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

the steaks of 1972: everybody suspected sabotage

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

It was 40 years ago today 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. And not even a glorious goal, at that. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a show-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than a stick.

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

And yet. In the flurry of this month’s 40th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting what may have been the fiercest of fuels in Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: they never should have messed with our chow.

Ever since Canadian hockey teams started going overseas, they’ve been carrying their own personal meat with them. I don’t actually know whether that’s true; it sounds like it should be. I can say that the East York Lyndhursts went to Sweden to contest the 1954 world championships (The Ottawa Citizen reported) “armed with a fighting spirit and a supply of vitamin pills.” In 1958, a member of the Whitby Dunlops arranged for his employer, Canada Packers, to send 150 steaks to Oslo to aid in the team’s effort.

Whereas teams like the Trail Smoke Eaters, in 1961, braving the local Czechoslovakian menu, were flustered to find eggs floating in their delicious asparagus soup.

That’s exactly the kind of thing the Canadians wanted to avoid in 1972. Heading over to Moscow that year, our boys wanted to be sure that there was a small corner of a foreign kitchen that would be, temporarily at least, made-in-Canada. So they brought their own steaks, lots of beer. What else does a hockey player need? Except that, guess what: the nasty Soviets pilfered it all.

It’s a tale of woe that’s long been woven into the legend of that momentous September, a prandial whodunit that’s been revived in several new books this fall, including memoirs by Paul Henderson and Brad Park, if not exactly solved.

What we know is that Team Canada was brimming with groceries when it arrived in Moscow on the night of September 20 all those years ago. Beefwise, Henderson says they were packing 300 pounds. Hockey Showdown, coach Harry Sinden’s ’72 memoir, says 300 steaks — which means, wow, so 16-ouncers, then.

We have Phil Esposito’s 2003 autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, to thank for the complete bar tab: Team Canada arrived in Moscow with 350 cases of beer, 350 cases of milk, 350 cases of soda.

Which is — hold on: they 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 get in 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 the defectors didn’t take their fair share of beers or steaks with them — as much fun as it is to imagine that they did.

In 1973, Paul Henderson told a magazine interviewer that the beer “disappeared.” After the fifth game, testifies Rod Gilbert. About a hundred cases, Brad Park swears. Assuming that the players downed half their daily ration before the 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 beers

— means that with 6 days remaining 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.

So you can see why the players were cranky.

I’m not just talking about Bobby Clarke going after Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle, or J.P. Parise threatening referees. 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 being 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 told his secret diary what he thought (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 Henderson, was the circus. Russian officials told him that they invented wine, rum, vodka. “Just terrible,” he thought. “Everything’s so dull — even the people. There’s no life to it.” Phil Esposito wanted to kill the KGB spies who travelled on the Canadian bus, with a gun.

As for the steaks, goalie Ed Johnston later confided that “a lot” of them “never made it through customs.” Hadfield wrote: “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.”

Except that, well, as Ken Dryden reports in Face-Off At The Summit (1973), that the steaks the team enjoyed at the hotel on their first night were excellent. Coach Sinden: “They were prepared well.”

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, their cola was missing, causing the goalie to suffer a “Coke fit” one day after practice.

Frank Mahovlich was on to the hotel’s chefs. “They cut them in half, so we only had half a steak,” he recalls, pretty well annually, most recently in this fall’s Team Canada 1972: The Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summit Series. “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.”

The ones that the profiteers didn’t get, that is. Henderson: “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.”

Unless — also? — it may have been the Canadian Embassy commandeered the players’ meat. That’s what Phil Esposito was hearing. “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.”

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 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 writes in his newly released memoir, Straight Shooter, “because she is going to make sure that her man is pissed off when he plays.”

Ahead of the last game, the Canadians had a team meeting to talk about the power play. Or — no. The coaches wanted to make sure that everybody knew just how quickly the team was going 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.

It must have been late that night when coach Sinden got to his diary, later published as Hockey Showdown. He’d played on that 1958 meat-fed Whitby Dunlop team in Oslo, so he knew whereof he spoke. “We should have had 100 steaks left for our pre-game meal but the Russians somehow misplaced them,” he wrote. “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.”

A version of this post appears on Slap Shot, The New York Times hockey blog, at http://slapshot.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/at-summit-series-in-moscow-canadians-ask-wheres-the-beef/?ref=hockey