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The Team Behind The “Must” Win

My original report to TIME magazine

September 26

Game 7 (filing from Moscow)

The Cold War on ice comes down to the final 60 minutes of play after tonight’s game. On the strength of their lucky 4-3 victory Tuesday night, the Canadians not only tie this series at three wins, one tie, two losses. If the eighth and final game against the Soviet skaters Thursday ends in a draw, the months of preparation, the three weeks of play, the angst of this brutal game will have produced a literal stalemate. [Or so we thought].

Few Canadian hockey fans would have entertained that prospect back in August when the free-spirited stars of the National Hockey League started unlimbering at a three-week Toronto training camp. Even assistant Canadian Coach John Ferguson, the former policeman of the Montreal Canadiens, now admits graciously: “There are a lot of things we’ve learned from them.”

Like preparation. In contrast to the seclusion of the Soviet training camp, the Canadian stars checked into the posh Sutton Place Hotel in downtown Toronto. Since Coach Harry Sinden was not able to play all his aces during the close series, many benched stars took out their frustrations in late-night revelry and, in some cases quitting the team.

Until the Canadians started to get on track here in Moscow, superior Soviet conditioning led to amazing exhibitions of skating. Even last night at the Sports Palace the Russian skating edge remained. With less than four minutes left in the first period Central Army’s fleet Vladimir Petrov shot up the right side. The 25-year-old Petrov was already behind the Canadian defence when he took a pass from 26-year-old Vladimir Vikulov. Petrov skated in alone on goaler Tony Esposito, and beat him cleanly to put the Soviets ahead 2-1.

Canada 4 – Russia 3

Earlier gangling Phil Esposito showed the form that made him the highest goal scorer in NHL history. Esposito’s back was turned to goaler Vladislav Tretiak when he took the pass from Ron Ellis just in front of the goal. He turned to his right and flipped a low shot into the net just as a Soviet penalty had expired. About five minutes later, however, the outstanding forward Alexander Yakushev, who normally plays for Spartak sports club in Moscow, broke over the Canadian blue line and rifled a slap shot through Esposito’s pads to tie the game.

Then came the Petrov goal, followed one minute and seven seconds later by Phil Esposito’s second goal of the night. That score came from Phil’s favorite spot, the ‘slot’ just in front of the Soviet goal. After the game, Coach Harry Sinden allowed that this is the one weak spots in the Soviet defence. Another area of Soviet weaknesses is when play is forming in their end. With just over two minutes done in third period New York’s Rod and Gilbert dug out a wayward Soviet pass behind their goal, skated in front of Tretiak and flipped a quick backhand shot behind the goaltender.

The Soviets replied at 5:15 of the period when Yakushev got his second goal of the night, a neat tip in during a power-play (bruising Canadian defenceman Gary Bergman was in the penalty box). With only 3:34 to play in the game, and the score tied 3-3, international brotherhood on the ice came to an abrupt halt. Starry Boris Mikhailov made the mistake of kicking Bergman with his skate, one of the most egregious of fouls to an NHL player. Bergman dropped his stick and gloves and tried to have at Mikhailov. Bergman jostled the referee and finally managed to land a blow on Mikhailov’s head. Both players drew five-minute penalties for roughing. As Bergman skated to the penalty box, he pointed at Mikhailov, then ran a finger across his neck as if to say, “I’ll take your head off.”

Less than two minutes later, with both sides playing shorthanded, one of the lesser stars of the Canadian side, Toronto’s Paul Henderson, skated in alone on two Soviet defencemen. He tried to go between the pair, but only the puck went through. The speedy Henderson wheeled left around the two players, picked up the bouncing puck on the other side and, while starting to fall to the ice, lifted a high shot over Tretiak’s right shop shoulder for the game-winning goal. After the game Toronto owner Harold Ballard, with typical flair, offered to give Henderson a $25,000 raise and his regular NHL salary for the goal. [In subsequent years, Hendersom described it as perhaps the best goal he had ever scored—except for the winner in the game eight].

The same monetary reward should probably go to Phil’s kid brother, Tony Esposito. Throughout the game Tuesday, as the Soviets dominated play and outshot the Canukskys 39-29, it was ‘Tony O’ who came up with the big saves. With only 33 seconds to go in the game, Esposito got his left shoulder on a hard blast by Maltsev from right in front. Then, with only 10 seconds left, Esposito made a crucial stick save on what seemed like a sure goal.

Tony & Phil Esposito

After the game, the Canadians were jubilant. “The officiating,” said Sinden, “was better tonight.” Sinden also let it be known that the same referees — a Swede and a Czech — will work the last game Thursday night instead of the two West Germans who were so roundly knocked by the Canadians earlier in the week (“Bader & Worst” as they were dubbed).

In return for this concession to the Canadians on officiating, the Soviets had only a seemingly inoffensive demand: that Sinden order Gary Bergman to cease and desist from skating by baronial Soviet coach Vsevolod Bobrov during games and making menacing gestures and lewd comments.

The Canadians are playing the same brand of off-ice politics. When Mikhailov continually flashed the “crazy in the head” gesture at Ferguson, Sinden dashed off a quick note during the game to the Soviet side. “I said I could not be responsible for Ferguson’s actions if Mikhailov did that again, ” Sinden reported. “They said it wouldn’t happen again.”

With two straight wins this week, Sinden claimed that the Canadians now have the mental edge for the game Thursday. “I don’t think they can do anything that will surprise us anymore,” said Sinden. Yet Thursday’s six game is still “a pure tossup.” Whatever the outcome, Sinden agreed, NHL hockey can never be the same again. “You’ve seen some bad Stanley Cup (playoff) Games,” he noted. “But you haven’t seen a bad game in this series.”

That fact seems to make some sort of rematch inevitable. Already various Canadian and Soviet officials are discussing options. The NHL owners are banking – and bankrolling – a professional hockey league in Europe, consisting of Sweden, Finland, West Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Britain. On the surface, since the group of six does not include such hockey powers as Russia and Czechoslovakia, the European league looks something less than secure. Obviously the idea would be to stage a “World Cup” of hockey between the North American and European leagues, at the expense of the rival World Hockey Association.

Of more immediate concern to the NHL owners apparently, is the possibility of icing an entire NHL team, say the Boston Bruins, against the Soviet selects. The adroit and abrasive Alan Eagleson, head of the NHL players Association, adamantly rejects the “club team” concept. He asks: “How could we bring the Boston Bruins here and call them ‘Canada’?”

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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