Forty years on, the 1972 Summit Series remains an irresistible part of our collective consciousness.
Most of the stories we read about the series or come across on television focus on the Canadian team and its members. Years after the fact, we can digest detailed accounts of games and still learn things we didn’t know before. Many of the Canadian players remain our hockey heroes – athletes whose careers will forever be linked to an event that has a deep and abiding cultural significance in our country.
Almost all of the players still enjoy a celebrity status as a result of their connection to the hockey showdown. Most have settled into a comfortable retirement as well.
The story in Russia is not so sweet and sunny.
Ten years ago this month, I visited Moscow to try to track down as many members of the ’72 Soviet team as I could. During my time there, I found most of them. What I discovered couldn’t have been more different than the post-series experience of the Canadian players.
Life for many of the Soviet team members had taken a dispiriting turn. “We are the forgotten ones,” Evgeny Mishakov told me at his rundown Moscow apartment one afternoon. “We are forgotten by our own people and by our own government.”
Mr. Mishakov had been a big, rugged forward on the Soviet Red Machine. His participation in the series was notable for the fight he had with Canada’s Rod Gilbert – the only fisticuffs in the eight games. Thirty years on, he had ballooned to nearly twice his playing weight.
Bad knees made walking to the refrigerator an ordeal – he hadn’t the money to afford the operation needed to fix them. Consequently, he mostly spent his days in a blue housecoat, sitting in a chair, watching TV in a room adorned with medals from the past, existing on a meagre pension and the fading memories of better times.
Mr. Mishakov died in 2007, at 66.
Sadly, his circumstances were not unusual. The transition from communism to capitalism was costly for many on the Soviet team. When the Russian economy collapsed in August of 1998, more than a few saw their life savings disappear in a single day. And when the pension system was overhauled, the monthly stipends of many of the Red Army players were drastically reduced.
Most of the Soviet players had a difficult time shifting to a post-hockey life. Few had practical job skills to fall back on. The big stars on the team were offered high-profile coaching jobs that paid well. But most ended up taking what they could get, many teaching at children’s hockey schools for a pittance.
Their service to their country appeared to have meant nothing.
That’s certainly how Yevgeny Paladiev felt when I found him in a Moscow tenement where a pack of wild dogs served as a yelping, menacing, welcoming party to anyone who drove up.
Like Mr. Mishakov, Mr. Paladiev spent his days mostly indoors, drinking and watching a 10-inch black-and-white TV with rabbit ears. His fridge was full of vodka. He insisted I drink some with him, straight up in wine glasses filled to the rim. Once movie-star handsome, Mr. Paladiev’s skin was now red and blotchy. His knees wrecked, he could only hobble about with the aid of a cane.
“This is just the way it is,” Mr. Paladiev told me. “The guys who weren’t the stars were totally forgotten.”
He died in 2010, at 61.
Yuri Blinov was another of those Soviet players who wasn’t a star and who, like many of the other role players, was living on next to nothing. He benignly accepted his fate. “The fact is, we [members of the Soviet team] are more famous in Canada than we are here. That’s just the way it is.”
To be sure, some of the Russian players, such as Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov and Vladislav Tretiak, were doing just fine, living comfortable, middle-class existences. (And they continue to.) But for most of the team, life after the series was not so good. And for a few, there was lingering bitterness.
“We opened the world’s eyes to the wonder of Soviet hockey,” Mr. Mishakov had told me. “We paved the way for Russians to play in the NHL … but it means nothing now.”
He took a long drag on his cigarette.
“The Canadians won in 1972 and the Canadians are still winning today. That’s the story of the series.”