The Summit Series isn’t over.
I realized this on July 4, when I rode an oak-panelled elevator to the 36th floor of the Venetian Las Vegas hotel. There, inside the $5,000-a-night penthouse suite, was a scene of such opulence I thought I’d mixed up the room number. Glasses clinked. A grand piano roared. Then came the sign I was in the right place: “Zavas!” – a Russian toast echoing off the marble.
The man I’d come to see was sitting in the corner, glowering across Las Vegas Boulevard. His hair was white, but his hook nose and frosty eyes remained unmistakable from the stern face that, for a period of 27 days, came to personify all that Canadians found terrifying about the Soviet Union.
He was getting quietly trashed on chardonnay as he awaited Independence Day fireworks to erupt from The Strip below, oblivious to the floor-trembling party taking place around him.
“They are late,” Alexander Yakushev said in Russian, before continuing his staring contest with the Vegas skyline.
During the 1972 Canada-USSR hockey series, he led the Soviets in scoring. The team had the flash of Valery Kharlamov and the reflexes of goalie Vladislav Tretiak, but most Canadians agreed the towering Yakushev was their toughest opponent. He scored seven goals, trailing only Phil Esposito. Yet, the man was a stone. He didn’t celebrate. Not even a smirk. Coldly, impassively, he assassinated Canada’s hockey myths. When I finally worked up the courage to approach him, he turned and flashed a big, goofy grin and shook my hand.
For the previous three months, I had been researching the series for a lengthy oral history that ran in The Globe and Mail two weeks ago. I was not alive in 1972. I had to experience the magic of those games vicariously, through faded newspaper accounts and interviews with Canadians. They all described a joyless opponent in threadbare jerseys and ancient skates. The Soviets reeked of petroleum and stole toilet paper from Canadian hotel rooms to smuggle back to the USSR.
Forty years later, here was something altogether different. “We have been told the Canadian journalists considered us robots,” Mr. Yakushev said, sweeping his chardonnay hand across the room. “Does this look robotic? This is joy. We are joyful people.”
The fireworks never came. Mr. Yakushev and his friends – 21 members of the Hockey Legends Hockey Club and their wives – seemed disappointed in how little this bastion of capitalism was spending to celebrate the country’s birthday. But they didn’t let it spoil the party. They tottered and howled and pantomimed for the English speakers. A Kazakh goalie hammered perfect Jerry Lee Lewis on the grand piano. A glass burst on the carpet and everyone laughed. The trip organizer berated a translator for dressing too provocatively. There was singing – low, ominous and Russian – and many, many toasts, so that everyone in the room felt sufficiently honoured to be great Russians gearing up to play a great Canadian game in a great country like the United States.
The Canadian interviews had come easy. Most people in this country associated with the Summit Series in any way were eager to talk. The 40th anniversary was coming and some might not live to see the 50th. Others felt liberated by the format I was working in, because oral history prevents a writer from imposing a thesis on their quotes. Many tried to drum up interest in the team out of necessity. Despite the glory of 1972, many members of Team Canada have had financial and emotional difficulties since. Although the team has been canonized over and over, financial support for anniversary celebrations has always been spotty. The first Canadian player I interviewed for the project told me his former teammates would refuse to speak with me unless I offered cash. It turned out to be a bluff.
The Russians were more elusive, an attitude I chalked up to the dour demeanour from the old game tapes. I asked the Canadian manager of the Soviet legends club, a team of retired national team players aged 38 to 72, how to reach some of the old-timers by phone. The numbers he provided failed to yield a single callback, so I tapped him again.
“What you should really do is come to Las Vegas,” Scotty Macpherson said. “We’re there for a tour and you’ll be able to pull them aside between games.”
“They still skate?” I asked.
“Not only do they skate,” he said, “they are paid to practise at least once a week and go on an international tour every couple of months.”
“Paid by whom?”
“We can talk about that in Vegas.”
