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’72 Series « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 
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“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, 40 years ago, as a key participant. He remembered it well…” …read more of Doug’s column re: Crisis almost killed ’72 hockey summit

“It would be Fisher, in his capacity as chair of the executive committee of Hockey Canada, the “author” of the series, who wrote the players on Team Canada after it was all over thanking them for their services and explaining how much they would be paid…” …excerpt from George Hoff’s paper

“Please understand that Canada was behind the effort to make the rules of eligibility more sensible, more in-keeping with the modern times and the fact that it was no longer possible to be anything other than a full-time hockey player if you were hoping to be playing at international standards. In other words, this was making the point that the Russians were just as much professionals as the NHLers were…” …read more transcripts of interviews with Douglas re: ’72 Canada-Russia series

Reflections: ’72 Canada-Russia series … the inside story
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

My biggest hockey year, being at or near the centre of the historic ’72 Canada-Russia series. This entailed several trips to Europe and several weeks in Russia.

Please understand that Canada was behind the effort to make the rules of eligibility more sensible, more in-keeping with the modern times and the fact that it was no longer possible to be anything other than a full-time hockey player if you were hoping to be playing at international standards. In other words, this was making the point that the Russians were just as much professionals as the NHLers were.

Political cartoon

Political cartoon

I put that all together and I got a lot of help from John Bassett in Toronto. We didn’t have a team over in Europe at the time. The IIHF gave the annual tournament to Sweden, who held most of the games in Goteberg. It was a beautiful new rink there – the first modern one I ever saw. We went over to follow things and keep in touch with the Europeans.

In the meantime, the CAHA became angry because Hockey Canada had displaced it as the primary voice on the world scene. To complicate things a bit, the IIHF weren’t going to let anybody from Hockey Canada on to their board because that was the CAHA’s role. We had this delicate task of dealing with the wounded sensibilities of the CAHA people. Fortunately, the permanent secretary of the CAHA, Gordon Juckes, was a fine, decent man. But he didn’t like Hockey Canada and definitely didn’t like me. Yet I do not think it was a personal thing. His organization had been downgraded by the government and had become exposed as a shell of its former self. That’s one of the reasons that Canada was able to get the World Junior Championships thing going at that time. It gave Hockey Canada a real calling. One of the ironies of all this was that the man who had really put together the first World Junior Championship, was never popular with the CAHA. But Hockey Canada was the motor that kept things going.

Gordon Juckes and Donald Johnson of the CAHA with Douglas.

Gordon Juckes and Donald Johnson of the CAHA with Douglas.

In its charter, Hockey Canada was given two purposes. The first was to ice a national team. The second was to lead an effort of improving the game at its grassroots – questions like where it is played and how it is equipped and so on. In other words, we became a true factor in coaching. Charlie Hay took this over and by 1971, we had five levels of coaching going on across the country. We used the CGEPs in Quebec and there were about ten thousand people working together from coast to coast within a year and  a half. They developed the instruction booklets and everything else. Hockey Canada had about twenty or thirty people organizing all of this and was given a fair amount of money from the government. Then Max  Bell went out and raised a lot more. He got $50,000 from the CPR and $40,000 from the CNR – that kind of thing. So there was a flurry of activity. At the same time, another recommendation of the task force was put forward. This led to the introduction of a scholarship program for athletes in universities. Also, there was the option of an annual stipend, which was to help keep them afloat during their training. That was particularly designed for track and field people.

I will always remember the Sport Canada meeting to discuss new federal policies. There was almost a riot because the activists for about twenty sports were there, from all of the provinces. Sport was organized provincially in Canada, through things like the Canada Games and so on. We had, I think, fifty $2,000 scholarships to give out. I was directed by John Munro (Minister of Amateur Sport) to go to the meetings that he could not. He also warned that there were sure to be fireworks.

