 book, Puckstruck, and peppered across this site, here and here and over here. And if, at some point, it becomes clear that the stuff that’s thrown sometimes goes the other way, from the ice to the stands? I think we have to look into that, too. Why not now?

Today is, after all, Bernie Parent’s 75th birthday. Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1945, Parent had just 26 back in 1971 as his Toronto Maple Leafs headed into an opening-round playoff quarter-final against the New York Rangers.

Parent had already been a Philadelphia Flyer at this stage of his career. A trade had brought him to Toronto in February of ’71. He stay another season in Toronto before decamping to the WHA’s Philadelphia Blazers and, thereafter, back to the Flyers. It was in this second stint in Philadelphia that Parent was instrumental in the Flyers’ Stanley Cup triumphs of 1974 and ’75, as he won (let’s not forget) Vézina and Conn Smythe trophies in both those years.

But back to the Leafs in ’71: Parent was sharing the net that year with a 42-year-old Jacques Plante. It was Plante who started the first game of the playoffs early that April at Madison Square Garden, a 5-4 loss. Parent got the call for the second game the following night, and in that one, the Torontonians roared back to even the series with a 4-1 win.

Both teams were feeling sourly on the night. In the second period, New York left winger Vic Hadfield roughed up Toronto defenceman Bob Baun, and vice-versa. Hadfield and Leafs forward Jim Harrison were penalized for punching each other, too. In the third, when those two clashed again, they started a brawl in the Toronto zone, at the Seventh Avenue end of the rink. In the foolery that followed, Parent made his way into the melee, where he got a hold of Hadfield, if only briefly — Rangers’ goaltender Ed Giacomin was quick to attend and haul Parent away.

At some point during these proceedings, Hadfield got hold of Parent’s mask and donated it to the Garden crowd.

“Hadfield ripped off my mask,” Parent said in the immediate aftermath, “and threw it into the crowd.”

That’s now how Hadfield recalled it.

“He jumped me from behind,” he said. “Then I saw the mask sitting there, so I just threw it. But I lost a glove, too. Somebody threw a glove of mine into the stands.”

Initially, Parent stuck to his story. “Hadfield took the mask off my head and threw it in the seats,” he insisted. Somewhere, somehow, the goaltender relented. “When things settled down,” Parent writes in Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!, his exclamatory 1975 autobiography, “Hadfield picked up my mask and threw it in the stands.”

On the night, MSG police did their best to recover the mask, but the fans weren’t interested: it was, as The New York Times noted, “passed along, bucket-brigade style, around half the Garden. Appeals for its return rang from the arena PA. “But,” as Dick Beddoes reported in the Globe and Mail, “exuberants among the demonstrative 17,250 fanatics chanted ‘Don’t give it back! Don’t give it back!’”

The Leafs’ 68-year-old vice-president, King Clancy, thought he might be able to help with the search, though he soon found himself in hostile territory, and ended up retreating to his seat near the Toronto bench.

“Hadfield throwing the mask away was the most childish thing I ever saw,” Clancy said. “Those things cost $150 and the Rangers have to pay for it.”

Parent did have a back-up mask, but it was at home, in Toronto.

“I wouldn’t continue in the game without the mask,” Parent wrote in his autobiography.

His coach, Johnny McClellan, didn’t blame him, even if others did. “Parent has played with a mask since he was a 12 years old,” he said after the game. “He has never been in the net without a mask in 13 years, so you’re not going to send a guy into the net without a mask. He could get a shot in the face and that’s it.”

So in went Plante, who knew what that was like — though, of course, in 1959, the Andy Bathgate shot he took in the face just before he donned his mask for the first wasn’tit. This time out, he was only called on to play the final 4:42 of the game, stopping two shots and preserving Toronto’s win.

Another brawl ensued 30 seconds after he’d stepped in, when the Leafs’ Jim Dorey engaged with New York’s Ted Irvine. Going to teammate Ron Ellis’ aid, Plante (by the account of the New York Daily News’ Dick Young) “skated over and began banging on [Glen] Sather’s head.” That brought Giacomin back: “skating the length of the rink and taking a flying leap onto Plante.”

Giacomin, for what it’s worth, wondered at the time that Parent didn’t continue bare-faced. “That’s what I would have done,” he said. “Hell, for four minutes, why let Plante credit?” Though, of course, Plante didn’t get the win; that went into the books as Parent’s.

“Some writers actually suggested I was a coward for not playing without the mask,” Parent recalled in his book, take up Johnny McClellan’s line. “This one New York writer even said I’d never be the same goalie again. In other words, this writer thought I was chicken. Bull. If I got hit not wearing a mask, I might really never be the same again. A goalie is putting his life on the line out there.”

