Two hundred years ago this month, Napoleon and his Grand Armée launched an invasion of Moscow, resulting in an ignominious retreat.
Forty years ago this month, a ragtag collection of Canadian hockey fans invaded the same Russian capital armed with nothing more than cheap blue jeans and American greenbacks. Unlike the French forces, they returned home triumphant. Hungover, perhaps, but victorious.
The Summit Series pitted the Soviet Union’s sham amateurs against Canada’s best professionals in an eight-game exhibition of hockey. It became a battlefront in the Cold War.
For a lucky few, it was a chance to slip behind the Iron Curtain for a glimpse of a land both forbidden and foreboding.
Some 3,500 Canadians made the long trek. Among them was a 26-year-old nurse from Kelowna. When she could not get time off, she quit her job.
“I wasn’t so much a rabid hockey fan,” Jeanette Vander Kooy, who now lives in Victoria, said recently. “It’s just that it sounded like it would be a real adventure.”
She booked a 12-day tour, which included the flight, meals, hotel room, bus transfers, seats at the circus and the opera, and, of course, those four important tickets to the hockey arena.
Some hockey tourists arrived to disappointing news. The promised first-class hotel rooms turned out to contain only a bed, a chair and a sink, with the bathroom down the hall to be shared by the entire floor. Many got tickets to only two of the four Moscow matches. Among those stuck without tickets was hockey great Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
The Canadians who made it to Moscow, most of them ordinary fans such as Ms. Vander Kooy, also included such notables as liquor magnate Edward Bronfman, department store mogul John Craig Eaton, hockey coach Punch Imlach, Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, recently retired Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Béliveau, and retired wresting star Whipper Billy Watson.
Ron Butlin, president of the Western Hockey League, remembers most of all the oppressive nature of the regime, which was on display at the airport.
“We were looking for normal customs people,” he said. “All we could see were soldiers with rifles. It was a dictatorship in those days.”
Mr. Butlin, who is now best known for organizing the annual Victoria Day and Santa Claus parades in Victoria, found the Muscovites to be friendly, though the security was oppressive.
One of his strongest memories is that the fans at the arena would hush whenever Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev rose from his seat. It got so quiet that all Mr. Butlin could hear was the scratching of players’ skate blades on the ice.
Ms. Vander Kooy arrived in Moscow knowing no one, but found the locals and the visiting Canadians alike to be welcoming. She roomed with Claire Lovett, a two-time Canadian singles badminton champion who was also a prominent tennis player in the postwar years. (A few years after the series, she was inducted into both the B.C. and Saskatchewan sports halls of fame.)
The Soviets tried to impress the tourist, but Ms. Vander Kooy found herself subsisting on black bread and butter, so unappealing did she find the shrivelled fruits and boiled meats served as meals.
The Russian fans at the arena were reserved in their cheering. The outnumbered Canadians in attendance shocked them with their exuberance.
“We were outgoing,” she said. “Rowdier. My hands at the end were swollen and red and I could barely speak because I was so hoarse.”
Officials barred the Canadians’ horns from the stands at the Luzhniki Ice Palace, so the Canadians instead took up the unforgettable chant: “Da, da, Canada! Nyet, nyet, Soviet!”
One of the newspapers described the Canadians in a headline as “colourful barbarians.”
Of course, the series famously concluded 34 seconds after Paul Henderson banged home a rebound to score the series-winning goal in Game 8.
Those lucky few who saw it in person and the millions of others who watched live on television have never forgotten the moment.
One who missed the goal was Ms. Vander Kooy.
Her seat was low in the stands near the Canadian net. The red goal light did not immediately flash (as it had not following Canada’s earlier tying goal, leading to a melee in the stands and on the ice). She only realized Canada had scored when goalie Ken Dryden raced down the ice to join in the celebration.
She may have missed the goal of the century, but she was there and has the ticket stubs to prove it. She was one of the few, the lucky few.
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