An oral history of what really transpired in September of 1972, with material from nearly 100 interviews.
Game 1: Nothing would ever be the same
Brad Park, Canadian defenceman: It was hot in the Montreal Forum that night. Up in the 80s, maybe 90s. You knew the ice would be good for half a period. Then everything would get messy.
Rick Noonan, Canadian trainer assisting the USSR: Game time was 7:30, I think, but by 6:45 the Soviet players weren’t on the bus yet. I go up to the hotel dining room [and] the whole team was lounging up there, sipping back black coffee, Coke, eating pastries.
Phil Esposito, Canadian forward: We were confident in the dressing room. We were going to go out there and have some fun and win a hockey game.
Noonan: We got the Soviets to the Forum just in time. All the Soviets carried their own gear. There was no star treatment.
Alan Eagleson, Team Canada manager and executive director of the NHL Players’ Association: We really did it up. [Prime minister Pierre] Trudeau dropped the ceremonial first puck and all that.
Yuri Liapkin, Soviet defenceman: We had never seen so many people at a hockey game. When the teams were presented, 18,000 people cheered for five minutes straight. They were national heroes, these hockey players. We had never seen anything like it.
Igor Kuperman, Russian hockey writer, then just 14: I watched all the games from Moscow. They were tape-delayed and I would shut down all the radios the day of the game so as not to spoil the result. I was sure the Canadians would win eight in a row.
Howie Meeker, broadcaster: I knew as soon as I saw the warm-up. All you had to do was watch the Russian passing. Geez, could they pass that puck.
Brian Conacher, broadcaster: I was up in the booth with Foster Hewitt. He was nervous. He was a legend by then, of course, and he had come out of retirement for the series. But primarily he had been a radio man. Foster was never entirely comfortable with television.
Pat Stapleton, Canadian defenceman: Was there tension? None. Not a bit. Not for us. It was just another hockey game. We didn’t really respect the Russians.
Eagleson: I’d seen the Russians play. Just three years before, we had sent a national team with some retired professionals over and they beat the Russians five out of six games. I thought, “Christ, if we can beat them with a rag-tag crew like that, this team of all-stars is gonna whomp ’em.”
Conacher: The NHLers were arrogant. No one at the time thought that international hockey was anything but second-rate. I could feel a rude awakening about to happen. I was one of the very few to say the Soviets are better than we think.
Liapkin: In Russia, we had watched a film of NHL players. There was music playing in the background. They looked so fast on that film, so powerful. I couldn’t believe it when we skated with them.
Esposito: Thirty seconds in, bang, I score. “This is going to be a cakewalk, boys” – that’s what I’m thinking. Sure enough, Paul Henderson scores a few minutes after me. We’re off to the races.
Harry Sinden, head coach, Team Canada: After we scored two, I didn’t think it would be a cakewalk, but I thought we’d be okay.
Alexander Yakushev, Soviet forward: When the Canadians scored, we woke up. We finally got into the game and started playing. They weren’t so big and fast as we’d thought.
Park: They were disorganized at first, but then something clicked. They started coming at us in waves. With two or three minutes to go in the first, it was tied up. [Defenceman] Gary Bergman asked me what I thought and I said, “We are in big trouble.”
Don Awrey, Canadian defenceman: It was like nothing I’d ever seen. As they came at you on offence, they would pass the puck backward to another fella, who would be coming up with speed. If we stood them up at the blue line, they’d just walk right around us.
Ken Dryden, Canadian goalie: At the end of the first period, it was a feeling of, “Oh, brother, this is going to be a series – a hard one.”
Meeker: I got in deep trouble with the team by saying I thought this series would go right down to the wire. Right after that, some Newfie who was an assistant for Eagleson, he comes storming into the broadcast area and … you ever heard a Newfie swear? I remember one thing he yelled: “You’re as stunned as me arse if you think they’re going to beat us.”
Vic Hadfield, Canadian forward: I’d scored 50 goals the season before with the Rangers. We were all elite professional players. But they were making us look silly. We tried to be more aggressive. That didn’t work.
Eagleson: At the end of the second period, the Russians were up 4-2 and I bumped into Gary Smith from our Moscow embassy. He says, “These Russians are killing you.” We were friends before then and after then, but not at that moment. I said, “You’re a communist, just like they are. Get out of my sight.” This thing wasn’t just a hockey game any more.
Sinden: It was getting worse as the game went on. I started to second-guess myself: Did we not train right? Did we not have the right players in the lineup? You know, it wasn’t as if we were having bad luck or anything. They were just killing us.
Conacher: By the end, they make it 7-3 and everyone is shocked. That building is completely silent.
Eagleson: That dressing room was a morgue.
Conacher: At one point on the air, I say the Canadian team has yet to jell and pick a leader. They didn’t talk to one another. There was no fraternity. [Assistant coach] John Ferguson stopped me in a hallway and called me a “commie lover.”
Johnny Esaw, broadcaster: Ferguson said that, but I don’t think he really meant it. That kind of criticism was an excuse for getting beat.
Liapkin: We showed Canada a different way to play. The Canadians played for themselves. We were a team.
Noonan: In the Russian dressing room, there was no great jubilation. They were calm as could be. Some of them, like big Viktor Kuzkin, seemed more enthusiastic about having a smoke in the shower than anything else. And vodka, they liked that too.
John Zeldin, Team Canada doctor: I saw the cold and naked posture of defeat – gloom, despair and self-pity. I took my eight-year-old son into the dressing room to see his heroes. He was so frightened by the mood that he held my hand the whole time.
Sinden: After a game like that, you can’t think you’re going to make your players better skaters or stickhandlers overnight. They are what they are. But one thing you always believe as a coach is your ability to change their attitude and their emotions. When the game ended, I knew I had to do something.
Kuperman: I was more shocked than the Canadian fans. The Russian newspapers the next day said it all: “The myth of the unbeatable professional is blown away.”
Sinden: The country was upset. Personally, I wasn’t sure we’d get it straightened out, because they so easily beat us. We had to win in Toronto.
Conacher: We thought we were the best. That whole mindset changed forever that night in Montreal. Nothing was ever the same after that. Hockey changed forever.
Backstory: ‘Can’t we have a World Cup of hockey?’