 

Danger Close: Having tossed Bernie Parent’s mask over the boards on April 8, Vic Hadfield added insult to injury on April 13 by scoring on Parent (and his new mask) at MSG.

With the series set to shift to Toronto, Leafs’ GM Jim Gregory put out an appeal. “If a guy who’s got a mask returns it, I’ll get him two tickets for Saturday’s game and pay his way to Toronto.”

In Toronto, meanwhile, NHL president Clarence Campbell visited a CBC studio to catch up on what had gone down in New York. The fact that the footage didn’t show Hadfield with the mask didn’t concern him too much: he said there was a standard $50 fine for throwing equipment overboards. “I wanted to get a general impression of what this affair looked like to the people who saw it there and on television,” Campbell said.

Upon further reflection, Campbell fined each team $5,000 — to that point, the largest bad-behaviour tax ever to be levied in the NHL. Further individual fines to players from New York added up to $3,300, including $400 to Giacomin for twice departing his crease. Toronto’s players were punished to the tune of $3,250, including $200 each to Plante and Parent for straying from their creases.

The missing mask was the one Parent had started using when he arrived in Toronto from Philadelphia. It was very comfortable — and happened to have been made by Fibrosport, Jacques Plante’s company, based in Magog, Quebec. The back-up Parent didn’t have in New York when he needed it was his old Flyers’ mask, which he’d used for about two years previously.

He didn’t have to revert to that one, as it turned out: with his connections, he relied on Plante getting on the telephone the morning after the night to call his Fibrosport partner, Marc Andre Beaudin, in Montreal. He in turn called in a couple of employees from their Good Friday holiday and got going on crafting a new model in time for Saturday’s game.

“The three of them would have to work all day to make the mask,” Plante said. “They would have the mold already, but there is a lot of work to making a hand-crafted mask.”

Saturday morning it was handed to an Air Canada pilot for the flight from Montreal to Toronto — the pilot, no less. Howard Starkman from the Leafs was there to retrieve it when it landed — he later went on to serve as PR director for the baseball Blue Jays — and he delivered it to Maple Leaf Gardens. Parent put it to use that night in helping defeat the Rangers by a score of 3-1.

The Leafs’ momentum didn’t last, though: with Parent and Plante and their respective masks sharing the net, the Rangers won the next three games to take the series and advance to play the Chicago Black Hawks.

That’s not quite the end of the story. There’s the part, too, about Vic Hadfield scoring a hat trick against Chicago at MSG towards the end of April, his first in the playoffs. Picking up one of the hats that landed on the ice in his honour, Hadfield put it on before skating to the boards and flinging it to the fans.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” he said. “I felt so good about scoring all those goals, I wanted to show my emotion. It was a tremendous feeling, one of the highlights of my career.”

As for Parent’s mask, Leafs’ VP Harold Ballard said he was invoicing the Rangers. “We should send the bill to Bill Jennings,” Ballard said, “but I guess we’ll send it to [New York coach and GM] Emile Francis — it’s his department.”

I can’t confirm whether any such paperwork was submitted. But Jennings, who was the president of the Rangers, did send a bill of his own to the Leafs in the amount of $175 — for Vic Hadfield’s bespoke glove, said to have been manufactured and specially sewn in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis’ hometown.

Ballard took it for a spoof. “At least,” he said, “I hope Jennings isn’t serious.”

The story might end there, which is to say right here, except for, no, sorry, there’s more.

Towards the end of that same April, the Chicago Tribune made fleeting mention of the mask’s having been returned to Parent by a 7-year-old boy. “It was mailed back to Bernie in a shoe box,” was how that story went, but no further.

That seems to be fanciful. In 2006, the mask did show up in a sports memorabilia auction, and then again in 2012, when a buyer, unnamed, decided the time had come to get the goaltender and his mask back together. Greg Wyshynski reported on this at the time for Yahoo! Sports — you can read about that here.

The old goaltender knew the mask he’d once worn the moment he set eyes on it, 41 years after Hadfield absconded with it. “Life is full of surprises,” Parent said. He only got to visit with the mask briefly, apparently: the owner’s plan was to keep it for himself, then donate it, posthumously, to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In Phil: Bernie Parent in Flyer kit + mask in the mid-1970s.

