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.”