Eagleson: I’ve read a dozen stories about all sorts of guys taking credit for the series. I know full well where it started: Summer, 1966, me and [national amateur coach] Father [David] Bauer, Carl Brewer, Bobby Orr, we’re at our cottage. We were listening to the World Cup of soccer on the radio. I thought, “Why can’t we have a World Cup of hockey?” It wasn’t just Russia and Canada then. I wanted to go far beyond that.
Chris Lang, secretary-treasurer, Hockey Canada: Here’s where you have to start: 1968, in Rossland, B.C. Pierre Trudeau is on the campaign trail and says, “If I’m elected, I’m going to take a look at sport, because I can’t figure out why we’re not doing well in international hockey.” So he gets elected and sets up a task force to study sport. And out of that came the creation of Hockey Canada. And the mandate of Hockey Canada was to run the national team.
Lang: The task force decided between February and July of ‘69 that Canada was fundamentally playing with a handicap. The Russians were using their top 20 players. Our top 500 players were all in the NHL, so we were essentially using players 501 through 520 – and that’s why we kept losing.
Gary Smith, Canadian embassy, Moscow: One of my jobs was I had to read the government newspaper Izvestia every day. One night, this was December, 1971, there was a very interesting column by someone calling himself the Snowman. The Soviets had won the Izvestia tournament again, and he wrote that it was now time to play the Canadian professionals. When I saw that, I knew that you didn’t just write something like that in a Soviet paper. This guy must have some official authorization.
Kuperman: The Soviets had won nine championships in a row from 1963 to 1971. They won three Olympics in a row: ‘64, ’68 and ’72. They needed better competition, and the idea that there was someone else who may play better hockey across the ocean wasn’t well received. There was some hesitation: If you lose to the NHL, what’s the worth of all those championships?
Lang: [Columnist] Doug Fisher came up with the idea: We know the Russians want to use sport as a medium to promote their way of life, so why don’t we unilaterally take them on? When the announcement finally came, we needed Eagleson because he was the head of the NHL Players’ Association and he was going to deliver the players.
Eagleson: So they announce this series and, the minute they do, [NHL president] Clarence Campbell holds a press conference in Montreal to say there will be no such series because “we will not permit our players to play.” The owners said they were worried about giving up their players, their assets, without anything in return. I got Clarence and the owners onside by guaranteeing that every player would have a signed NHL contract and by guaranteeing that part of the profit would go toward the players’ pension fund.
Sinden: It was pretty good luck on my part that Al Eagleson called when he did. I’d been out of hockey two years.
Eagleson: We hired Sinden, paid him $15,000, I think, and then Fergie [John Ferguson] as his assistant at $10,000. We met at the Skyline Hotel in Toronto to pick the roster. The first 12, everyone agreed on, then it got tricky.
Sinden: We had a lot of discussion all night about the players. We had to pick 35 guys.
Eagleson: We called six or seven guys each. I called my clients. I called Marcel Dionne first, I think. [Dale] Tallon and [Brian] Glennie were replacements at the very end when other guys didn’t show up.
Esposito: I got the call some time in July. And I said, “No. I’ve got my hockey school. I’m not going to do it.” So, a couple weeks later, I get a call from Bobby Orr, saying, “Phil, I cannot play in this series with the Russians because of my knee. We really need you to play.” And I said, “Are you really asking me?” And he said, “Yeah, we really need you.” I said, “Fine, count me in.”
Stapleton: I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, what did I do?” after accepting. I was in Chicago at the time. My partner and I had built one rink and were in process of building another. We had farming to do and hockey schools. We had a lot going on.
Sinden: I have no real regrets about the lineup. The only guys I would have added to that team had either signed in the [rival World Hockey Association], like Bobby Hull, or were hurt, like Bobby Orr.
Terry O’Malley, creative director, Vickers & Benson: Al was calling the team the NHL All Stars. We were marketers and we said no one is interested in the NHL All Stars playing Russia. It should be Canada. Myself and a couple of copywriters went away and came back with 20 or 25 names. A guy that worked for me named Terry Hill, from Detroit, on his list was Team Canada.
Eagleson: I can’t remember who exactly came up with the name. We were batting around ideas.
Sinden: “Well,” someone said, “we need something that translates into French easily.” Somebody said Team Canada, it might have been me. And it hit like that. It went into French so easily: Equipe Canada.
O’Malley: They may have picked the final name, but it came from our list.
Sinden: If you look now, when there are international competitions of any kind, they’re all called Team Egypt or Team India or Team Canada. That was never done before.
O’Malley: Not too many people know that we were responsible for the jersey. Eagleson came to us and said, “We need a sweater for our press conference: tomorrow.” I was working with a brilliant art director named John Lloyd at the time. Brilliant guy, not much interest in hockey. John went out and bought two solid-red and two solid-white jerseys. He cut a stylized red leaf out of one and a white leaf out of the other and his wife sewed them. It was spectacular.
Time to regroup: What went wrong, what can be done
Sinden: If you’re winning, you think you really have this game figured out, that you know everything. When you lose, you question whether you know anything about the game.
Esposito: We were duped, man. We didn’t know who the hell these guys were. Our scouts said it would be no contest.
Park: Someone had put out a poster before the series with all the heights and weights of the Russians and ours. They didn’t seem to weigh much. They were little midgets on paper. We didn’t realize they lied. A guy like Yakushev, they said, was 6-foot-1. Well, it turned out he was at least 6-4.
Steve Dowling, referee: The Russians, on the other hand, watched everything. We had a referee training camp two weeks before the start of the series, and the Russian coaches and officials were well encamped in Toronto watching the Canadian intersquad games, taking notes.
Smith: The Soviets were basically practising all the time by then. Our guys, none of them really worked out in the off season.
Yakushev: Wtrained year-round with our own clubs. We did not rest. In the Soviet Union, there was not much access to ice, so we trained on land. It was hard, but worth it. The ultimate goal of the team was to bring out the maximum physical strength of each player.
Awrey: Training camp? I’m not sure if I would call it a training camp by today’s standards. There was a little skating, a little off-ice stretching. We all wore this white long underwear, looked like a bunch of zombies.
Sinden: I’ve heard that – about the training camp in Toronto being too soft – but I think it was one of the most difficult I ever ran. It was a hard, hard camp. I don’t think the players liked it.
