Fifty years on, the Summit Series is being remembered for its iconic place in hockey history and, perhaps more so, Canadian mythology.
Paul Henderson’s game-winning goal in the eighth game of the series became a seminal event for millions of Canadians, young and old. Mr. Henderson’s teammates could be named by most Canadians who watched the war on ice unfold over a September fortnight in 1972.
The same could never be said about those who suited up for the Russian side.
Twenty years ago, I set out to see how those players were doing. We knew how the Canadian players had since fared; quite comfortably in most cases, thanks to years playing in the National Hockey League (while professional players were not making a ton of money back then, several retired and enjoyed successful careers in other professions).
I was intrigued about those who suited up for the Red Army; what had their lives been like since the final horn sounded at Moscow’s Luzhniki Palace of Sports?
The answer shocked me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have.
“We are the forgotten ones,” Yevgeny Mishakov, a rugged forward on the Red Army team told me in his rundown Moscow apartment one fall day in 2002. “We are forgotten by our own people and our own government.”
The last point was certainly true. After their playing days were over, the Russian players in the Series were useless to the state, of no value. Mr. Mishakov could barely walk, so dreadful was the condition of his knees. Five years later he would be dead of ill health.
I would find Mr. Mishakov’s teammate, Yevgeny Paladiev, in similar circumstances. His apartment building was on the outskirts of Moscow, guarded by a pack of wild dogs. His couch was also his bed. Only 54 years old at the time, he looked and walked like someone much older. He, too, needed surgery on his knees but held out little hope it would ever happen in his lifetime.
His one hand was horribly disfigured, an operation gone wrong. Doctors had inserted a steel rod into the back of his hand in an attempt to fix a fracture he’d sustained during the Summit Series. He would never be the same player again.
Eight years later he, too, would be dead.
In 2002, Russia was still reeling from the collapse of its economy four years earlier. The life savings of several players I talked to disappeared overnight.
Unlike their Canadian counterparts, who would be feted forever for their roles in the legendary hockey series, the Russian players were effectively disposed of soon after. There were a few who did okay; a couple got jobs in coaching. Others found ways to make money that were, perhaps, less than honest.
Most of the Russian players had no skills to fall back on, unless drinking copious amounts of vodka qualifies. In most cases, their fridges were full of alcohol. It’s how they dealt with the pain of their lives, and the physical pain associated with their injuries and deteriorating physiological state.
Roughly half of the members of the Red Army team decided to start collecting their meagre military pensions in their fifties because there were so few job options for them. That meant living on the equivalent of $80 a month, Canadian.
Losing the series on Mr. Henderson’s goal ultimately had little to do with the sorry existences most of the Russian players had after the series was over. If they’d won, it wouldn’t have mattered to the Soviet government, or its people. Hockey was just not as big of a deal over there as it was here.
After a month visiting with most of the players on the Soviet team, I was struck by the absence of bitterness. Given how little they had to live on, certainly compared to their Canadian counterparts, I would have expected the presence of anger and resentment. It wasn’t there.
“There are many people worse off than me,” said Alexander Gusev, one of the more destitute members of the team. “I can make do with what I have.” He died two years ago, at age 73.
That is the story of Russian people generally. Many, tens of millions, likely, have little to their name and a future that is tenuous at best. And yet they just get on with things, figuring that complaining isn’t going to do them much good anyway.
The men of the 1972 Soviet hockey team deserved much better than what they got, which for most of them, wasn’t much at all.
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