The bones of Canada’s rivalry with Russia in hockey date back some 42 years to a frozen moment in time. Grainy flickering images that came through mostly black-and-white television sets to a nation transfixed by unexpected and changing times in our national obsession.
It was a game immortalized in words by Foster Hewitt (“Henderson takes a wild stab at it and fell; here’s another shot, right in front, he scores!); and in song by The Tragically Hip (“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ ’72”).
The events of September of 1972 became part of the soundtrack of their lives for a generation of hockey fans, Canada defeating the Soviet Union in the final game of the Summit Series, on a larger unfamiliar international-sized ice surface in Moscow, Red Army soldiers in the stands, fans whistling their displeasure at developments in the game.
More than anything else, that familiar flashback – of Canada’s Paul Henderson slashing the puck behind goaltender Vladislav Tretiak in the final seconds of play – spawned a new interest in international hockey competition and a greater appreciation for the strides made around the world.
Up until then, Canada and Russia only ever met in “amateur” competition, Canadian students against conscripted Russian soldiers, with predictable and unflattering results for Canada. There was a parochial belief if Canadian NHLers ever got their turn against the mysterious Russian team, the tables would be turned.
And when it didn’t turn out that way, the appetite for additional best-on-best competition became voracious and set off a chain of events that circuitously will lead to the world’s best hockey players playing in February in the Black Sea resort community of Sochi.
This will be the fifth time since 1998 that the NHL has suspended play in mid-season in order to permit its best to compete in the Winter Olympics.
In the last two – 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver) – Canada played Russia in the quarter-finals, eliminated early in Italy, triumphant in style on home ice four years later.
There are no guarantees the two countries will meet this time around – Russia is in Group A with the United States, Slovakia and Slovenia for the preliminary round; Canada in Group B with Finland, Austria and Norway.
Canada is the fifth seed in the tournament based on current International Ice Hockey Federation rankings, and will play its first three matches of the tournament at 9 p.m. local time, the last game of the night, which will create its own unique challenges.
However, the expectation is that for Canada to defend its gold medal or for Russia to win at home, their paths will ultimately intersect at some point in the medal round.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is as much of a diehard hockey fan as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but no matter what your political interest or inclination, the exercise of choosing the men’s 2014 Olympic hockey team has turned two nations of supporters into armchair critics, endlessly dissecting and debating the available roster choices.
The IIHF has set a Jan. 7 deadline to unveil the rosters and Canada – under the leadership of executive director Steve Yzerman, who oversaw the successful Vancouver Games initiative – will do so in Toronto, in front of a live television audience.
Among the staff on Canada’s Olympic team is St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, who is about to coach (as an assistant) in his fourth consecutive Olympics and thus possesses the most institutional knowledge any of the Canadian coaches from the NHL’s Olympic era.
Two of Hitchcock’s appearances finished with Canada in the winner’s circle – gold-medal victories in Salt Lake City (2002) and Vancouver (2010). In the third, Turin in 2006, Canada lost in the quarter-final round to Russia, its earliest exit since the NHL decided to permit its players to participate in the Olympics.
Hitchcock is a career coach and was behind the bench when the Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup and has also coached with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers.
Globe and Mail hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek spoke with Hitchcock about the lessons learned during the last three Olympics and how they might apply to 2014.