Esposito: We were all in long underwear, sitting in the hallway trying to do stretching exercises. I just started laughing. I’d never stretched in my life.
Sinden: During camp, I tried to convince the NHL players how good the Russians were going to be. I showed them a 16-millimetre tape of a game I’d played against the Russians in 1957 when I was with the Whitby Dunlops. But they all sat there laughing.
Esposito: Training camp involved lots of drinking, that’s what I remember. I partied a lot. I drank a lot. But then after that first game in Montreal, it was, “Okay, okay, we have to get ourselves together, we’ve got two days to become a team.”
Smith: At some point, the Soviets went out to see The Godfather. They were a team. They did everything together. I remember the thing they looked forward to most was the buffet in the hotel. That first morning, we go in for breakfast and there’s a massive buffet of eggs, bacon, sausage, oranges, apples – and they dove into it. It was the highlight of their trip, I think.
Liapkin: The Queen Elizabeth was very impressive, not just for the food. When we first arrived at the hotel, we couldn’t get out of the bus because prime minister Trudeau was getting out of his car with his child. We were impressed to be staying in the same hotel as the prime minister.
Noonan: The Russians trained like crazy, but they loved their Coca-Cola. They would drink it all the time: morning, at practice, after games. I’d hand out a hundred and more bottles after practice.
Meeker: The Canadians, they weren’t in top physical condition. Once they realized they were up to their ass in rattlesnakes, they started working. Esposito led the charge.
Esposito: We had no official captain, but I was forced into it, being captain. I was outspoken. I’d just won a Stanley Cup [with the Boston Bruins]. I was playoff MVP, scoring leader. I was First All-Star. We’d just played the Rangers for the Cup and we really didn’t like each other. We had to put all that bad blood aside.
Sinden: Park and Esposito, they did hate each other. The attitude between players was different then. But that changed after Montreal. They switched to a war mentality. They understood the politics at play, the Cold War backdrop. Imagine a team playing the Germans in the middle of World War II – that’s what it was like.
Dryden: Awakening that Sunday morning, it was literally one of those moments so awful you are saying to yourself, “Maybe it didn’t happen. And there is nothing to confirm to me that it happened until I leave this room.” So I stayed in that room as long as I could.
Sinden: Fergie and I went to my room to figure out what to do. We could see they didn’t use their point men much in the offensive end and their wingers were beating our D-men in the corners. After that game, we decided to have our one centre man cover the two ineffective point men and bring our two wingers down low to help the D-men. That’s a very drastic change.
Eagleson: Monday comes and we start to practise. We’re all in a state of shock. Sinden names the roster for the next game and after the practice, someone says Hadfield is upset because he won’t be playing. And that’s where this ripple of discontent begins.
Esposito: At the beginning of the series, all 35 players were promised they would play at least one game. I told Harry that was crazy. “You can’t play everyone, or else we’ll never become a real team.” He said a promise was a promise.
Conacher: Before Toronto, this was just an exhibition series. By the time it reached Toronto, there was a national awareness. People started to realize this could really be something.
Noonan: I remember going into the hotel with the Russians and people got really quiet. They were in shock. People couldn’t understand. How could this happen? The Russians just accepted it. Another day at the office.
Toronto, Game 2: ‘This is war’
Park: Toronto was a far more nervous game. In the dressing room, we were much more subdued.
Yakushev: We got too excited after the victory. We let it all out, so we were tired. It was difficult to start the second game. The Canadians, they came prepared. They played much harder.
Sinden: Toronto was the biggest game of the series for us. I knew that going in. If we lost, I don’t know if we would ever recover.
Dowling: In the first game, it was more free-flowing, international-style hockey. In the second game, it would be a far more physical game. This would be the Russians’ baptism; they would find out how hockey is played here.
Eagleson: At the beginning of that game in [Maple Leaf] Gardens, I gave an award out to Lester B. Pearson and I got booed. I guess they blamed me for the loss in Montreal. That’s okay. I enjoyed getting booed.
Esposito: They came out hard in that first period and got eight or nine shots on my brother Tony and he stopped them all. That got us going.
Park: We had something to prove. We played a much more controlled physical game. Tony was terrific in net.
Esposito: I got the first goal and, just as I score, No. 4 hit me right across the back of the head with his stick. I had a big lump on my head. That’s when I figured, “This is war.” And it was war.
Dowling: The Canadians came out and took away the free flow that the Russians had in the first game. They slowed them down. There wasn’t a lot of violence, but the physicality took the Russians by surprise.
Sinden: That shift in positioning definitely helped win that game in Toronto. We stuck with that the rest of the series.
Zeldin: I sat right beside the players on the bench during this game. I think likely it was the most exciting 60 minutes of hockey to be seen in the Gardens for many years.
Conacher: Final score, 4-1 for Canada. So Team Canada had redeemed themselves a little. This was going to get better.
Game 3: The seeds of discontent
Hadfield: I’d just signed a five-year contract with the Rangers and they were about to start training camp. After that first game, I wasn’t playing for Team Canada. So, yeah, I started to think of going back to New York.
Sinden: Hadfield said he definitely wasn’t going to Winnipeg unless I put him in the starting lineup. I said I couldn’t do that. He ended up making the trip to Winnipeg, but he didn’t want to. He was a 50-goal scorer and suddenly he was benched. That was the start of dissension.
Hadfield: The thing with Eagleson is, I was never one of his boys. Neither was Rick Martin and a few other guys. There wasn’t much trust there. We didn’t want anything to do with him.
Esposito: There were some guys that got there because they were Eagleson’s clients, no doubt about it. I never thought that lineup was unbeatable at all. I felt that if we had Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr in that lineup, they wouldn’t have beat us one iota. I was disappointed by some selections.
Awrey: In Winnipeg, we still weren’t a team. All the guys didn’t go to the same place after practices and games. They would split into the Canadiens contingent, or the Boston contingent, or the Rangers contingent.
Noonan: We got to Winnipeg and the Soviet team all went to a movie, a John Wayne film, I think. Then they wanted to go shopping. They just loved to shop. They bought blue jeans more than anything else. But also, when they left a hotel room, everything came with them: the soaps, shampoo – there wasn’t even any toilet paper left.
