The 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey summit

By Ulli Diemer

This article was written a few days after the end of the 1972 hockey series between a Soviet team and a Canadian team comprised of players from the National Hockey League. The closely fought series saw the Canadians win four games, the Soviets three, with one game tied. I watched the second game of the series, played in Toronto, which Canada won 4-1.

“Freedom,” crowed an ecstatic Nancy Eagleson, “always wins out in the end.”

Her outburst came after Paul Henderson firmly established himself as a Canadian folk hero by slipping a puck under Vladislav Tretiak in Moscow in the final minute of play last Thursday. The goal gave Team Canada a dramatic 6-5 win in the eighth and deciding game in the series against the Soviet National Team. The victory, close though it was, at least partially restored Canada’s self-image, shaken by years of humiliation in international ‘amateur’ competition, and by defeats at the hands of the Soviets earlier in the series.

But what was involved was much, much more than a contest between two groups of superb athletes, or tremendously exciting entertainment for millions of spectators around the world, or even the pride of a small nation establishing supremacy over the Soviet goliath in at least one sphere of activity.

It was, as Nancy Eagleson, and her husband Alan, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, and spokesman for Team Canada, never lost an opportunity to point out, a highly charged, if largely symbolic, political clash between two nations on opposite sides of the Cold War, between different value systems, different attitudes to sport, and different life styles.

On the one side, there were the forces of light, the Canadians, defending their national pride, and representing the values that were billed as the keystones of Western Civilization: individualism, free enterprise, and the prestige of the National Hockey League.

On the other side, there were the forces of darkness, the big red machine of godless communism, representing machine-like precision, iron-clad discipline, dead seriousness, and faceless teamwork. For them, too, national prestige was at stake, for sport is an important component of Soviet foreign policy in an era when the accommodation with imperialism that is legitimized with the label of peaceful co-existence has taken the place of the theories of international proletarian revolution that the Kremlin bureaucrats long ago carefully buried in Lenin’s tomb.

It has long been clear, of course, despite the fantasies of the Avery Brundages, that sports and politics are inseparable. On one level, this is true because sports events, especially on the international level, have been systematically used to make political points. This is made inevitable by the very nature of international sports, where the competition is between nations, not athletes, and where the glare of publicity makes winning everything, and the development of sportsmanship and mass participation in sports, nothing.

On a more fundamental level, sports are political because they are a reflection of the societies that produce them. Different class structures, different value systems, different cultures, produce different approaches to athletics in a nation. And as well, sports play a role in the social fabric of a nation. It is no accident, for example, that the campus ‘jocks’ moved to attack the radicals when a student rebellion shut down Columbia University, or that Richard Nixon uses football analogies to explain his latest move in the game of genocide he is playing in Indochina.

Even before the series began, politics were very much in evidence. In Canada, Bobby Hull, J.C. Tremblay, and Derek Sanderson were banned from the team because they had exercised their rights as free-enterprisers in a way that was beyond the pale – signing with the World Hockey Association. The patriotism of the NHL did not quite extend to the point of relaxing its vindictiveness towards those who were threatening its profit position. Among NHL owners, only Harold Ballard spoke in favour of going “To Russia With Hull.” It is probably only coincidence that the favourable publicity he received did much to obliterate the memory of his recent fraud conviction from the public mind.

In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, Anatoli Terasov, the man who built Russian hockey into a powerful force, was in disfavour, and excluded from any role in the series. Along with him, top Soviet stars Vitaly Devydov and Anatoli Firsov, known to be loyal to the old regime, did not travel to Canada.

Pre-series statements by the two sides were among the first contrasts that appeared. Canadian hockey writers, coaches, and assorted experts were virtually unanimous in proclaiming that Canada would win by a lop-sided margin. Team Canada, they said, had the edge in almost every department. The players were perhaps less boastfully arrogant, but all indications were that they too, for the most part, did not take the Soviets too seriously.

But then they were going on little more than a report prepared by Toronto Maple Leaf coach John McLellan and scout Bob Davidson, who, with no previous experience in international hockey, spent a mere four days in the Soviet Union, and saw two games in that time. On the basis of this experience, they reported that Soviet goalie Tretiak was woefully weak (in the one game they saw him play, he allowed eight goals). They did not realize his poor play was the result of an off night produced by nervousness over his upcoming wedding the following day. And most of their other evaluations proved to be equally far from the mark. The organizers of Team Canada, with typical NHL arrogance, didn’t consider it worth their while to consult with Canadians who had experience with the Russians and international hockey, such as former national team coaches David Bauer or Jackie MacLeod.

The Soviets, on the other hand, displayed a markedly different approach. They hoped, they modestly said, to be able to learn from the Canadian professionals. They did not expect to win, but they were confident that they would be able to put up a good fight. To what extent this was designed to lull the Canadians into a false confidence, and to enable the Soviets to save face if they did lose a series they really expected to win, is not clear.

It is certain, however, that they approached the series like the professionals they are, while the Canadian professional hockey establishment approached it in the most amateurish way. The Russian scouts spent two weeks in Canada watching Team Canada practice, and took copious notes on all aspects of the team’s play while they were there. The questions they asked sometimes flabbergasted the Canadians: the Soviets were concerned with things that Canadian coaches had never even considered, such as recovery rates, pass completion ratios, and distance skated. But, then, all this attention was flattering for the Canadians.

The play in the series proved a number of things. It proved that the Soviets were better, a great deal better, than anyone had expected. In teamwork, in play-making, and on the power play, they were clearly superior to Team Canada. The illusions of a decade (“if only we could play our pros”) were shattered by the 7-3 humiliation in the Montreal Forum, and nothing Paul Henderson and Phil Esposito would do afterwards could quite make it up.

