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Despite the hand-me-down look, the Soviets sizzled at their first workout at the Forum

August 31 A First Look — (Filing from Montreal) Those Russians certainly can skate. For more than an hour this morning at the Forum, the Russians roared up and down the ice. Without bothering to warm up, as our pros do, the Soviets moved right into end-to-end rashes: sometimes two on one, sometimes four on three, even six on two. Basically that’s all they did the entire practice, except for a few minutes of stops and starts.

The first Russian practice in Canada: Me at the Forum

The skating wizardry is all the more amazing given the Russian hockey equipment. The skates are a rag-tag assortment, many decaying CCM models from Canada. A Lang skate rep. attending the workout said he spotted a pair of Canadian skates that would sell for about $20 here ($135 today).

The Russians don’t seem to use tape, either. They wrap their skate laces around their ankles, just like thousands of Canadian kids used to do. Around their shin pads most of the Russians wear garters – again a throwback to the Hot Stove League.

Underneath their red and white uniforms, however, the Soviet nationals wear the best available: Cooper equipment from Toronto, the most commonly used stuff in the National Hockey League. The sticks are mostly from Finland (KOHO), but a few players carried Canadian models. One of their goalies sported what looked like a modified baseball catching mask.

If the pace of the workout this morning is indicative of the game tempo, Harry Sinden has reason to worry “about the pace they’re likely to play.” Sinden reiterated that “we’re going to try and play the game the way we always do.” But fully anticipating the continued high tempo, he added: “I’m glad we have four lines.” [Most NHL teams then played a game with only three sets of forwards].

There is some feeling developing around the Forum that the Russians may be underrated. “If I were a sports writer,” says Sinden, “I’d pick the Russians. Like them, you have nothing to lose.” Working against the Soviet team, however, is the fact that it is in the process of rebuilding — ever since Tarasov was sacked as coach. Several of the 27 member squad, like Ragulin, have been around for years. [In fact, the Russians arrived with a fast-skating “kid line” and, in aggregate, were younger than the Canadians].

Despite the heavy odds against the Russians in this series, there is little doubt in many quarters that it won’t be long before the Soviets are a match for the NHL. “No matter what happens in this series,” predicts Toronto star columnist Milt Dunnell, “I have no doubt that in 10 to 15 years we’ll be going over there trying to regain the Stanley Cup. They have the population to recruit players. They don’t have the diversions we do, like swimming pools and automobiles.”

As the big game approaches, the Canadians are edgy. “They wish the game was tonight, not Saturday,” says coach Sinden. For his part, Al Eagleson went further out on a limb when asked if one Soviet win is a moral victory. “Sure it is,” he replied. “We don’t want to lose anywhere.” Adds defenceman Brad Park: “You could say that if the Russians win one game it will be a moral victory for them.”

On another front, officials were busy hassling with protocol matters. The Soviets, for example, insisted on the musical version of their national anthem — not the version with lyrics that praises Stalin, they decided. Since the piece runs to three minutes and 10 seconds, the producers were desperately trying to find a way to fade the anthem out and leave time for at least two commercial messages, the Canadian anthem and opening ceremonies.

Trudeau will drop the ceremonial first puck in Montreal. But because of the impasse between Tory Eagleson and the PMs office, there will be no official puck dropping in the other three Canadian games. Eagleson had proposed that Trudeau would drop the puck for the first game. Ontario premier Davis would perform the honours in Toronto. And NDP premier Schreyer would do the honours in Winnipeg while the premier of BC wanted to play the role in Vancouver. No way, the PMs office replied. The PM, they said, wanted to officiate alone in Toronto. When Eagleson proposed that Trudeau and Davis do the job together, negotiations broke down.

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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