Yakushev: We didn’t have any jeans in the Soviet Union. When we travelled to Europe or North America, we always bought jeans. We were young guys. We wanted girls to like us. We needed jeans.
Sinden: The game was going well in Winnipeg until the third period. We were up 4-2 or something and they still hadn’t played their fourth line. Well, they put out this fourth line in the third – it was a bunch of kids – and they were all over us. It was like that last scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And the Soviets ended up tying the game.
Meeker: Winnipeg was the only game we got really good goaltending. Esposito made some great saves. They were lucky to pull out a tie.
Conacher: It could have been much worse. But the letdown set the stage for the crude reception in Vancouver.
Zeldin: The Pacific Coliseum was quite new, a very well-laid-out and pleasant arena. I wish I could say as much for the fans.
Conacher: We thought they were booing the Soviets. But no, they were going after Team Canada. Canadians were embarrassed.
Smith: What I remember most about Vancouver was Frank Mahovlich falling on [Soviet goalie Vladislav] Tretiak and just sitting on him for between five and 10 seconds. The crowd didn’t mind losing, but [not] like this.
Yuri Shatalov, Soviet defenceman: I loved Canada. The fans were so enthusiastic – and sometimes in our favour.
Yakushev: The fans were not cheering us; they were opposing the Canadian roughness.
Hadfield: In fairness to the Vancouver people, they probably all thought the same thing we thought in the first game.
Smith: Then came the famous great speech of history. [The Globe and Mail’s] Roy MacGregor in a recent documentary equated it with the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.
Esaw: After the game, I tracked down Esposito. I knew he was the heart and soul of that team. I thought it was going to be just another rink-side interview.
Esposito: As I was skating over to Esaw, I could hear these kids yelling that communism was better. That was the last straw.
Esaw: Esposito is sweating and he’s crying. He couldn’t understand the fans. He said he didn’t care about the money – “We just don’t want people to boo. We’re Canadians. This is Canada.”
Esposito: It just came out. I’ve heard it compared to some of the great speeches, and it’s quite an honour. It was never meant to be that. It was only meant to tell people, “Hey, we’re trying our best here.”
Esaw: We were coming up to the national news at 11. I wouldn’t sign off. To hell with the national news, this was more important.
Zeldin: My initial impression of Phil Esposito was that he was sort of superficial and frivolous. But I realized there was a great deal more to him than first met the eye. Inside of a simple exterior, there was a very mature and intelligent mind.
Noonan: RCMP guys, we had a lot of them hanging around the Russians, plainclothes guys. After the game in Vancouver, the RCMP guys come up to me and say, “Ricky, we gotta go say goodbye to the boys.” So, in an unmarked car, we go tearing down Granville Street, drive right out on to the tarmac of Vancouver Airport to say goodbye to the Russians. Like I say, a lot of them were great guys, some were jerks.
After Vancouver, to Russia with dread
Zeldin: Just before our departure, we had a little briefing from the RCMP. They warned us that nothing happens casually in Russia. As the officer rather pithily put it, “If you do make out with a good-looking doll, chances are you will be presented later with a photograph of your bare ass.”
Smith: Did anyone get caught in a honey trap on this trip? I’m not saying. Let’s look at it this way: They had the system set up and we had 3,000 people, so ... you decide.
Shatalov: Sure, it sounds silly today how scared some of the Canadians were of the USSR. Some thought they would go and be sent to Siberia. But it could have happened. You could be sent to Siberia very easily then.
Smith: We originally banked on 500 Canadians coming, but it just mushroomed. Once there were packages put together, demand went through the roof and there were 3,000 people wanting to come.
Creelman MacArthur, fan: It was an amazingly low price, about $800 for the three weeks. I heard on the car radio that a local travel agency had two tickets left. So I pulled up, went inside and put a ticket on my credit card.
David Pawlik, fan: Back then, you got free drinks on the plane. This was a Russian plane, Ilyushin 62. They only sold mickeys. So, here we were ordering 12-ounce bottles of vodka.
Pierre Plouffe, Olympic water skier and fan: As long as you were Canadian, it was a big party. We practised O Canada the whole flight. We sang so much my throat was giving out.
Conacher: For some Canadians, it was a trip to the dark side of the moon.
Herb Knox, consular official: They didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. I can remember, soon after they landed, some Canadians asking where they could find Coca-Cola. There wasn’t anything of the sort around. Another Canadian arrived with shoes that were too small. He asked our help in finding some more. He eventually bought the most godawful shoes and he must have paid $200 for them. By the end of the series, you could spit through the soles.
Eagleson: We weren’t about to trust our food to them. We brought over our own beer – 500 cases. And we brought 800 to 900 steaks.
Park: At that time, you’d always have a 12-ounce New York sirloin on game day.
Plouffe: Our hotel was 10 or 15 minutes from where the players were staying. I used to play the bugle. There was a ramp to a big window overlooking the street. I stood up there in just my pants and played O Canada. People on the street laughed. Then I got my Canadian flag out on a hockey stick. The police started knocking on my door 10 minutes later.
Hadfield: I’ll always remember landing there in Moscow. They wouldn’t let us fly in until very late at night. Then they get us to the hotel and the rooms were unbelievable. Little wee tiny rooms, little wee tiny beds. So we kicked up a fuss. They changed it eventually. They were always testing you.
Dryden: On an NHL team, you always stay at the same chain hotel. You don’t want to be distracted. Here, you have all these things that were different: the food, traffic, everything.
Zeldin: The lobby abounds with people standing around. Most of them are dressed in dark suits and turtleneck sweaters and they really look like the epitome of KGB men in spy pictures.
Eagleson: The guys met their wives there in Moscow, but were none too pleased when they got to their rooms. The beds were nailed into the wall and a lot of the beds formed an L shape. So, they couldn’t sleep together. Mine at least had twin beds. The room was 20 by 20 at most. But it was their best hotel.
Awrey: My roommate was Pete Mahovlich. The guy is six-and-a-half feet tall, and the two beds had this strange end-to-end configuration. So I had Mahovlich’s feet in my face all night.
Hadfield: The next morning, we go down and someone has stolen all our food. We had to eat Russian food. It was just awful.
Smith: I had to look into the case of the stolen steaks. I think it was likely some guy involved with the hotel, rather than someone thinking the Canadians wouldn’t be able to play without their steaks.