Well, there were! They started off by an agreement that the top priority was an ability to (inaudible) the indicators of athletes. There seemed to be no other factors being considered at all. I tried to sound a warning there, by asking them to look beyond their debate, because whether they liked it or not, this was political process and I did not mean Liberals and Tories. It was political because there were all kinds of factors being considered other than the simple record of athletic performances. The meeting started at 9:00 a.m. and we had given out about forty of the awards by about 11 o’clock. I then asked them to think carefully because there only about ten left. I said, “The Maritime provinces have only one. Ontario has seventy percent. British Columbia has twenty percent.” The place went wild right away. The most bearable of all the sports figures was a man called Murray Van Kleek. He was the head of the school of physical education at the University of Alberta and had been an excellent all-round coach in track and field and swimming. He almost went mad when I made this point at the meeting. I emphasized that the money had been put up by a government and politicians and there could not be provinces left out in the cold. British Columbia had the edge at that time because of its climate.

We cancelled the morning picks and over the lunch hour looked at it from a point of view that would be fair to all parts of the country. We worked it out. That was a very wild period of my life, when I got into the drafting of the task force report.  While there were others heading the committee, it became clear to a lot of people in sports organizations that the architects of the report were Fisher and Sydney Wise. That drew some hostility. I was particularly suspect because of my political past and the fact that I was writing a political newspaper column. Fellow journalists did not know quite what to make of it. During my personal contacts with them, I kept insisting that I was doing this work as a volunteer. Many never accepted that. And I was deeply involved in so many things.

John Munro and former Supreme Court Justice Willard Estey used me to test things. That helped the buildup to the ’72 Canada-Russia series. Alan Eagleson had earlier thought of trying to get something going, but only with the players association involved. He could not devise a way of getting the choice of simply the NHL’s best. That was because American owners like Bill Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks were not at all interested in letting Canada have a good team. But Wirtz was interested in putting out a better American team. I had wanted to get both Ed Snider (Philadelphia) and Busch (Boston) – along with Wirtz – worked up about the good players coming out of their universities. In the spell after WWII, a lot of good players went into university and by 1970, American schools were getting kids like Keith Magnussen and Ken Dryden. That is one way that the Canada Cup got going.

Left to right: Lou Lefaive, Ontario Premier Bill Davis, Alan Eagleson, Douglas, Chris Lang.

Left to right: Lou Lefaive, Ontario Premier Bill Davis, Alan Eagleson, Douglas, Chris Lang.

Alan had the idea and we simply kept negotiating things. The CAHA picked a Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer from Calgary named Joe Kryzcka . He could speak to the Russians in their own tongue. He took over the CAHA in 1970 and soon had it in his head that he would be the one to make the deal. He was scouting around and I helped him by keeping in touch with the Czechs and Swedes. The Russians themselves simply wanted to keep things going the way they had been. So there were a helluva lot of trips across the Atlantic by various people trying to put things together.

Alan and some of his advisors were pushing for us to get into the act. Part of it was Carl Brewer’s influence on things. He and Eagleson were talking at that time. Later on they became mortal enemies and Brewer led the fight to unseat Eagleson from the NHLPA. Charlie Hay himself took a very aggressive approach in the international negotiations. He made a great impression on the Swedes and the Russians because he was a very direct, no-nonsense guy. He let everything hang out and never over-elaborated. He pounded home what it was Canada was looking for. He felt that one of the ways to bust things open in international hockey diplomacy was to have this side series with the Russians. He thought that it would settle the big question of the day: which country had the best hockey players. And the Russians were interested in things because they thought they could win. Of course, nobody on our side thought the Communists had any chance of winning. That was one of the things that we carried into 1972 – this unbelievable conceit. You should’ve heard the reporters in Montreal a day before the series started. They were making fun of the Russians sticks, skates and sweaters. It was the assumption that we’d clobber them.

Charles Hay kept pursuing the series and kept dragging the CAHA and Jukes around with him whenever he could. We all realized that one of the things we had to do was box in Ahearne. I developed, with Sammy Pollack’s help, the strategy to douse his light. Ahearne behaved as though he was the Czar of hockey. And he was profiting so much from it as a travel agent. Get this, he was the secretary of the International Ice Hockey Federation and he had this travel agency. He had his nose into all of the travel that took place across the ocean and in Western Europe by the Canadian teams of the day.

