Before the start of the 1972 Summit Series, John Robertson of The Montreal Star took a position outrageously at odds with the consensus in the Canadian sports media. He predicted that Canada would lose the eight-game series to the Soviet Union. What's more, he would eat his column if proved wrong.
Robertson, who was rarely subtle, often said that he became worried when his negative mail dipped below 80 per cent of the total. In this case, there was no need to worry. The column incensed tournament organizer Alan Eagleson, who called him "every unprintable name imaginable," the players and his readers.
"I don't know if Robbie was just being perverse or playing a hunch," said Jim Hunt, who covered the series for CKEY radio in Toronto. "But he always wanted to be different."
Robertson says a scene at the Forum in Montreal inspired the column.
"Before the series started, I remember sitting in the stands with a bunch of the Canadian players," he recalled. "I loved these guys, but they were sitting there ridiculing the Russians' equipment and laughing at them. Nobody wanted to give them a chance.
"The column was half serious and half frivolous. But I'd been to Russia and done stories on their hockey program. And I really felt they were a better team than anybody thought."
From the other end of the spectrum, Dick Beddoes, the flamboyant columnist for The Globe and Mail, wrote a piece stating that Canada would win big. Furthermore, Beddoes, who was famous for his wide-brimmed hats and outlandish suits, announced that he would eat his hat at City Hall in Toronto if Canada lost Game 1 in Montreal.
Beddoes' opinion reflected that of almost everyone in Canada. It would be a romp for the country's best players, the National Hockey League stars who were suiting up for the first time against the Soviet Union. But that optimism quickly disappeared.
The series regressed to a vicious, existential battle in which Canada, game by game, saw its reputation as the world's leading hockey power, slipping away. Today, the sportswriters and commentators who covered the series reflect nostalgically, although some express regret over their partisanship. Still, they were Canadians covering a Canadian hockey team in the most important sports event in the country's history. It was, without question, their most memorable assignment.
It started in August in Toronto where the team trained. Ted Blackman, who covered Team Canada for The Gazette in Montreal, remembers reporters being briefed by coach Harry Sinden at "media cocktail parties" in the Sutton Place Hotel. It was a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
Toronto Maple Leaf scouts Bob Davidson and John McLellan had visited the Soviet Union, seen a game or two, and returned to report that the Soviet team was weak. And that the goalie in particular, a 20-year-old by the name of Vladislav Tretiak, was inept.
During camp, winger Yvan Cournoyer was given a couple of days off to attend his hockey school in Quebec. The players' idea of conditioning, Blackman recalls, was to "cut a hole in a garbage bag, put it on, roll up the windows of the Cadillac, turn off the air-conditioning and drive around."
Canadian star Bobby Hull wasn't considered important enough to be invited to training camp. The National Hockey League controlled Canada's participation in the series and Hull had jumped to the new World Hockey Association. By the time the series started, the players, media and public were convinced it was going to be easy.
One of the few exceptions was Howie Meeker of Hockey Night in Canada, who worked as studio analyst on the telecasts. He was skeptical from the start and made his name by fearlessly criticizing the weaknesses in the Canadian team and illustrating the skill of the Soviet Union players.
He had plenty of material to work with in Game 1. And at the midway point, when the Soviet Union scored its fourth consecutive goal to take a 4-2 lead, the Canadian players, public and media were forced to confront the awful truth. The Soviet team wasn't as good as Canada. It was a whole lot better.
"It was a hell of a shock at first," said Frank Orr, who covered the Canadian half of the series for The Toronto Star. "There was a sort of stunning silence. It just slowly sunk in that Canada was in deep trouble."
The next day, after Canada's 7-3 loss, Beddoes showed up at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto to make an attempt at choking down part of his fedora. Team Canada, meanwhile, was giving thanks to one small bit of luck: The game had been played on a Saturday night.
Most Canadian newspapers, in those days, didn't publish on Sundays, so the sports columnists and reporters, the people who would play the largest role in shaping public opinion, had a day to reflect on the debacle of the night before and perhaps sheathe the knives.
"We had a second chance to talk to people," Orr said. "The Canadian players weren't in good shape. They weren't a team yet. If we had been required to write on deadline on Saturday, it would have been harsher."
Not that Team Canada got a free ride. The Toronto Star put in calls to Clarence Campbell, the president of the NHL, and International Ice Hockey Federation president Bunny Ahearne, who hated Canadian hockey, and the reactions were not sympathetic.
"Campbell, I guess, had had a few pops and was second-guessing the lineup," Orr recalled. "Bunny expressed his great pleasure."
In Winnipeg, after the 4-4 tie, The Globe and Mail's hockey writer Dan Proudfoot joined the Team Canada "blacklist," as Robertson called it, when he reported the dissatisfaction of the players who were on the 35-man Canadian roster but weren't playing.
For the most part, the players were not harshly criticized by the sports media, even after Game 4, in which Canada was badly beaten and Phil Esposito, postgame, complained about the booing. After all, the players hadn't asked for the series. The scouting had been poor. Team Canada had not known what to expect.
"The NHL was arrogant," Blackman said. "But the players weren't. They were uninformed about how good the Soviet Union players were. They were blind-sided."
By the time the tournament moved to Moscow, it had stopped being just a sporting event. It was a battle framed in the context of the Cold War. It was us against them, the free world against communism, good against evil.
