It was 1958, the height of the Cold War, and there was more at stake than just a game when the Soviet Union faced off against Canada in the World Hockey Championships in Oslo.
Two different playing styles and two ideologies were at war. Wren Blair, general manager of the Whitby Dunlops, the Senior A team representing Canada – which had seen the Soviets capture Olympic gold for the first time in 1956 and the following year boycotted the world championships over the invasion of Hungary – knew he had to exploit both to get a win.
Not happy with how the Dunlops were playing, and with the eyes of Canada on them, he resorted to his favourite tactic: infuriating his players toward a win. He started with Bob Attersley, who was not just his star centre but also, back home, the president of the Young Conservatives of Ontario.
“You know, Bob,” he said, “the way you’re playing today, I’m beginning to doubt your political beliefs.”
It worked. Attersley saw red and threw himself at the Reds, scoring two goals and one assist. The Dunlops beat the Soviets 4-2 and brought the World Hockey Championship home to Canada.
Blair, who died on Jan. 2, in Oshawa, Ont., at the age of 87, often wondered if that championship was the pinnacle of a life that encompassed every aspect of hockey, from the backyard rinks of Oshawa, to the arenas where he managed NHL teams. Or had it reached its height when he helped discover Bobby Orr? Or when he was the first coach of the Minnesota North Stars?
“He was just a great hockey man,” says Sandy Air, who played right wing on the Dunlops team that won two Allan Cups and the World Championship. Blair was the product of an earlier era, when a canny and determined fellow could walk into the Ontario headquarters of a British rubber company and talk it into sponsoring an ice-hockey team.
It was not, however, an era of gentle encouragement at the side of the rink. “He was the most demanding coach I ever played for,” says Air. “He would curse you, and urge you to play at least 100 per cent every shift, every game. We didn’t like it when it was happening, but we loved it after we won.”
Or, as his old friend and business partner Jim Gregory remembers, “He was a bastard. He was very fiery, very emotional, unbelievably hard-working.”
Gregory, former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and now senior vice-president of hockey operations at the National Hockey League, was Blair’s partner in a boys’ hockey camp and a resort in Haliburton, Ont. For Blair (known in hockey circles as “The Bird”), one thing mattered, Gregory says: “In an attempt to win a situation for his organization, he’d do everything he could to try to come out on top.”
Take the time that the Dunlops were playing the Soviet Union at an exhibition game in Toronto, a few months before their epic showdown in Oslo. Furious that they had given up two goals in the first few minutes, Blair screamed at his team – including such stars as future Boston Bruins coach and manager Harry Sinden – that they should go to the box office and pay the $10 admission fee, the same as the other spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Dunlops won, 7-2.
In March, the Dunlops were on their way to the World Championships – via ocean liner, because Blair had yet to overcome his fear of flying. Thousands of fans and the King of Norway showed up to watch the game at an arena built by the figure skater and actress Sonja Henie. Canadians were riveted during the championship tournament, and every day brought new telegrams from the prime minister, provincial premiers, business leaders, each carrying the implicit message: You’re playing for a way of life here, boys. You’d better win, or don’t bother coming home.
Sinden was captain of the Dunlops and remembers just how much of a burden was placed on their young shoulders: “Everybody in Canada was hoping we’d win back the prestige we’d lost with the Olympics – 1958 was the year we got our pride back.”
And if the man at the side of the rink was yelling himself red in the face, it was all for good cause: “Wren didn’t have a terrific technical knowledge of the game,” he adds, “but he was a great motivator. He would never let us give up. He was at us constantly from behind the bench.”