Vienna last week provided an emotional backdrop for the 34th world ice hockey championship, a title regarded with kindly tolerance by the National Hockey League but considered little less than holy in hockey-mad continental Europe. A total of 235,000 fans filled the spacious Vienna Stadthalle for the 12-day tournament during which Russia reemphasized its world supremacy, a surprising U.S. team all but upset the balance of power traditionally shared by the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Canada, and, as usual, the fans became part of the show.
The crowd was largely Viennese, but there were contingents from all over Europe and even from Canada, and in no case were ideological preferences kept hidden. On the ninth day of the event, for instance, the East German team beat the West Germans in a private duel for last place in the A group. At game's end there was the traditional ceremony—both teams stood and saluted as the victors' flag was hoisted and the anthem played. There was both historical significance and riot potential in the moment, since never before had any team from the West side of the Wall paid such formal homage to the East. To the relief of uneasy officials, however, the West German athletes sportingly played their assigned role. But a mob in the stands rose practically en masse to boo, hoot and whistle its disapproval.
A day earlier an angry crowd had demonstrated after Czechoslovakia's 1-1 tie with Canada. Two Canadian goals had been disallowed, and even the Austrian press joined in the furious blast at the officials. Finally, there was the unsubtle incident that occurred at the teams' hotel after the Russians defeated Canada to clinch the championship. Fans jammed the lobby to applaud the losers as they returned; the arrival of the victorious Russians shortly afterward was greeted with silence.
Through all of this the U.S. team was receiving somewhat neutral treatment, perhaps because it was not supposed to play any significant role in the battle among the top four teams. But the Americans, led by a heroic goalie named Carl Wetzel, refused to be ignored. On the first day they stunned Sweden 4-3. They then lost to Russia 7-2, and to Czechoslovakia 8-3 in a wild game in which Wetzel gashed his head, finished in a blood-soaked bandage, and made an astonishing 75 saves. And then the U.S. held Canada very well before losing 2-1. In the end the Americans were able to finish fifth among the eight A group clubs with a 3-3-1 record. Their performance earned them automatic entry into next year's Winter Olympic Games, and Wetzel was named goalie on the tournament's All-Star team.
The Canadians' narrow escape against the U.S. set up their expected stretch battle with the Russians, while the Czechs and Swedes could merely fight to stay close. After six games, only Canada and Russia were unbeaten, although the Canadian record was marred by that stormy tie with Czechoslovakia. The championship was now to be decided in the head-on meeting between the unbeaten teams. A Russian victory would give the strong, superbly conditioned Red machine its fifth straight world title. A win for the Canadians would leave only Sweden in the way of their first championship since 1961.
The Canadians wanted it badly, for this was to be the year of their return to power. Father David Bauer, a quiet 42-year-old Vancouver priest, had planned it that way. The younger brother of a former Boston Bruin star, Bobby Bauer, he had turned down a possible NHL career to enter the priesthood. Six years ago, disturbed by the Soviet takeover of amateur hockey, which Canada had long dominated, Father Bauer developed a new concept for preparing a national team. Last year he stepped down as coach and handed the team over to a young ex-pro from Saskatchewan, Jackie McLeod, but he stayed on as an active adviser.
Part of Bauer's advice was to get former Toronto Maple Leaf Defenseman Carl Brewer reinstated as an amateur so that he could play for the Nationals. Brewer, an enigmatic young man who walked out on a $28,000-a-year job with the Leafs last fall after a dispute with Coach Punch Imlach, was willing, but Imlach and other NHL officials were not. Finally, bowing to strong political pressures, the pro league reluctantly made Brewer available to the amateurs.
The three-time NHL All-Star added a dash of mature leadership and a lot of muscle to a team made up predominantly of college boys. When the Canadians arrived in Vienna, Father Bauer said, "I've never said it at any time over the past five years, but this time I really feel we can beat the Russians."
For the first period of their clash, it appeared that the priest might be right. The team from Russia—six of the players were from the Soviet army, the others from various Moscow clubs—was led by such veterans as Vyacheslav Starshinov, Anatoli Firsov and Boris Mayorov. They were presumed to be unflappable, but the Canadians came out with a furious checking game clearly designed to rattle their foes, who believe in precise, pattern play. Break up the patterns, some said, and you have a chance, for the Russians have not learned how to improvise.
Getting inspired play from a squad that came into the game suffering from three key injuries, Canada did check the Russians into a state of visible frustration. At the 5:35 mark Fran Huck, the smallest man on the ice at 165 pounds, took a pass from Brewer and deftly slipped the puck into the Russian net. Shaken and confused, the Russians appeared to be in trouble until midway in the second period, when they got the biggest break of the tournament. Firsov, top scorer in the competition, skated toward the Canadian goal, stopped about 25 feet away and lofted a high, lazy shot. The puck seemed to be going harmlessly over Goalie Seth Martin's head when Canadian Defenseman Barry MacKenzie reached for it with his glove. The puck was deflected down and over the startled Martin's shoulder into the net.