 

my first hockey game: keith olbermann

Fort Eddie: New York Rangers’ goaltender (and Olbermann favourite) Ed Giacomin, photographed in the fall of 1967. (Image: Franck Prazak/Library and Archives Canada, 2000815187)

Long before Keith Olbermann took up as a full-time Donald Trump excoriator, he was a hockey fan and reporter, an analyst and student of the game — a hockey maven, even, as he’s said himself. Like Ken Dryden (and Gary Bettman), he’s a Cornell graduate. Olbermann, who’s 58, was at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics where he saw Herb Brooks’ young, implausible United States team overthrow Viktor Tikhonov’s heavily favoured squad from the Soviet Union. If you haven’t seen Olbermann in full hockey flight, paying tribute to Jean Béliveau, or decrying the foolishness and bad history perpetrated by those who celebrate the NHL’s Original Six, then go and see that now — we’ll wait.

Olbermann’s broadcast career includes, of course, his years with ESPN’s SportsCenter in the 1990s. Since then, he’s talked baseball and football and everything else on CNN and Fox Sports Net. From 2003 through 2011, he hosted Countdown on MSNBC. In 2016, he launched a new political show, The Closer with Keith Olbermann, on GQ.com. It got a new name (and vehemence) after Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. election: The Resistance. Olbermann’s books include The Worst Person in the World (2006) and Pitchforks and Torches (2010). His latest, published earlier this fall, is Trump is F*cking Crazy (This is Not a Joke).

Today, as part of Puckstruck’s original ongoing series, Olbermann recalls the first hockey game he saw in the flesh as a 10-year-old fan growing up in New York. It was early in the season, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were in town …

My first game — memory, and Hockey Reference tell me — was October 19, 1969. Vic Hadfield had a phantom goal waved off in the first and then seconds later scored on a power play and despite 43 other Ranger shots, that was it. Eddie Giacomin became my eternal hero, and neither he nor Bruce Gamble wore a mask. It was only the second home game of only the second full season of the Rangers in what us old-timers still call “the new Garden,” and the subway trip there cost 20 cents.

This was part two of quite a dad/kid week for me. Four days earlier my father had gotten two tickets to Game Four of the 1969 World Series and in addition to the thrill each game represented, it occurs to me only now that these may have been the first two sporting events I ever attended in which the buildings were full. There was something just as awe inspiring about the 17,000 packing the Garden as the 57,000 at Shea.

I had been a Rangers’ fan for about a year to this point, but only on TV and radio. It amazes me that my main conduit was Marv Albert and he was in his radio gondola that night, and I visited with him at MSG the last game I saw during the playoffs last spring! I would soon get the whole back story of my mother and her Uncle Willie going to one of the games of the Cup Finals of 1940, and before that, New York Americans games. And I would shortly understand the disappointment built into being a Ranger fan.

My second game was early the next month against the Blues and I couldn’t wait to get there because I knew I was going to be able to say I saw either Glenn Hall or Jacques Plante play for St. Louis. And who did they start in goal? Ernie Wakely.

 

want to fight or fool around? then bob plager is your man

1972-73 O-Pee-Chee #161 Bob Plager

He was the first St. Louis Blue ever to sit out a penalty, which seems about right. Called for hooking just a minute into the Blues’ NHL debut in a 2-2 tie with the mint-new Minnesota North Stars in 1967, Bob Plager did get back on the ice in time to assist on the team’s first goal, scored by Larry Keenan.

That’s worth recalling, too, after Plager’s place in Blues’ history was formally recognized in a ceremony on Thursday at the Scottrade Centre by way of retiring his number 5 and raising it forevermore to the rafters.

Plager, who’s 73 now, hails from Kirkland Lake, Ont., and is (of course) one of three defence-playing brothers to have worn St. Louis blue in the team’s early years. Elder brother Barclay died in 1988 while Bill, two years younger than Bob, died last year. Barclay’s number 8 sweater was already hanging in the rink rafter, which means that with Bob’s joining it, the Plagers are just the second pair of NHL brothers to have their numbers retired, after Maurice and Henri Richard.

I’m recommending you consult Dan O’Neill’s appreciation of the former (and all-time) number 5 in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this week. First, though, maybe spare a moment for these several illuminations of the NHLer Plager was:

1

Someone poaching from and minimally re-arranging Bob Plager’s entry in the 1972 edition of Zander Hollander’s Complete Hockey Handbook to fashion a poem might do it this way:

Want to fight or fool around? Then Bob Plager is your man
Burly Bob loves a brawl, with anybody
Once fought brother Barclay, now a Blues teammate, when both were minor leaguers
A first class practical joker too
Once went on a tie-snipping rampage in the Blues’ dressing room

2

Stan Hochman of The Philadelphia Daily News wrote about Plager’s prankmanship in 1969. “When he isn’t setting fire to newspapers or nailing shoes to the clubhouse floor,” Hochman wrote, “Plager likes to befuddle newspapermen.”

