From the instant that 20 hockey-playing chaps from Russia stepped to the ice at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens last week, Canadians became uneasy. More than 200 men watched the Russians practice that day. Since the public was excluded, all were sports-writers, scouts, coaches, managers and players. They positively marveled at the way the Russians skated, passed, dribbled the puck with their feet like soccer players, skated on one foot for vast distances, jumped four feet in the air, drilled pucks into goal corners, shaved their own hockey sticks and sharpened their own skates.
Afternoon papers used 96-point front page headlines saying such things as, REDS AMAZE. Bobby Bauer, a former NHL great, said they had improved in everything over the Russian team that beat the Canadians whom Bauer coached at the last Winter Olympics; especially in shooting, he said gloomily, which had been their only weak spot before. Kenny Reardon was an all-star NHL defense man. He thought that the Whitby Dunlops, amateur champions of Canada last year, who will represent us at the world championships in Oslo next February and were to play Russia in the first game of this Canadian tour, might be too slow for the Russians.
When Russia took the ice last week against Whitby, 14,327 were on hand (nearly 2,000 of them standees). The Gardens had been sold out 70 minutes after tickets went on sale, a week before. More millions across the country would follow the game by nationwide TV and radio. Everywhere the psychic scar of losing to the Russians at our game in the 1954 world championships and 1956 Olympics ached and stung, because most people suspected it was going to happen again—and right in our own backyard.
That was the feeling as the Russians lined up four times at different parts of the ice, to face all sections of the crowd and give a stick-raised, shouted salute. That was the feeling as the rink was darkened and the players lined up on their blue lines and the band played God Save the Queen and then the Russian anthem, Gimn Sovietskogo Soiuza.
The game began. The puck went back to Nicolai Sologubov. He's the Russian captain and star defense man, and his big grin had been the delight of photographers for two days. Head up, long-featured face intent, baggy red pants windblown, he rushed; the puck flickered along at the end of his white-taped stick as if tied there by an invisible string. Across the Whitby blue line. Short pass to Nicolai Khlystov at center. Dark and slick Yury Pantyukhov was flying in on right wing, to take Khlystov's pass. In on goal, all alone, he stick-handled the puck right past Carl Detzel in the Whitby net. The time was 57 seconds.
Well, we all said rather sickly, applauding the beautiful play, that was a pretty good goal.
And 56 seconds later, with the dazzled Whitbys flailing the empty air, the Russians were in again with a checkerboard passing play, Loktev to Guryshev to the husky blond Veniamin Alexandrov. A quick accurate shot, and it was 2-0. Shocked applause came again. This was stunningly even worse than we could have imagined. Could they go to 10? to 20?
However, as Conn Smythe, president of the Gardens and an old artilleryman, was to say later, "I used to watch the Germans goose-step and think nobody ever could stop 'em. Then we found out that when you knocked them off stride so they couldn't goose-step any more, they could be licked like anyone else."
That's what happened. For six or seven minutes of the first period the Russians mesmerized the Canadians with beautiful passing, great puck control and blinding speed (they were clocked by Lloyd Percival of Canada's Fact-Finding Sports College in faster time than any NHL player who has ever been timed). But then the Canadians began to knock them off stride.
They found out how during a penalty to Alex Cherepanov, for hooking. One component of any good power play is fierce forechecking, dogging the opponent stubbornly in his own end, never giving him a chance to get up speed or work pass patterns. The first Whitby power play revealed a Russian weakness—the defense tended to back in, obscuring the view of their goalie. There was a maze of defenders in front of the Russian goal when George Samolenko of Whitby fired a waist-high shot that caught the corner.