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CRISIS ALMOST KILLED ’72 HOCKEY SUMMIT « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

CRISIS ALMOST KILLED ’72 HOCKEY SUMMIT

EDITION: Final
SECTION: Editorial/Opinion
PAGE: 17
COLUMN: Parliament Hill

MEMO:Several off-ice crises before the exciting ’72 hockey summit with the Soviets threatened that landmark series when the USSR finally played Canada’s best. Sun columnist Doug Fisher was there, 30 years ago, as a key participant. He remembers it well …
SOURCE: BY DOUGLAS FISHER
DATELINE: OTTAWA

As the team gathered in Toronto, Charlie Hay, head of Hockey Canada, the government-backed sponsor of the series, fell ill. As chairman of HC’s steering committee, I took on some of his duties, and so had a part in three of the series’ off-ice dilemmas:

1) Announcing that Bobby Hull would not play for Team Canada;
2) Avoiding a diplomatic crisis in Stockholm over Swedish protests that Alan Eagleson had insulted the Canadian ambassador to their country;
3) In an early morning screw-up after the victory, Russian officials told me as I was leaving for the airport that the plane taking Team Canada to Prague would not leave Moscow until bills were paid for the victors’ post-game party. When I said I had no cash handy I was asked where my American Express card was – bingo! – and shortly the team left the ground on a flight made memorable by a Canadian barrage of chicken legs and green apples (their lunches) at a corner of the cabin seating the series’ referees.

I think the three cases indicate how “catch as catch can” the series was.

The first crisis reached national levels within hours of word that Hull, chosen for the roster by coach Harry Sinden, would neither practice nor play. His ineligibility was obvious. He’d taken a big bonus to jump the National Hockey League’s Chicago Black Hawks to join the Winnipeg team in the new World Hockey Association. His choice delighted Manitobans and WHA owners, but infuriated NHL owners and Hockey Canada.

Why did coach Sinden choose Hull – and Eagleson concur – when the agreements for our team in the series specified NHL players, even the split of profits to NHL pension funds? I still don’t know.

News of Hull’s choice brought me outraged calls from Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL, and Bill Wirtz, president of the Black Hawks. Both said that if Hull suited up, the American NHL owners would withdraw their players. Their stance was no surprise, given the rugged road we travelled to get those owners to accept the series and release their stars to play in it.

Within hours of a statement I made that Hull could not play for Canada, the nation’s outrage began to build. Why would we play the Russians without one of our best? Hull was eager. Wasn’t the point of the series to play the best Canadians?

Over several days, the furor grew. After a stormy talk in Toronto with a totally negative Campbell and Wirtz, a phone call summoned me to Ottawa. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wanted a briefing about our refusal to add Hull to the roster.

Next morning, the corridor to the PM’s office was jammed with vocal reporters (sounding like Hull fans). The session inside was strained – we were not mutual admirers. The PM gestured to stacks of messages. Most demanded he insist Hull play. If Hull could not, some wanted him to block the Soviets from coming.

The PM thought we should go ahead and play Hull. Surely the NHLers, noting national outrage and government support for Hull, would back off. I insisted they would not. We had no series if Hull dressed. The Americans were not Canadian patriots. Their war with the WHA for “stealing” players was mean, and getting meaner.

The PM needled me about my cautious Canadianism, but I think the lawyer in him made him agree neither of us had authority to breach Hockey Canada’s deal with the NHL management and players. So I went forth, to tell irate reporters that playing Hull meant no team of substance, so no Hull.

Much of the angry public reaction largely saw me as a serf quavering before American power, and throughout the series many in the media mob around it went out of their way to scorn me for giving in. (Two years later, Hull played well in the copycat series the WHA stars had with the USSR, a series also set up by Hockey Canada.)

The crisis in Stockholm arose at an exhibition game over a verbal clash between Eagleson and Blanche Margaret Meagher, our ambassador to Sweden who was present in the VIP box with the Swedish foreign minister.

The play was very chippy with many Canadian penalties, climaxing with a cut Swedish face from what seemed a deliberate slash. Why, said the ambassador, to the head of the NHL players, do Canadians play “so dirty?” Couldn’t Eagleson do something about it?

Shortly after this happened, Eagleson dropped to a seat beside me and told me of her question and his reply that if she was really a Canadian “she’d be with us.”

“She’s so damned typical of government people who behave as though they are ashamed to be Canadians,” he said.

Of course, Eagleson’s vocabulary had been more vivid than that, as I shortly found out when drawn into a hallway by an embassy secretary, sided by a Swedish official.

They were so serious. Would I have Eagleson apologize to Meagher before she and her guests left the arena? She was not the one wanting the apology. The foreign minister was outraged at what he had heard. Even an apology fell far short for such intemperate, slurring language.

I was unable to arrange such an apology, and I fear mine as a substitute was ill-taken by the Swedes. The blessing, I told myself then, and as I look back now, is that the angry clash did not become the core incident in the very harsh, critical measure of
Team Canada taken by the Swedish media nor did it become a circus centre of the Canadian media coverage of this Scandinavian interlude.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2002, SunMedia Corp.

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