David Pawlik: My family is of Ukrainian descent. In 1972, my father wrote to relatives in Ukraine, saying I was going over for a hockey tournament. They thought I was going over to play, and didn’t know which hotel I was staying at, so decided to go to the arena. There was no one by my name on the team, so they figured maybe the name was shortened from Pawlik to Park.
Park: Through the interpreter I just kind of nodded my head – my family is from Scotland!
Sinden: The average NHL star, you know, they’re pampered quite a bit. Not over there. But I knew we were ready, at least the ones who didn’t leave.
Hadfield: NHL training camp was starting up, I had just signed a five-year contract with the Rangers and we were told those of us who weren’t playing could either go home or stay – but if you stayed, you couldn’t practise.
Marcel Dionne, Canadian forward: There was a lack of communication. With Harry Sinden, he rarely took guys aside to talk things over with them.
Hadfield: Eagleson told me he’d hold a press conference and announce the players who were leaving and why.
Eagleson: I said to Harry, “Christ, I don’t know what’s happening, but we can’t afford a mutiny now.”
Hadfield: There were supposed to be 15 of us coming home, but the following day I found out there were just three. We were calm because we thought Eagleson was handling everything. Then we get home and we don’t see anything in the papers except stories about us being deserters. Eagleson never did the press conference.
Eagleson: What was I going to say to the press? It’s too bad, because I do like Vic; he’s a good man, but he quit.
Park: We told him he’d be crucified. But Vic thought he’d been insulted and he was a proud guy. I can understand his point of view.
Moscow, Game 5: Officiating ‘stunk’
Kuperman: We tried to get tickets. My dad was trying. It was impossible. For the fourth game, they were 100 rubles. The monthly salary at the time was 120 rubles.
Smith: A lot of people have commented that the Soviet crowd was very sullen, very quiet. That’s because they weren’t real hockey fans, they were Communist Party officials.
Cole: I went up to Luzhniki a day or so before the first game. I wanted to see the booth. It was completely glassed-in. I said, “No, sir. I have to hear the ice, the whistles and everything.” The lady who ran the arena said she couldn’t remove the glass. When she was gone, I noticed it would come out easy. [Globe and Mail columnist] Dick Beddoes asked if I needed help. So, I inched the glass out toward Dick. Within 30 seconds, there were four army guys on him. We got ourselves in some real trouble. But they eventually agreed to take the glass out.
Mike Harris, future Ontario premier: In that first game, when we went to sit down on the benches, there was an army guy at either end. They expected to fit 10 people on a bench made for eight. Eventually we just shoved those army guys off. They had to sit in the aisle.
Esposito: Once again, there was a big ceremony to start the game. I skated up and fell on my ass when they introduced me. I got up and bowed and blew a kiss to [Communist Party leader Leonid] Brezhnev, and the people there, they were shocked. I had the personality, you see, which they never saw.
Liapkin: He made the whole thing into a joke. Everyone in Moscow was amazed by that.
Esaw: This was not just a hockey game, this was a world-class international confrontation. That was in evidence in the stands: Both Leonid Brezhnev and [head of state] Nikolai Podgorny attended. You might expect one or the other, but to have both sent the signal that the Soviets considered this an event of great national importance.
Park: It started well in that fifth game. For the first time in the series, we’d dominate for five or six minutes. Our conditioning was kicking in. We were up 3-nothing going into the third.
Henderson: Late in the second, I came screaming down the right side, fell, and slammed my head into the end boards. The doc took a look at me and said, “You have a concussion. I don’t think you should play.”
Zeldin: This was a serious head injury. He had blacked out.
Henderson: I asked him if it could kill me to play. He said no, so I said I was playing.
Sinden: We weren’t taking a chance – we just didn’t think there was any danger in sending him out there. I think he scored on his next shift.
Zeldin: In retrospect, it was probably best for the country that Henderson did not take my advice.
Sinden: The fifth game could have been our best game. We were up 4-1 and they came back to win in the third.
Eagleson: Game 5 was where we were introduced to the refereeing over there. It stunk.
Rudolf Bata, Czechoslovak referee: I don’t think that the Canadian team was a dirty team. They complained about the refereeing, yes, but a couple of Canadian players told me after the game, “Rudy, everything is okay and tomorrow is another game.”
Bob Cole, play-by-play announcer, CBC Radio: They really deserved to win that game. They all knew it too. They were finally a team. All the guys from Boston, Toronto, Montreal – they had finally come together as one.
Sinden: That was a tough game to take. We did everything we’d talked about and practised. We kept puck possession. After the game, I shattered a coffee cup against the wall, we were so frustrated.
Kuperman: I thought that here after Game 5, it was over for the Canadians. They will never recover.
Eagleson: I’ll never forget, after we lost, in comes Red Berenson, who didn’t play. He says, “Guys, we can win this. Tonight, we showed we’re better than they are.” It was like somebody cut through a cloud and brought in sunshine. Everyone realized he was right.
Mind games and more mind games
Plouffe: That night, knowing most of the players were there, I made my way to the Intourist Hotel. That’s when we found out about the phone calls at night, and the stolen steaks. You could see the Russians were playing every trick in the book to make sure they’d win.
Esposito: The Russians fooled us right from day one with mind games. One practice I saw, they had old raggedy skates, ripped gloves, ancient pads. They looked like an amateur squad. Then they show up for games and they’re wearing all brand-new shit. It was all a ploy.
Noonan: Their gear was awful, awful. They had a free-standing sharpener. Not really a sharpener, more like a grinder. And they did their own skates free-hand.
Hadfield: We’d go down to practice – you were supposed to be on the ice at 10, but they wouldn’t let you on until 11. You go and practise and come into the dressing room, and there’s no hot water for a shower. So, you have to wait for hot water to come on for half an hour. Then you shower, and there’s no towels.
Park: At night, the intercom would start playing music. You would try to turn it off, but you couldn’t.
Esposito: That phone kept ringing and I’d pick it up and there’d be nobody on the other end. So, I finally got fed up and ripped the thing right out of the wall. This was in the middle of the night. A few minutes later, someone knocked on my door: They’d come to fix it. I couldn’t believe it. Try getting Bell Canada or AT&T to do that.
