And the more things go wrong, the funnier they seem. Summit Series teammate Dennis Hull was stung by a bee. His arm swelled up to impressive size. He had to have an intravenous drip. Someone suggested that he might want to look for another bee to sting his other arm.
We were supposed to be in Yaroslavl by 11, but at 2 in the morning, we were still on the bus from the airport, and everyone was either snoozing, grumpy or punchy.
Then, with some prompting, 1972 veteran J.P. Parise began talking about growing up in Smooth Rock Falls, in Northern Ontario.
“We didn’t have running water or electricity until I was 16,” he said. Those still awake were stunned.
“And when I went to Toronto for the first time, to go to a junior camp, when I got off the train at Union Station and looked around, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen people I didn’t know before.”
Big laughs; others giggled themselves awake.
J.P. recalled how he didn’t play major junior hockey until he was 19, then kicked around the minor leagues for a few years. Finally, he got his first real chance when the NHL expanded.
He took part in the Oakland Seals training camp, and was their second leading scorer going into the last preseason game.
They were ahead by a goal in the third period, when he made a bad cross-ice pass in his zone that was intercepted, and the other team scored. Back on the bench, his coach screamed at him and wouldn’t stop, finally disparagingly and alliteratively bringing up J.P.’s French-Canadian ancestry.
J.P. went back at him. The next morning, the coach sent a messenger to his room to tell him he had been “traded” to Rochester of the American League. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said, laughing. “All the work I’d put in. My career was over.”
We laughed even harder. In the middle of the Russian night, it all seemed hysterical.
Earlier in the day, he had told me the rest of that story. In Rochester, he went into a funk. His coach, Joe Crozier, sat him down.
“ ‘Do what I tell you and you’ll be in the NHL by Christmas,’ he said. He put me on a line with Bronco Horvath,” who had had several good scoring years with Boston and was near the end of his career.
“The first game, Bronco sent me in on four breakaways. I missed every one. And we lost. After the game, he said to me, ‘Hey, you’re going to end the careers of both us.’ Every day after that he worked with me for half an hour before practice. By December, I was in the NHL.”
He smiled, “Twelve years later, I was still there.” The kid from Smooth Rock Falls who couldn’t hold his tongue, whose son Zach is now one of the NHL’s leading players. “And I played for Team Canada.”
After 40 years, those of us from the Summit Series either don’t remember stories of that time, or we’ve heard them all.
Old stories aren’t interesting, and just “being with the guys again” isn’t enough. But new ones, especially about someone who matters to you, are.
I’ve always believed that a team is most a team when on the ice during a tough game, in the dressing room and on the road.
The first two experiences I can never have again. The third, not expecting to, I did.
In the midst of all those awful bus rides and plane delays, I felt the team again.
I was standing with my teammates behind the players’ bench in Yaroslavl watching the pregame ceremony. It was a year to the day after the plane carrying Locomotiv, the city’s team in the Kontinental Hockey League, had crashed, killing all on board. Earlier in the day, there had been a ceremony in front of the arena and a service at a local church.