At the same time, Team Canada’s victory should not be attributed to luck. The Canadian pros showed a tremendous ability to rise to the task that faced them and to come from behind to establish themselves as the better team. For better they were, and by a larger margin than the final outcome might indicate. Playing in September, when their physical and mental conditioning was far below the level of the Soviets, who train year-round, made a major difference to the Canadians. Much of the lack of teamwork, too, should be attributed to the fact that Team Canada was hastily thrown together from players who had never played together before, rather than to “individualism.” The refereeing, of course, went “From Badder to Worst”; it was almost as biased as it was incompetent. And finally, the presence of Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr would have made considerable difference.

But this does not diminish the tremendous strides that the Soviets have made. And more importantly, there is every reason to believe that Canadian hockey is deteriorating, or at best static, while Russian (and European) hockey is steadily improving. If Team Canada’s victory is taken as grounds to maintain the smug self-satisfaction of the past, then the victory will have been pyhrric indeed.

The reasons for this, of course, are not hard to find. In Canada, coaching techniques and approaches to the game have not significantly altered in decades. In Europe, on the other hand, the stress has necessarily been on improving what was at one time a dismally low level of play. The result has been that the Europeans are willing to learn from anyone, while Canadian coaches have seen no need to improve on their game or to learn anything. Consequently, the European (and especially the Soviet) game is in a constant process of development, always looking for more ways to improve, never satisfied with the level achieved.

The approach is decidedly scientific. Russian coaches have to pass extensive tests to become qualified. Players are given training in theory, and in physical education fundamentals, as well as in actual play. An elaborate structure that now boasts ten million registered hockey players in the Soviet Union has been built up, and on all levels, the stress is on constant improvement. And the improvement has been phenomenal. The series with Team Canada should give added impetus to the process.

In Canada, on the other hand, the commercialization of hockey, its position as an entertainment product, rather than a mass participation sport, have changed the nature of “Canada’s national game.”

The emphasis in Canada, even for the youngest players, is on playing games, not on learning skills and fundamentals. (And not just on playing games, but on winning them at any cost, including dirty play and no ice time for half the players). Says Lloyd Percival, one of the few Canadian physical educationists to dissent, “the idea of development through coaching, testing and evaluation and problem solving, is, with few exceptions, given no attention.”

The entire structure of hockey is a pyramid leading up to the NHL, and hockey on all levels is controlled by, and geared to the needs of, the NHL franchises. And those priorities have to do with the making of profits, not the development of community-oriented sports programs.

The difference can be traced to what Bruce Kidd has pointed out is the difference between commercial sport and professional sport. A professional athlete (and both the Russians and the Canadians are that) plays his game for a living. But, in a commercial sport, the goal is to make profits for those who pay the athletes, and the result is the introduction of many factors extraneous to sport. And things which are irrelevant to the making of profits, or which create competition for the NHL monopolists, such as senior hockey leagues, or the development of a Canadian national team, are ruthlessly axed.

Team Canada proved that it could rise to the challenge of changing conditions. Off the ice, the late-night drinking and partying ceased as the players took the Soviet team more seriously. On the ice, teamwork and two-way play replaced the sometimes more spectacular, but also, against the Russians, spectacularly inefficient individual virtuoso performances. In the process, Canadians learned that in team hockey, the Ellises and Parises were more valuable than the high-scoring Vic Hadfields and Richard Martins. Some, like Hadfield, responded with childish petulance, others learned the lesson. Said Harry Sindan: “If I’d gone for complete hockey players (in selecting the team) a lot of the guys from the first three all-star teams would have been missing.” Canadian coaches, and Canadian fans, were finding that the Russians could teach them, as well.

But while Team Canada learned some lessons (as well as teaching some to the Russians), it was not as clear if the Canadian hockey establishment was listening. Many, it seems, have let the euphoria of the hard-won victory wipe out the memory of the scare that the Russians inflicted on them.

The series represented a meeting of cultures as well as a clash of hockey teams. On one level, this was apparent in the Swedish games. The Swedes specialized in subtle spearing and melodramatic hysterics when the Canadians retaliated. When the Canadians, used to taking the law into their own hands, retaliated, they were denounced as “criminals” and "gangsters" by the Swedish press.

More important was the contrast between Canadian and Russian society that the series illustrated. Predictably, the traditional Cold War hostility was still in evidence, especially among the Canadians. “Nyet, nyet, Soviet” they chanted in Moscow. “The Russians,” said Alan Eagleson, “have only one philosophy, only one system. That is the muscle system. I’d rather be a bum in Toronto than a major general in Russia.” This, after Russian police took him into custody for jumping from his seat and knocking two of their number to the ground. Said Eagleson, “I was in their dressing room after the last game and some of them broke down and cried. I’m really sorry for them for being stuck in Russia.”

But Eagleson, for all his persistent and insulting remarks about the Soviets, did not set the tone of the series.

Other indications pointed in other directions, and they predominated. There was the advertising prominently displayed on the boards of the Moscow rink. Or the scrupulous rule-consciousness of the Russians, a reflection, perhaps, of the same mentality that enabled Stalin to sell out communist-led resistance movements in Europe for the sake of keeping his side in a deal he had made with Churchill to split the continent. And who can forget the Russians in their conservative business suits, ogling go-go dancers in Toronto? Perhaps the real losers in the series were those who still had illusions about the Soviet Union.

The Kulturkampf, then, proved not to be as far-reaching as had been thought. And increased contacts in sports, the bread-and-circuses that play an important role in stabilizing the status quo, should serve to narrow the gap even more.

October 6, 1972. First published in The Varsity.

For more information about the series, see the articles in the Canadian Encyclopedia and Wikipedia.

Keywords: HockeySportsSports and Politics