Reid: No question there was a campaign to interrupt the slumber of the team. I received two of the mysterious calls myself. We eventually solved it by convincing the hotel to route all calls to Canadian rooms through our diplomatic info desk. And then there was the chandelier.
Esposito: The chandelier story goes that me and [Wayne] Cashman were looking for bugs or something. We find a little lump under the rug. It was a box with a series of screws and we start unscrewing it until we hear a big crash below. We peep through the hole downstairs and see that a chandelier in the hotel ballroom had crashed to the floor.
Eagleson: There was no chandelier. It was made up!
Reid: It happened. I was present when some ostentatious hotel employees carted away this chandelier in a series of pieces.
Esposito: Somehow me and Cash got blamed for it. People say it was me. So from then on, I said it was me. It makes for a good story.
Moscow, Game 6: I would have killed
Esposito: I’ve said this publicly and I’m not too proud of it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have killed those sons of bitches to win. And it scares me.
Sinden: In Game 5, we did everything right. We just had to work on keeping the puck. Our guys liked to wind up and take the big shot all the time. We had to learn to hold on, be patient.
Ralph Mellanby, Hockey Night in Canada executive producer: I went out one night with John Ferguson, and he confided in me the new strategy. The Russians would send two or three guys in on the forecheck [so] they were telling our defencemen to fire the puck down the opposite side to put these two or three forecheckers out of position.
Sinden: I remember running a practice in Moscow to emphasize puck control. I made it so they couldn’t shoot until I blew the whistle. We couldn’t waste shots.
Mellanby: The simple changes Sinden and Fergie made altered the way Canada played hockey forever.
Reid: In the sixth game, the organizers put all 3,000 Canadian fans in one area. They got a good rhythm going with the chant, “Nyet nyet Soviet, da da Canada.” The Soviets got a little spooked by this. They called in the militia.
Harris: This one guy had a trumpet and every now and then the army guys would try to find it, try to get the trumpeter to hand it over. But everyone rallied around, passing the trumpet to one another and hiding it.
Plouffe: We all had one another’s back, all 3,000. When the police tried to get my bugle, everyone else in the stands helped out.
Conacher: Those fans were like a seventh player for Team Canada. It was a crowd the likes of which the Soviets had never seen.
Yakushev: I wasn’t surprised by the Canadians being loud. I was far more surprised at the Russians being so quiet. The higher officials knew nothing about hockey – they just sat there as if they were at the theatre.
Park: We knew we couldn’t afford to lose another one. In my first few shifts, I hit everything and threw down all I had.
Yakushev: The roles were reversed. We became too confident. We had to win one of three at home – how hard could that be?
Esaw: At one point in the sixth game, Bobby Clarke had to take out [Valeri] Kharlamov. Thank God he did, because that line was that good.
Yakushev: The slash was intentional and horrible. It was such a pity Kharlamov could not play any more. We missed him. I am certain we would have won with him in the lineup.
Conacher: To me, it was the low point of the series. It showed how desperate Canada was. It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it changed the series from a sport to something else.
Dionne: Bobby Clarke was a big part of our team, but I didn’t agree with what he did to Kharlamov. You try to break someone’s ankle, what does that prove? And he did that, he broke the guy’s ankle.
Esposito: This is something Paul Henderson and I totally disagree on. Bobby Clarke was like me and some of the other guys: Whatever it took to win, he had to do.
Sinden: Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t know anything about it until it hit the papers? I don’t recall anyone saying. “Bobby, go get him.”
Park: That was the first of a couple games where we were spending half the game in the penalty box, but we still won.
Cole: Game 6 was a great game and Henderson got the first of his game-winning goals for the Canadians.
Eagleson: On that night, [my wife] Nancy grabbed Paul and said, “You can do it, Paul, you can do it.” She’s convinced to this day that she got the goal.
Cole: I got back to the hotel and I was waiting for the elevator with Paul Henderson. I turned to him and said, “You ever think you’d get a goal like that, Paul?” He said, “No, never. That was quite something wasn’t it?”
Plouffe: I go back to the Intourist, and end up in a room with John Ferguson, Phil Esposito, Don Awrey and Pete Mahovlich. Pete says, “Get us drinks, Pierre.” I went to the bar, and this big lady who served me every night said, “We’re closed.” As I argue, I get pissed off. There were 50 bottles of Champagne on the bar. I accidentally hit a bottle. It spun, fell and broke a bunch of glasses. As I was backing up, I hit a table and broke another bunch of glasses.
Reid: The bar was smashed. The bottles in the bar were all smashed. It was a one-man wrecking crew. The militia soon descended.
Plouffe: Some big guy comes down. I was 21, 22 at the time. I was in good shape. This big guy in a black sweater was enormous. He sort of pushed me around and talked to me in Russian. As I was going up some stairs, he pushed me. For some reason, I punched him. I hurt my hand more than I hurt him – he was made of brick. Next thing I know, he blows a whistle and a bunch of cops surround me.
Reid: The young man was incarcerated.
Plouffe: They took me to a room and started to yell things. The translator gets there, tells me they want my flag and bugle. I said, “You might get my bugle, but you’ll never get my flag.” They let me out around 6 in the morning.
Reid: It was only when I persuaded the militia commander that we’d pay for the damage to the bar that we managed to quiet things down.
Plouffe: I had to pay $72 for some broken glasses owned by the government. When I was released, I’ll always remember this, Pete Mahovlich was outside waiting for me. Little did I know the worst was still coming.
Smith: The question was what would we do with all these fans on the off days. So we planned to have them see the theatre and the ballet and opera and so on. But most Canadian hockey fans don’t have much time for that.
Plouffe: When I got to my room, there were two police waiting. They told me I had to come back to the police station because I’d forgotten to sign something. When we get to the station, they tell me I’d hit a policeman. They then put me in a cell. Now I’m really scared. The next morning, my mother realized that I was gone. Now my parents are phoning the embassy, police.
Smith: When we found out he was incarcerated, his situation was quickly on the diplomatic agenda.
Plouffe: The next day they blindfolded me and took me to a court. After court, I meet a woman with the Canadian embassy. She was sitting with my mother. I asked what was wrong and she said, “You have been condemned to five years in Siberia.” My mother can’t talk, she’s crying so much. I admit then I’m scared. But then something strange happened. Game 7 was on that night. They asked if I wanted to watch. They were good guys in that jail, most of them.
