What happened to the National Hockey League in the Challenge Cup series shouldn't have been a shock to anyone. Listen, the NHL had been living on borrowed time since 1972, when Team Canada had to win the last three games in Moscow—and did so by a single goal each time—to beat the Soviets 4-3-1 in hockey's first summit meeting. Since then, individual NHL teams have regularly played Soviet clubs in North America, and the Soviets have the edge, 10-5-2. So, let's face it: the Soviets' victory in the Series of the Century wasn't exactly the upset of the century.
But where does this leave the NHL? Well, the way things are right now—and I don't see them changing overnight—it will be very difficult for us to beat the Soviets when we play them the next time, and the time after that. In essence, what these hockey confrontations—these so-called battles for world supremacy—have come down to is a clash of societies, and we in North America may well be in a no-win position.
I first encountered Soviet hockey in 1958 at the World Championships in Oslo. At that time I was working in a factory and playing defense three or four nights a week for the Whitby ( Ontario) Dunlops, a senior amateur team sponsored by the Dunlop tire factory. We represented Canada in the tournament—I was the captain of that team—and we defeated the Soviet National Team 4-2. Remember, we were just a bunch of guys who carried lunch pails. The Dunlops were one of the strongest amateur teams ever to represent Canada, but we were hardly of 1958 NHL caliber.
Yet, just 14 years later, before my very eyes, the Soviets played the best players from the NHL—I was the coach of that 1972 team—almost to a standstill in an eight-game series. And now they've beaten us—and not by accident.
In the Soviet Union, hockey is an outgrowth of the political system. The state funds all the hockey programs and makes them work—or else. In North America, though, hockey is a business. The people in hockey—the players, coaches, owners—are in it to make a living. Hockey has become a rich man's game, too. It's expensive to outfit kids to play the game, expensive to rent rinks—it's expensive just to take kids to see NHL games. As a result, enrollment in youth-hockey programs has declined considerably the past few years. The fact is, hockey isn't a national service with us, and I, for one, don't believe it should be. What I mean is that we should not change the character of our society—from being free and open to one of conscripted service—just to achieve hockey supremacy.
NHL players are brought up to compete against one another on a team and league level, while Soviet players are brought up to compete against the world. To the NHL player, hockey is 10 exhibition games, 80 regular-season games, x number of Stanley Cup playoff games—and then three or four months on the golf course. To the Soviet player, hockey is almost 12 months of arduous daily labor on and off the ice that is programmed to achieve success in two or three international events each year.
The NHL All-Stars played scheduled league games almost to the eve of the Challenge Cup series and as a result had only two practices together. The Soviets, on the other hand, prepared for the series by training for several weeks in the Netherlands, where they lived on New York time and practiced on a surface that was tailored to the specifications of the rink at Madison Square Garden.
More power to the Soviets. They've mapped their strategies and followed them perfectly. But as long as the basic ground rules of the competition remain the same, it's going to become even tougher for us to beat a team that only wants to win one for the Kremlin.
The Soviets hardly mask the order of their priorities, either. For example, the U.S. dollars they took home to Moscow from the Challenge Cup were immediately reinvested in development programs. That's sound business practice—plowing money back into the operation in order to make an even better profit. Our proceeds from the series were divided between the NHL office and the players' pension fund. Not one penny was allocated to development.
Here are the cold facts on hockey development in North America. From all the reports I've studied, there are only four or five draft-eligible 19-year-old juniors in all of Canada who bear the scouting label "Can play in the NHL next season." There are maybe another eight or 10 graduating juniors who, as the scouts say, "need a little more seasoning," but after that, everyone else is a "probable" or a "maybe" or a "never."