Mr. Macpherson sent some literature about the tour, but something still seemed strange The travelling team featured former greats such as Alexander Mogilny, Alexei Kasatonov, Victor Shalimov and Alexander Golikov, as well as three veterans of 1972: Mr. Yakushev, Yuri Liapkin and Yuri Shatalov. They were scheduled to travel to California and Nevada to play hodgepodge teams of former professionals. I watched them play in Las Vegas, then Santa Monica, Calif. They embarrassed teams that included such NHL greats as Rob Blake, Evgeni Nabokov and Ron Duguay. Oddly, few people bought tickets. The only spectators were the Russian wives, who yelled shy-boo (literally, Russian for “puck”) and blew horns to encourage their boys.
The answer to many of my lingering questions about the team’s financing revealed itself among its defence corps. For the most part, the players’ passes were crisp, their shots accurate – except when they came off the blade of No. 65. I ran my finger down the glossy roster produced for the tour: Ruslan Gutnov.
Far from a household name here or in Russia, Mr. Gutnov runs a massive development company in Moscow and is worth upward of $1-billion. For several years, he has pumped millions of dollars annually into this team, sending it on trips to Israel, New York, Sweden, France and beyond. The California tour alone was expected to cost more than $500,000. The players, essentially, are employees; they are paid a salary to practise and play. the communist amateurs have gone pro in their old age. One proviso: Mr. Gutnov gets to play, too.
It wasn’t always this way. A decade ago, Canadian journalists Gary Mason and Mark MacKinnon, both of whom now work for The Globe and Mail, tracked down several Summit Series alumni for separate newspaper stories. They found that the greats had been treated shabbily by the country they had represented. Some lived in freezing apartments and survived on little more than bread and water. Those revelations embarrassed the Russians. Soon after, pensions for former players were increased and financial support from oligarchs began to flow.
Organizers with the team offered two main reasons for the viability of the Hockey Legends, which has the appearance of a giant vanity project – a rich man paying for the camaraderie of his hockey heroes. One, Mr. Gutnov loves hockey. He feels good about putting money in the pockets of the country’s hockey greats. Two, President Vladimir Putin has taken up the game and encouraged business leaders to pump money into building arenas and honouring retired players. If one is to remain in the government’s good books, – a prudent idea in Russia, where business tycoons who fall from political favour occasionally land in prison – then pouring money into an old-timers’ team is a sound investment. The President has blessed the team and practises regularly with its members, bestowing the Hockey Legends with great appeal among foreign companies that want to do business in Russia’s tightly controlled market. Invite Yakushev and company to town, and they just might put in a good word with the brass. Just as the original Summit Series was conceived of as a tool of political diplomacy, the legends team is a tool of business diplomacy.
They took the ice earlier this month when Mr. Gutnov and Gazprom executive Alex Medvedev financed a slate of lavish celebrations in Russia. They paid for 14 members of Team Canada to come and brought along the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for good measure.
In Canada, meanwhile, organizers of 40th-anniversary celebrations have struggled to stir up any financial or political interest. Neither corporate Canada nor the federal government was willing to back the anniversary event as originally planned, with all living members of the Soviet team flying to Canada. “In the end, there was more interest on the Russian end than the Canadian end,” said Mr. Macpherson, the Soviet legends manager who recently moved on to a role with the Sochi Olympics. “In the end, we didn't think it was right that the Russian side had to pay for both sides of an event.”
As this project unfolded, a A trend became clear: While Team Canada scrounged for travel money, the Russians sipped champagne in the penthouse suite.While corporate Canada snubbed the country’s hockey greats, Russian companies underwrote millions of dollars in hockey programs.
“Hockey is key to a healthy nation,” Mr. Yakushev explained. “We feel that the country cares for us.”
“Don’t go making it too popular,” I said. “Or else Canada won’t be able to compete.”
“Too late. Look at our juniors, look at the world championships. They have beaten the Canadians regularly. And, of course, the next Olympics is in Russia.”
Team Canada may have won in 1972, but the true victor of the most intense rivalry in hockey history has yet to be decided. And perhaps it never will. Russia continues to draw on memories of the series to develop the game and the country. For them, to dishonour the past is to concede defeat. And in that regard, I learned, they may have us beat.