The final games: victory at all costs
Esposito: I got our first two goals in Game 7. I’d figured out Tretiak. The secret: just a quick shot. I never looked at him.
Shatalov: Phil Esposito seemed huge and so strong. You couldn’t get to him. He was immovable.
Cole: It was another beautiful goal for Henderson that won the game. He split their defenceman and put one by Tretiak. He was on a roll.
Park: We brought the series to even. We were ecstatic. A few guys have called home by this time and we realize what’s going on. The entire nation is shutting down to watch the series.
Plouffe: After the game, I asked for two pieces of paper. On one, I made a deck of cards to play solitaire. On the other, I wrote out the alphabet and asked them to write the Russian equivalent. I figured, if I was going to be there five years, I better learn Russian.
Eagleson: We had an agreement that the two West German referees would not ref another game. They were so bad even the Russians didn’t want them. We agreed that the Czech, Bata, and the Swede, [Uwe] Dahlberg, would work the last two games.
Sinden: The day before, they tell us the two Germans will be refereeing the last game after all.
Eagleson: I explained that we refused to take the ice if [the Germans] were refereeing.
Smith: At a meeting with the Russians on game day, I proposed that we should each pick a referee. We picked Uwe Dahlberg from Sweden – and they told us he was sick.
Eagleson: I had breakfast with Dahlberg that morning. He was fine.
Smith: Dahlberg made his money refereeing. The Soviets had a big say over refereeing in Europe, so he developed a political illness. Finally we went with a second choice, Bata.
Bata: Just before midday, I got the information that I would be officiating with [Joseph] Kompalla. Very honestly, I wasn’t happy with this arrangement because Dahlberg and I worked well together. We were really a team.
Plouffe: A bit before the game, they came in my cell and said, “Hockey?” I thought they would show me the game on TV, like before. They told me to bring clothes. I get in a car and can see we are heading to the arena. There I sit down between two cops at the red line. I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting behind the Russian bench. The police said not to wave or applaud or jump, just watch hockey.
Smith: We had a totem pole that we brought over from Canada to bring out on the ice as a gift and they told us it wasn’t in the program. I told their guy, Gresko, “Look, you got to present your petrushka dolls in Canada; this is our gift and we’re going to bring it on the ice.” He said, if we did that, all TV coverage would be cut. So, before the faceoff, we snuck on the ice with this thing, made our presentation and nothing happened.
Dowling: You could tell the referees weren’t prepared for the amount of activity and pressure about to come their way. They looked uncomfortable.
Bata: Three or four minutes in, my counterpart Kompalla called a two-minute penalty on J.P. Parise. It was crazy.
Sinden: The referees were susceptible to embarrassment. That’s why, after Parise’s penalty, I went crazy behind the bench. The players did too.
Bata: Parise was crazy, crazy. He didn’t like the call. Kompalla called a misconduct, and Parise then skated at us with his stick up and cried, “I’ll kill you.”
Liapkin: It was incorrect behaviour. Parise was a bully. The penalty was just.
Sinden: I was across the ice from where the incident happened and I couldn’t get the refs’ attention – so I grabbed a little stool and threw it at them.
Bata: Soon, everything was on the ice: the benches, stools, everything.
Sinden: To tell you the truth, I was acting. I knew exactly what I was doing. I remember Ken Dryden skated up to me and said: “Take it easy, coach.” I calmed down instantly and said, “Kenny, you haven’t stopped a puck for seven games. Get back in your net.”
Bata: I skate to the penalty box and tell the off-ice official, who was the second chief of Russian hockey, “The game is over. We can play no more.”
Sinden: I hadn’t heard that for sure until now, that Bata was going to call the game. It could have been over. That’s scary to look back at that, it really is.
Bata: The Soviet official said, “Rudy, be so kind and finish the game. We have to play and we have to finish in regular time. Please try.” I decided to listen to him. God helped me in that moment.
Yakushev: We would not have been happy to let that happen, to have the Canadians disqualified. We don’t need that kind of win, it would have been tainted.
Sinden: The game calmed down after that. The officiating became better.
Bata: Kompalla was out for the rest of the game. He didn’t blow his whistle at all after that.
Park: We were playing okay, but after the second period we were losing 5-3. And we were all saying to one another, “Okay, let’s tie this thing up.” That would have split the series. But then Harry and Eagleson at some point tell us [that] would give them the victory because they scored more goals over the eight games.
Knox: Things were nervous up in the stands, tense. I remember talking to Patrick Reid, and he said, “If we don’t get a goal quick, we’re screwed.” Nobody wanted to imagine what would happen in there if we lost.
Cole: Sure enough, they scored right out of the gate. It was a hockey game now.
Esposito: Peter [Mahovlich] made the play that changed the game, in my mind. We needed a very quick goal and he took the puck from behind our net, all the way up the right side, shot it in and, blasting in there, knocked [defenceman Vladimir] Lutchenko off the puck, put it out in the slot for me. Tretiak went down, and then, on the second try, I put it in.
Park: We tied it up with nine minutes left.
Plouffe: When [Yvan] Cournoyer scored, I bounced up. I mean, it was the tying goal – it was a reflex. The police grabbed me and sat me down. I was the only one in that section who was standing up.
Eagleson: I see the light doesn’t come on and think they’re trying to pull another fast one. So I get out of my seat to go set this straight.
Bata: I was very near the goal and saw the puck in it. So there was no matter for me whether the light was on or off.
Reid: Alan Eagleson went charging around, trying to get to the timer’s booth. I saw this and enlisted two Soviet counterparts to rescue him, because he was being pummelled by militia.
Stapleton: I was actually the first guy over there. And then Peter came flying over the top of me, and hopped the boards to grab Al from these militia guys.
Reid: Peter simply grabbed Alan, took him over the boards and the team took him across the ice to the bench, a rescue of sorts. On the way across the ice, Alan raised his hand in an obscene gesture. At that point, I looked across the VIP area to where premier [Alexei] Kosygin was sitting with our undersecretary, Ed Ritchie. Ritchie had his head in his hands.
