I was standing on the ice in St. Petersburg. The game had just ended. Veterans of Russia’s 1987 Canada Cup team, including Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov, and more recent stars such as Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny and Alexei Yashin, had beaten a Canadian team with former National Hockey League greats Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Brett Hull, by a score of 7-5.
All 14 players from the 1972 Team Canada who made this month’s trip and the Soviet players from 1972 had filed on to the ice. It was time for pictures.
I was excited, and waiting for what I would feel next.
Then I saw Alexander Gusev. I don’t know him. I don’t speak Russian; he doesn’t speak English. I know him only as a tall, reliable, puck-moving defenceman for the great Soviet teams of the 1970s. He saw me as I saw him and broke suddenly into a light-up-the-arena smile.
There was a lot of living in his face – in hockey, out of hockey, good and who knows what. A few years ago, I was told later, he suffered a slight stroke. We walked toward each other, put our arms around each other’s shoulders and smiled deep, proud smiles into the camera.
I don’t like to go back. I loved my time at university and have never attended a reunion. Only a few times, and only when I felt I had no choice, have I watched footage of games in which I’ve played, have I read anything I’ve written. Those games, those articles and books are over. They’re done. I won’t like what I see if I see them again – I know that – and there’s nothing I can do to change them now.
I’ve never watched any of the movies or documentaries about Team Canada, or read any of the books. Now, 40 years after the series ended, my feelings are clear. While I was at Cornell, we won a national collegiate championship. In Montreal, we won six Stanley Cups. In most of those, I played a more important role than I did in the Summit Series of 1972, but, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t persuade my feelings otherwise.
The Summit Series is my favourite hockey memory. And I have too much of a stake in that memory to risk it on someone else’s version of the series, on seeing things again many years later with different eyes, and wondering if I got it right the first time. I’m not interested in wondering. I feel what I feel.
But this time I had to go. Many other players were going. I knew these ceremonies meant something to Russian fans, for whom the series is almost as special as it is for Canadians.
I had been to the old Soviet Union many times from 1969 to 1989, but I had never been to Russia. And mostly I went because 40 years is a long time, and you can never count on 50.
I didn’t know it, but what was ahead was a good old-time road trip.
On road trips, things always go wrong. A bag doesn’t arrive; someone oversleeps – 29 people wait for one. Three things on the agenda for the day; some want to do only two. No problem in Toronto or St. Louis – you meet up later at the arena. Big problem in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl: no local organizer to stay with you; nobody to explain who you are, why you don’t have the right credential, and, if you say who you say you are, why aren’t you with everyone else?
And the traffic. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russians discovered money, they all bought cars, it seems. On this trip, we spent more time on a bus going from airport to hotel to arena to hotel to airport than junior teams spend going from city to city in an entire season.
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.
Everything, it seemed, was building up to the game that night, and 10,000 people had jammed into the arena, to mourn and celebrate their team. Thousands of cigarette lighters provided tiny flames of remem- brance. A lone trumpeter played, as did a carillonist.
High at one end of the arena, against a blackened background were figures covered head to toe in black bodysuits, wearing luminescent white gloves. They moved their hands, their images projected onto the giant video board over the middle of the ice. Birds fluttering – doves – coming together, forming words, fluttering again; dancing and rising. Near the end, the birds formed the word “LOCA” in giant letters. The ceremony was simple, beautiful, and overwhelming.
It was time for the anthems. The Canadian and Russian flags were high and behind us. We turned to face them – and the crowd. Through the protective glass behind the bench, I could see this guy and girl standing together. They were about 20. Their eyes were wet with tears. Through the anthems, their expression never changed. The guy held his red-and-white banner high above his head, stretched out between his hands so you could read the name of his team – “Locomotiv.” The girl’s banner read, “Loca Girls.” They were proud, sad and resolute.
I knew what we needed to do. After the game, we went back on the ice and, as we turned to greet the cheering crowd, all 14 members of Team Canada 1972 raised Locamotiv banners high above our heads.
I saw Vladislav Tretiak, the great goalie. We had had our pictures taken together many times before, but this one was for me; for us. I handed him a banner. Together, we smiled for the camera – proud, sad and resolute.
The Yaroslavl part of the story seemed over, but it wasn’t. As we left the arena to take the bus back to the hotel – after a banquet for the two teams and more than two hours after the game had ended – on the street, in this city of 600,000 people who love hockey and their team, in the darkness of almost midnight, cars drove by in a procession, their headlights on, their flags and banners waving out of their windows and roofs, one after another after another.
“We are Loca.”
You never know what you’ll find when you go back. Maybe something you’re looking for; maybe something you’re not. If you’re lucky, maybe something new.