For example: asked by a reporter how he spent his summers, Plager said he was a deliveryman for a brewery. “I told him,” Plager recounted, “that whenever I made a delivery I had to sample the beer to make sure it wasn’t stale. I said I’d have four bottles with each delivery. … The story went all over Canada. They had seven applications with the Liquor Control Board, people who wanted a job just like that.”

3

“I’m altogether different on the ice,” Plager told Stan Hochman. “I’m out to win and I’ll do anything to win. But I’ve never spread a guy and you don’t see me getting penalties for slashing. I hit hard but not dirty. What did I have all year, maybe 40 minutes in penalties.” (43, in fact.)

4

According to Martin O’Malley, chronicler of the talented, tempestuous, ill-fated Leaf Brian Spencer, Plager was respectable among NHL roughians of the early 1970s. From O’Malley’s Globe and Mail profile of Spencer, “A Capacity For Anger,” circa 1971:

Anyone in the NHL is tough or they would not be there, he said, but some players are tougher than others, and not all tough players are good fighters. It takes a special attitude, a capacity for anger. John Ferguson is a good fighter but Spencer does not respect him because at times he suspects fighting is all Ferguson can do well. He respects Ted Green of Boston, Vic Hadfield of New York, Barry Gibbs and Ted Harris of Minnesota, Bob Kelly of Philadelphia, Marc Tardif of Montreal, Bob Plager of St. Louis, and Rosaire Paiement of Vancouver. He respects them, but he will fight them anytime, anywhere.

5

In a contentious game at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in January of 1972, Blues’ coach Al Arbour crossed the ice at the end of the second period to lodge a protest with referee John Ashley who, in turn, assessed Arbour a two-minute penalty whereupon Arbour followed Ashley into the tunnel as he departed the ice and then the St. Louis, led by Bob Plager, were climbing into the stands, swinging their sticks.

The Philadelphia Daily News later got Arbour’s version of events:

Someone poured beer on me and someone else hit me. Everyone was shoving and pushing and I fell on a policeman. Then I got hit on the head by a billy club. I never hit a policeman — I’d never do that.

Arbour and three of his players, none of them named Plager, were charged with disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a policeman.

The charges were eventually dropped, I might add. “I realize at a hockey game the players sometimes lose their tempers,” said Municipal Court Judge Max Ominsky, “and things get out of hand. It is unfortunate. It’s a rough game. I hope this doesn’t happen again.”

6

In a pre-season game in 1973 in Brantford, Ontario, Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins, a bench-clearer of a brawl ensued, after which Plager was suspended by NHL president Clarence Campbell after he (CP) “physically interfered with game officials and threatened physical violence to referee Andy van Hellemond.” The ban lasted for two regular-season games.

While he sat out, he made news in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under the headline “From Enraged To Engaged:”

Plager, who came to the Blues seven years ago as the club’s most eligible bachelor, announced his engagement to Robyn Sher, a secretary he met at Jewish Hospital two years ago.

He gave her the engagement ring as the Blues skated off the ice before Wednesday night’s game at the Arena. “Originally I planned to give her the ring cut inside a puck as I skated off.”

7

The Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell, writing in 1976:

Robert Plager is a member of the Punching Plagers — his brothers are Barclay and Billy — who have fought most of the leading pugilists on ice — including each other.

He shared this story, about his pre-Blue debut, when he was with the New York Rangers:

Look, the first time I come up to the NHL, it’s for a game in Madison Square Garden, against Chicago.

We’re losing 6-1 and it’s in the third period. I still haven’t been off the bench. The fans are starting to yell: “Bring on Plager.” There had been some advance publicity on me.

Suddenly, I’m out therefor a faceoff in their end. I’m scared stiff the puck will get past me and they’ll have a breakaway. They’ve goy Stan Mikita doing the face-off.

Just like I feared, the puck hops past me and here comes Mikita. As he goes to pass, I stick out my hand clothesline him. I been on the ice seven seconds and I got a penalty.

On the next shift, I knock Bobby Hull into the boards. I flatten him. Hull and I always had a funning feud after that. Anyway, the point I want to make is that, for the next game, the fans have Bob Plager banners hanging from the balcony.

Let me tell you something. In St. Louis, I’ve been voted most popular player, most colourful player and I did more commercials than the big shooters. You think that was because of the two goals I scored?