"It was the first time I'd seen the media united in a common cause," said Ralph Mellanby, who as the head of Hockey Night in Canada,attended the games in Moscow. "They are all against the Russians. It was amazing. The media were Canadians first and journalists second."
Trent Frayne of The Toronto Star hadn't covered the first four games. He had been in Munich for the Summer Olympics and met up with Team Canada in Moscow. After Game 5, which the Soviet Union won 3-1, he met Eagleson outside an elevator at the Intourist Hotel.
"What'd you think?" Eagleson asked.
Frayne said he had been impressed by the puck control and passing of the Soviet players.
"You must be a f---ing Communist," Eagleson said.
Eagleson's anger took Frayne by surprise.
"All I said was their passing knocked me out," Frayne added.
"We lost, you know."
"Yeah, I know we lost."
"We lost and you're telling me you liked their passing?"
"Yeah, well I certainly liked their passing."
"Anybody who thinks like you has to be a f---ing Communist," Eagleson said.
And so it went, with Eagleson becoming increasingly upset, until Frayne made his escape on the elevator.
"I was astonished," Frayne said.
Then came the comeback. Canada won the sixth and seventh games to tie the series, with Paul Henderson scoring the winner in both. It occurred to Brian Williams, who was in Moscow for CHUM Radio and would later join CBC Sports, that a more compelling story could not have been invented.
"A screenwriter would not have done it better," he said.
The narrative involved Esposito, viewed by some previously as a garbage-goal collector for his Boston Bruin teammate Bobby Orr, emerging as Canada's leader. Curly-haired Bobby Clarke, only 23 and not well known before the series, becoming a star -- and quickly forgiven for slashing Soviet star Valery Kharlamov in Game 6 and breaking his leg.
"It was crazy," Hunt said. "It is hard to believe now, but it just became ridiculous. It was a crusade. That's basically what it was. Canada had to win and people took leave of their senses."
Moreover, it was difficult not to admire the grit and courage of the Canadian players, who were also viewed as forthcoming and honest.
"I remember telling Clarke that Kharlamov was a doubtful starter for Game 7," Blackman said. "Clarke said, 'A doubtful starter? I'm surprised he can walk after the way I hit him.'
"You got honest quotes from them, I'll say that."
Developments in Game 8 mirrored highs and lows of the series. Canada fell behind early. By the end of the second period, the Soviet Union was leading 5-3.
"We were all pretty sombre," Frayne recalled. "I remember saying, 'I just hope we don't get blown out of the joint.' The feeling was the Russians were likely to win it. My hope was that it wasn't going to be something like 9-3."
Then came the Hollywood ending. A goal by Esposito made it 5-4 early in the third. Cournoyer tied the score at 12:56, but the goal light didn't go on and Hunt became anxious.
"I'm sort of ashamed to admit it," he said. "But I was up on my seat yelling, 'Turn on the light, turn on the light.' We were doing things we would never normally do."
The late Jim Coleman of Southam newspapers couldn't watch. He paced the hallway, coming into the seating area of the Luzhniki Ice Palace only when he heard the 2,700 Canadian fans cheering a goal being scored.
With the game tied, Coleman stayed to watch Henderson score the winner with only 34 seconds remaining.
In his memoir, Coleman wrote: "Before I recovered from my delirium, I was standing on my seat acting like an imbecile. There I was, a 62-year-old man, clad in my sincere blue three-piece suit, my old-school tie and my pin-collar shirt.
"There I was, turning around to face Leonid Brezhnev and the other Soviet Politburo members in their back-row seats, and jamming my clenched right fist and arm upwards."
In the chaos that followed, Hunt and Williams found themselves barred from access to Henderson by two burly Soviet Red Army guards.
Hunt, well over six feet tall, handed his tape recorder to Williams and said, "Brian, we're going to get through."
Hunt charged into the two guards and busted through like a fullback.
"I'm convinced we got away with it because the Russians were amazed anybody would be that stupid," Hunt said.
"I thought I was going to spend the next few years of my life in Siberia," Williams said.
Beddoes, meanwhile, was getting an interview with Henderson, who was quoted in The Globe the next day as saying, "When I scored that final goal, I finally realized what democracy was all about."
Beddoes might have taken some literary licence. What Henderson really said, Beddoes would joke later, was: "I shot it again and it went right along the ice. And I saw it go in. Holy Jeez!"
Whatever the case, the most important victory in Canadian sports history had been achieved. Back home, Robertson wasn't complaining.
"I was as happy as anybody when Henderson scored," he said. "But I was pleased that I half-proved a point. It was no cakewalk."
A few days later, he attended a service club luncheon in Montreal. On his plate was a salad consisting of lettuce, Russian dressing and shredded pieces of his column.
"As I ate it, I said to myself, 'John, someday you'll learn to keep your mouth shut.' "
Summit Series Millions of Canadians are reminiscing this month about the eight-game 1972 hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union. The Globe and Mail marks the 30th anniversary of the Summit Series with a five-part series this week. Yesterday -- The Russians remember (Mark MacKinnon) Today -- The media coverage (William Houston) Tomorrow -- The speech (Grant Kerr) Thursday -- The two Bobbys (David Shoalts) Friday -- The deal (Allan Maki)