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In Game 2, Team Canada Gets Its Act Together

September 4

Game 2 — (filing from Toronto)

The Novosti correspondent wondered about the impact on Prime Minister Trudeau’s re-election bid next month. The president of the Toronto Maple leafs termed it “a national disaster.” The Toronto Globe and Mail columnist ate his column — lacing the newsprint with borscht.

The trauma had nothing to do with the expulsion of spies, a diplomatic snub nor even a disclosure that Canada was mixing catnip in wheat supplies shipped to the USSR. The outpouring of humility and anger represented Canada’s stunned response to the 7–3 defeat Saturday night at the hands of a hockey team from the Soviet Union. No matter what happened in three games in Canada this week, and during four matches later this month in Moscow, the Soviets have delivered a stiff body check to the Canadian national psyche. For almost 20 years Canadians have excused their losses in world hockey with the alibi that the rules barred Canada’s best players: the 300 professionals who fill national hockey league stadiums and 16 North American cities.

Canada 4-Russia 1

When Canada’s fill Esposito scored after only 30–seconds of play in game one, a national cheer rang out from St. John’s to Victoria. But it turned out to be as premature as the prediction (by the Globe columnist Dick Beddoes, and others) that Canada would win all eight games. The well-conditioned Soviets skated circles around the finest collection of hockey players ever assembled for one team. They beat the Canadians at their own game with strong individual play and goaltending, which were supposed to be Soviet weaknesses.

Humiliated by the loss, the proud NHL pros got their game together Monday night in Toronto. They forechecked the Soviets so fiercely that the vaunted Russian passing game turned into a horror show. Boston Bruin tough guy Wayne Cashman, inserted into the lineup after sitting out game one, threw elbows and shoulders around, and discouraged the fleet-skating Soviets from moving with their heads down. Tony Esposito turned in some truly superior goaltending, his brother Phil scored once and set up the back breaking third goal in the 4-1 victory.

For the first 30 minutes the game was scoreless. Then just seconds before a Soviet penalty expired in the second period, New York’s Brad Park made a neat effort to keep the puck in the Russian zone. He passed it to Cashman, who centered the puck. And Esposito jammed it home from within five feet.

With only six seconds left in the second period, the Canadians got a big break. Defenceman Gennady Tsygankov was penalized for tripping and, when Russian scoring ace Valeri Kharlamov — the star of game one — bumped into the American referee while protesting the call, Kharlamov was sent off for 10 minutes on a misconduct penalty. With less than two minutes gone in the third period, Montreal’s speedy Yvon Cournoyer made one of his patented breaks in on goaler Vladislav Tretiak and flicked a wrist shot into the net on a pass from New York’s Brad Park. That power play goal proved to be the winner. The Russians got their one goal five minutes later, but then the brothers Mahavolich each added a goal.

Despite the score, the Russians proved again in game two that they can be a match for the best that Canada has to offer. So exciting where the end-to-end rushes, and the saves by Esposito and Tretiak, that many NHL fans were grumbling legitimately that the Soviets were better entertainment than most expansion teams in the NHL.

Even if the Russians fail to win another game, it’s clear they have etched an impressive moral victory on the great international scoreboard. They have rejected the North American approach to hockey, with its emphasis on stars, box office and its domination by American capitalism (13 of the 16 clubs are owned in the U.S.). Instead of a system that is geared to developing a few players for the pros, the Soviets have based their success on a total concept of the athlete.

The strong Russian showing so far, in the long run, is the best thing that could happen to Canadian hockey. It may force a fundamental overhaul of the system, with the state moving more strongly into the building of rinks (as winter works projects) and the development of a solid amateur structure with top level coaching. It does not exist now.

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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