Pollack, in his way, was marvelous at pushing Ahearne back. They were rather alike, ironically. They were both grubby, intense men. Pollack had some affinities with Yogi Berra. You knew what he was saying, but he murdered the English language at high speed. Ahearne was an Irish bullshiter all the way. He was unbelievable at blowing his own horn. And Sam would say, “Mr. Ahearne, you have got to see things this way.” Then he’d talk at a mile a minute.  This was all about the players – what is a pro, what isn’t a pro? What rules should there be regarding the movement of players from one jurisdiction to another? Sam was trying to make Ahearne realize that we were never going to get to a stage where the NHL would jump to his tune. The thing for him to do was make peace and wind up as a partner with the NHL. Which is, in real terms, what eventually happened.

Alan Eagleson was motivated because he loved the game and could see the power that it would give him if he had an extra source of revenue in an endeavor that was free of what you might call ‘the bosses’ of the NHL. One of the things that need be mentioned is that Hockey Canada got a great deal of cooperation from both the Leafs and the Canadiens. The Habs – in terms of the Molson family – were very involved. David Molson’s heart was into it and he took Sam Pollack’s advice well. In Toronto, it was Stafford Smythe who had taken over, along with Harold Ballard. Stafford was the most enthusiastic of all of the owners about a Canadian team that was to have NHL players.

We had the two big Canadian teams on board – whose ownership were committed to backing Hockey Canada all the way. Then we had Alan Eagleson, who had built the NHLPA with some of the players of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The owners never wanted a players’ association, but they got it because they had overlooked the fact that the players might be able to work together as a unit. In Toronto it had taken place and Eagleson put it all together. Bob Pulford was also one of the keys.

The other thing that should be noted is the efforts of the American Ice Hockey Federation, which was really a creature of Walter Busch of the Boston Bruins and Schneider in Philadelphia. The Americans had nothing like our junior hockey down there. For them, things were done through high schools and universities. The NHL was very chary about getting mixed up with high schools and universities and was still looking to Canada as the supplier of most of its players. However, some of the Americans had a much more zealous nationalism about their hockey than the Canadians involved. I’m not saying there’s a difference in the hearts of the two countries. But you know the xenophobes that Americans can be. They were beginning to think about themselves teaching Canadians a lesson about hockey – never mind the Russians. The Americans were to be the key group that enabled us to get the international series going in 1976 – the Canada Cup.

The final element I need to mention about this period of excitement and development on the hockey front (1969-74), was the emergence of the rival professional league. They very quickly had a couple of owners who wanted to play against Russians. They were making requests and working on the idea of some kind of series. And the new WHA also got some good players early on, like Howe and Hull and so on. It also turned out that there was a much greater supply of journeymen hockey players than the NHL had ever needed. It is surprising how quickly it had to be accepted that the WHA was fairly good and could challenge the best in the NHL in any contest. Through all of that period there were so many dealings and such a mess with the WHA – people buying, selling franchises and building teams. There was bullshit all over the place. Things were particularly confusing in Canada, because it meant professional franchises for the western cities and even Ottawa. So, there was strife during an argument-filled era. People were firing statements here, there and everywhere. In the meantime, the build-up came for the series. We got a contract in 1972 for the four games in Canada and four in Russia.

My involvement was due partly to dealings with the federal government. One thing that we got – largely through the deputy minister Joe Willard – was cooperation with External Affairs. The longest-running ambassador we had at the time was a man in Russia named Robert Ford. He was truly a great man, who took to the idea of a series at heart. He was an art collector and not particularly a hockey fan, but he recognized how seriously the Russians took hockey. He had a big staff and really went to work on promoting the idea of the series. To people like the Russians, things were always done through official channels. Nobody has really ever mentioned this, but he had a guy on his staff named Gary Smith.


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One Response to “’72 Series”

  1. Allan says:

    This has to be tho most important event in hockey’s history. Can you imagine that i was at the forum when that game took place !!!! Really, nobody was prepared for such a turn of event….we all though that Canada owned hockey. It was a great lesson even if at the end of it all, we won the series. It honestly made a huge difference in my life, my views on life and how to handdle adversity.

    I still have 4 tickets from the Montreal Forum, imagine that…I wounder if somone has any info’s on the rarety of such memorabilia, if you do, you could email me at : alainlivernoche@yahoo.com

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