SI Vault
Mark Mulvoy
October 02, 1972
Russia, that is, where three million play the game and where the best whipped Team Canada—then lost a thriller
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October 02, 1972

So The Canadians Go To Hockeyland

Russia, that is, where three million play the game and where the best whipped Team Canada—then lost a thriller

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Mother Russia opened her arms to Canada's All-Star hockey players last week—and gave them a bear hug they will not soon forget. Napoleon would have felt entirely at home. Needless to say, Team Canada had not expected Moscow to be all vodka and caviar. Its self-proclaimed supermen had, of course, been knocked on their national myths by the Russians on their own home ground earlier in the month. But there was something especially humiliating about the Canadians' 5-4 defeat Friday night as the teams opened a four-game series in the Russian capital. Canada had led 3-0 and 4-1, but even those handsome margins were not good enough that night as the Russians, in a shivering display of hockey power, rose up and destroyed their guests in the third period.

"We have our ups and downs," said Canada Coach Harry Sinden with perfect truth. "We can't put two good periods together, but they could play the same way 24 hours a day until midnight of the third Thursday next February. Maybe I should have stuck to building houses."

Things were not quite that bad. On Sunday night the Canadians made Sinden swallow some of his words as they overcame their mental depression, put together the three solid periods of hockey Sinden had been pleading for and shocked the confident Russians 3-2. The Russians pressed furiously for the tying goal on their power play for most of the game's last two minutes, but four times Ken Dryden thwarted them with miraculous saves around the goal mouth. For Dryden, who gave up 12 goals in the two games he played in Canada—and lost—the victory was at least partial redemption. "I had to change my style," he said. "I like to come out of the goal and challenge the shooters, but the Russians never shoot. They pass the puck, and they were passing it around me for easy goals. Tonight I stayed in my net and stayed on my feet more. It worked."

The Canadian comeback partly atoned for the disastrous collapse two evenings before and made it possible, if unlikely, for the NHL All-Stars to take the entire eight-game series by winning the final two games in Moscow. Although nothing would remove the shock of the Canadian losses, Sunday's victory at least proved that Canada belongs on the same rink with the Russians.

Having suffered the summer-long dismantling of Boris Spassky by Bobby Fischer at long range, Leonid Brezhnev, Aleksei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny, the Big Three of Soviet politics, chose a box at center ice on Friday night from which to relish the Russian hockey men close up. So great was the demand for tickets that Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the poet, had to sit high in the end rafters. Yes, hockey is a big game in Moscow.

The Canadians came 2,700-strong—35 players, the rest Intourist trippers—supplied with beer, Scotch, mineral water, steak, Coca-Cola, towels, soap, toilet paper, miniature maple leaf buttons, regulation Canadian flags, enough gum to dam the Moskva River and enough clothes to outfit the Soviet Army for the next 10 years. For the most part the Russians were ready for them. Although the players consumed their own imported steaks, their traveling fans had few, if any, complaints about the quality of the Russian food, particularly the chicken Kiev, or the speed at which it appeared on the table. The hotel rooms may have been closet-size, but facilities were quite reasonable if not lavish. Besides overnight journeys to Leningrad and Kiev, the Russian hosts scheduled tours of the Kremlin and the subway during the day and visits to the Bolshoi Ballet and the Moscow Circus at night. "One day I took a bus and saw all the buildings from the front," said one Canadian, "and the next day I took a barge and saw them all from the back."

Late at night the Russians relaxed their drinking hours and kept the dollar bars open until the vodka supply ran out, usually after four a.m. The bars resounded with choruses of the Saskatchewan Roughriders' fight song and Les Canadiens sont l�, and when they closed the revelry moved upstairs to the Scotch closets or outside into Red Square for a parade with the Canadian flag that was in competition with the hourly changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. Naturally, the Canadians managed to lose that game, too.

They did win the button war. Every day hundreds of Russian children would crowd around the hotel lobbies and the entrances to the Palace of Sports and offer to trade their lapel buttons for maple leaf buttons or anything else—especially the chewing gum—the Canadians happened to have with them. "Look at this," said the still-injured Bobby Orr one day, unbuttoning his dress shirt. Pinned to his superboy shirt underneath were rows and rows of maple leafs that he would soon be exchanging at a profitable three-for-one ratio.

The best deal was Assistant Coach John Ferguson's trade of one stick of Wrigley's spearmint for a Lenin button. "An embassy guy told me the Lenin buttons are the hardest things to get in Moscow," Ferguson said smugly.

What the Russians were not prepared for was the faddish clothing and the distinctly different training habits of the NHL stars. Everyone in Russia seems to wear drab gray or shiny black. When the Russians got glimpses of Yvan Cournoyer's Halloween jacket, a dazzling blend of burnt orange, black, red and blue, Paul Henderson's checked flared pants and Tony Esposito's brown and white patent leather shoes with stepped-up heels, they poked one another, pointed at the Canadians and shook their heads as if viewing madmen.

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