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The visiting Russians watched Team Canada’s every move, but were mute on the Russian squad

Each day they sat in seats at Maple Leaf Gardens, flanking their interpreter, filling their notebooks with numbers, names and even diagrams of routine skating drills. When John Munro, minister of sport, sent word during one session that he wanted to meet with them, the reply was: “Wait ’till practice is over. We don’t want to miss anything.” Such industry, of course, has made the Soviet Union the world hockey power it is today.

As Arkady Chernyshev, the tall, suave veteran coach and Boris Kulagin, the stocky, stoic assistant coach of the Soviet selects, would tell you, such eagerness to learn as much as they can about NHL hockey is routine. Even when the players weren’t skating on ice, Arkady and Boris — dubbed the “Brothers Impassivov” because of the dearth of useful information they imparted — were asking questions: “Who is Eagleson?” Lewis: “He is number one. This is his show.” Kulagin (smiling and making another entry in his notes book): “Who is Bob Haggert?” (Eagleson’s assistant and administer for Team Canada.”

Boris Kulagin

When the Brothers Impassivov visited with Lloyd Percival, they claimed to be impressed with Sinden’s conditioning methods, but they couldn’t understand why the pros were allowed to smoke and drink beer. “I’m sure,” Sinden laughed, “they think our morning exercise program is a joke.”

They probably did, but Boris and Arkady weren’t saying. In typical Soviet style every invitation produced some bargaining. When they were invited to watch a soccer game in Hamilton, they countered with a request to watch a professional football practice. When they were invited to an Argo game, they indicated a preference for the team’s practice.

The Soviets, you see, have a concept of “athleticism”. What goes on in practice is just as important as results in the stadium. Clearly Boris and Arkady were trying to measure Canadian sport from this perspective. Perhaps the only occasion when the Russians went unrewarded was their visit to a Toronto theatre to watch Marlon Brando in The Godfather (they also saw The New Centurions). Explained Del Olah, a peanut butter maker from Toronto who served as interpreter: “They didn’t understand what was going on. They said that there’s no Mafia in the USSR. After three hours of translating, all I had was a headache.”

When Sinden hosted a cocktail party for the two Russians, Chernyshev graciously acknowledged: “We don’t want to conceal the fact that we like Canadian hockey.” But he added protectively: “The result doesn’t matter, as long as it brings about greater understanding between the two countries.”

Throughout, the Soviets have squelched speculation that a Russian team might someday soon end up in the NHL. The Soviets are intent on preserving their international status. Said Chernyshev: “We don’t see any need to enter the pro leagues because our own hockey is developing well.” [Chernyshev’s outstanding coaching record included 11 World and four Olympic championships]. Would a Canadian rout force an evaluation of the Russian program? “It would cause us to make corrections,” replied Chernyshev. Then, smiling broadly, he asked: “If the Canadian team is beaten badly, would Canada go back to amateur play?” All the fancy footwork doesn’t conceal the fact that the Russians have always gone about hockey at their own speed (just as they try to do on the ice). They stayed away from international competition until they knew they could win. The suspicion is that when they determine that they are in the NHL class, they will be more approachable.

Robert Lewis

Twelve years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, former Editor-in-Chief at Maclean's, author "Power, Prime Ministers and the Press" (2018, Dundurn; available as audiobook).


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