8

Back, finally, to 1972. In October of the year, Bob and Barclay were arrested by St. Louis police after an incident in a barroom. UPI had the story. I think it speaks for itself:

Police said that the two Blues defencemen were drinking at a restaurant when somebody apparently spilled soup on Bob Plager. He then got into an argument with bartender Alfredo Castillo.

Police are uncertain as to what happened next. Most of the witnesses fled before police arrived. But there was apparently no exchange of blows.

Bob was cut by glass and treated at St. Louis County Hospital. Castillo was not injured.

The manager of the bar-restaurant said the Plager brothers chased the bartender with pots of coffee and hot water and that Castillo held them off with a small knife. The manager also claimed at least a case of liquor was broken in the melee. No charges have been filed.

The Blues issued a statement saying: “Bob Plager was defending himself, and Barclay came to his assistance.”

“Nothing really happened,” said Barclay. “It’s been blown out of proportion. I’ve seen worse happen on a drive-in restaurant parking lot. There wasn’t a punch thrown.”

philadelphia_daily_news_fri__jan_7__1972_

(Image of 1972-73 O-Pee-Chee card courtesy of HockeyMedia + The Want List)

journeyman, scrapper, tomato: I always liked playing

1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA #56 Glen Sather

The Edmonton Oilers are honouring erstwhile captain, coach, GM and president Glen Sather tonight, ahead of their game against the New York Rangers, for whom he left them. Now 72, the pride of High River, Alberta, oversaw five Oiler Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, of course, with teams of Gretzkys and Messiers, Kurris and Coffeys, Lowes and Fuhrs, and now a banner bearing his name will hang with theirs in the rafters of Rexall Place.

With Sather stories trending today all around the Alberta capital, you’re advised to take in a few choice offerings from veteran Oiler-watchers like Jim Matheson at The Edmonton Journal and Terry Jones at The Edmonton Sun. The Oilers, too, are savouring Sather at their website.

Peter Gzowski got to know Sather when he spent the 1980-81 season embedded with the young, rising Oilers. His first impressions, from the inimitable book that followed, The Game of Our Lives (1981):

He has light hair and a pale complexion that rouges when he is emotional. When he was a player, his nickname, Slats, which is still used by those who are or would be his friends, occasionally gave way to Tomato. There are blushes on his cheeks tonight.

“I played my first game as a pro in this rink,” he says. “No, wait, I played my first game as a defenceman here.”

Sather sometimes has difficulty remembering the details of his career. He was a prototypical journeyman, a scrapper. In nine seasons, he played for six teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal, and Minnesota. He racked up an impressive number of penalty minutes, 724, but a paltry number of goals, 80. Wherever he went, he impressed both his coaches and his teammates with his competitive zeal. “You can tell it’s getting close to the playoffs,” Vic Hadfield, then the captain of the New York rangers, wrote in a diary he kept for the season of 1972-73. “Slats is getting bitchy.” Hadfield, the thirty-second highest goal-scorer in NHL history, sits down the pressbox from Sather tonight, smoking a cheroot. In the off-season, he is a successful golf professional, and the owner of substantial golfing real estate. But in hockey he is a part-time scout for the Oilers and Sather is his boss.

“I thought you were a defensive forward,” someone says to Sather.

“Yeah, sure,” he replies. “But sometimes they put me back on defence.” His mind seems to be somewhere else for a moment. “Jeez, I liked playing,” he says. “I always liked playing.”

(1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA card image courtesy of Hockey Media)

pentti lund, 1925–2013

Low Poke: Chicago's Doug Bentley reaches for Pentti Lund's puck in a game at New York's Madison Square Garden in December of 1949.

Low Poke: Chicago’s Doug Bentley reaches for Pentti Lund’s puck in a game at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1949. “The game was a spotty one,” opined The New York Times next day, “with long sessions of aimless puck chasing interrupted by brilliant individual sallies. Still, the outcome proved satisfactory to most of the 9,174 spectators.” New York won, 2-1.

The New York Rangers eventually lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup semi-finals in 1971, but they had some big wins along the way. One of them included a hattrick by centre Vic Hadfield, the first to be notched in the playoffs by a Ranger since Pentti Lund managed it. “I remember Lund,” Jean Ratelle said after the game, Hadfield’s linemate. “From the bubblegum cards I had as a kid.” Hadfield: not so much. “I never heard of Lund,” he said. “How long ago did he do it?”

It was the spring of 1950, in fact, which is worth recalling, with word today from Thunder Bay today that Lund has died at the age of 87. The second Finnish-born player to make a mark in the NHL, those who do remember him in New York know that he not only won the Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie in 1949, but Lund’s hattrick the following year almost — it was close — helped the Rangers win a Stanley Cup, too. Continue reading