Eagleson: I didn’t give the finger. I had my fist out and I put my thumb out – an “Up yours, Charlie” gesture.
Kuperman: There is no such gesture in Russia. It would have meant nothing.
Jim Taylor, Vancouver sportswriter: That’s the only time things became really scary. The Canadians were all screaming, “Let’s go home, let’s go home.” The stadium doors had opened and soldiers were marching in. If one Canadian threw something at those soldiers, there would have been a riot.
Lang: That whole incident could have been avoided. Alan didn’t go out the row and down; he went right overtop and that was the cause of the scuffle. The military were just sitting there and, all of sudden, Alan Eagleson lands on them. They were legitimately wondering who the hell this guy was.
Park: We don’t sit back. We’re not playing for the tie. We put on a full-court press.
MacArthur: It was tied late in the game, so I got out of my seat and headed to the door.
Meeker: I needed to get down from the broadcast seat to do something at ice level. They had a wire fence there to climb down. I remember I saw Henderson come out. That’s right when I started to climb down this fence.
Liapkin: I lost the puck coming out from behind the net. I lost the puck and Paul Henderson got it.
MacArthur: I got to the big swinging doors and Henderson scored. It was unbelievable. Total bedlam. It was a miracle. I went back in. You were hugging total strangers. The Russians were stoic.
Meeker: When the red light went on, I was halfway up the fence – and I damn near fell off.
Kuperman: Henderson’s goal, I remember every moment. It was so strange. It came out of nothing, a broken play. Without this goal, nobody would care about this series anywhere.
Liapkin: We lost the game and that play will be remembered forever. It was not a nice feeling. I wish it didn’t happen, but that’s the game.
Shatalov: We were not so disappointed. The Canadians got lucky. They always played with so much heat, regardless of whether they were ahead or behind in the game.
Park: Exuberance overtook reality. It was like: “Can you believe that?” You had to jump over the bench. This was biggest game that had ever been played in hockey. We were living the greatest comeback that’s ever been.
Plouffe: When Henderson scored, I bounced up again. I’ve never been so proud to be Canadian. These guys with me, these cops, were pissed. They totally died when Henderson scored that goal. It was like they were going to Siberia for five years.
Dryden: I was doing my best sprint down the ice, and then, in the midst of the on-ice celebration, I realize there are still 34 seconds left.
Sinden: I was frightened right to the end. When we started the game up again, I told the guys, “We cannot afford an odd-man rush.” Sure enough, they get a clear three-on-two. [Bill] White and Stapleton broke up the rush, probably for the first time in the series.
Yakushev: We had nothing left. It was done.
Stapleton: Everyone jumped on the ice when it finished up. I went and picked up the puck.
Conacher: Foster and I were somewhat trapped in our booth, stuck behind the Brezhnev VIP bunker. We sat there and absorbed it and let the pictures tell the story.
Park: You can’t believe how happy I was, how happy we were. It seemed we were destined to be the goat of a nation. And then, slowly, you crawl your way out.
Eagleson: Henderson couldn’t believe the whole thing, from start to finish. He couldn’t believe he was picked [for the team], and he couldn’t believe<QL> he scored.
Plouffe: They’re taking me from the arena back to the jail. I think I’m on my way to Siberia. Suddenly, they are apologizing. They made a mistake, they said. They released me, so I go to the Intourist. Every Canadian in the world should have been at that party.
Knox: Thank God the Russians looked the other way that last night. The hotel was a madhouse. O Canada would break out every few minutes.
Plouffe: In the lobby, Eagleson or somebody announced that the series proved the superiority of the capitalist system.
Knox: We did the cha-cha-cha and the bunny hop in Red Square that night. Lenin must have been turning over in his tomb.
Park: Next morning, I had to catch the very last bus, the equipment bus, to get to the airport, with Wayne Cashman and Pete Mahovlich. We were all still drunk. We had an exhibition game in Prague after that, and bought these souvenir crystal goblets, a foot wide and 10 or 12 inches tall. We ended up filling them up with alcohol. The plane had to stop in London to refuel and restock the bar.
Cole: We landed in Montreal to meet the prime minister and there was a delay getting Cashman off the plane. We were wondering what was going on. Well, he’d fallen asleep and someone cut his pant legs off. They were running around trying to find him a new pairso he could greet Trudeau.
Park: That was Dennis [Hull] all the way. He would take scissors and cut the pantlets of guys who were sleeping, so when they stood up their bell bottoms were really bell bottoms. He didn’t get me. I wouldn’t go to sleep. He got four or five guys on that flight.
Eagleson: The other thing they did was [to] some of the guys who were sleeping on our staff, the two doctors in particular: They snipped the seams along the shoulders. As we were getting off, White and Stapleton took the doctor by the elbows and said, “Come on, let’s go, doc,” and pulled the sleeves right off. He was almost in tears. He wouldn’t get off the plane, said he couldn’t meet the PM looking like that.
Esposito: Trudeau was in the back of the plane, so Eagleson wouldn’t let us get off the back. I didn’t get off the plane at all, neither did my brother or Cashman. I don’t think they could have made it off: too drunk. Trudeau did come on the plane to shake my hand and I never ever will forget that.
Eagleson: That wasn’t the case at all. There’s a picture of Phil shaking hands with Trudeau outside the plane. He’s always on abo ut not getting off the plane and about me stopping Trudeau from meeting the guys. What can I say? It just didn’t happen.
Park: It was a rainy night in Toronto, but there had to be over 10,000 people at City Hall. Somebody tells me my mother is in the crowd. I climbed up over the fence and got her. When we got up on the stage, everyone sang O Canada – it’s a memory I’ll never forget.
Esposito: A lot of guys who came back from that never were the same. Hell, I was never the same after that. Never. I never reached the pinnacle that I reached in that series.
Liapkin: It was not considered such a loss in Russia. Both Russians and Canadians knew we didn’t win, but we proved to the whole world not only Canadians could play hockey. The Russians were pretty good too.
Lang: What had transpired was us against them, our system against their system, the free world against the communists. It had really escalated. It was far more than a hockey game.
Yakushev: I have heard what the Canadians think. This is laughable. For us, this was not a political battle. It was a game.
Patrick White is a national correspondent with The Globe and Mail. This is an edited and condensed version of nearly 100 interviews conducted over five months.