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A sweet victory remembered in replays
Date: Sunday, September 08, 2002
Source: by Douglas Fisher, Toronto Sun

Many hockey fans too young for the Canada-USSR eight game series 30 years ago share the pleasure of their elders as they follow the televising of each game on its anniversary day. What exciting hockey it was, and still is.

The packaging of this replay is good, in particular the game-by-game comments at intervals of players’ recall. Most of these are homey and frank, notably those from Paul Henderson, Phil Esposito, Yvan Cournoyer, Peter Mahovlich, Vladislav Tretiak and Alexander Yakushev.

Let me explain my keen interest. Hockey Canada, a federally-sponsored corporation, was set up in 1969 specifically to gain acceptance from the IIHF (the international hockey authority) that Canada could use Canadian NHL players in international play. As the federal nominee on Hockey Canada’s board, I was at each game and so I hadn’t seen or heard the games before as Foster Hewitt “called” them. In retrospect, the differences in team strategies and tactics seem sharper than ever in these tapes and the shortcomings of Team Canada less obvious than they seemed then, at least before the redoubtable comeback in the last minutes of the last game.

Too many in Canada, including most NHL players, had expected an easy romp. When this was put in doubt by Game 1 an extraordinary hoot of criticism erupted across Canada and never faded much until the last great goal by Paul Henderson doused it – for a year or two.

I’ve been asked who was most responsible for getting the Russians to face a team loaded with NHL pros and all which has followed from this. As I saw it – Alan Eagleson, then executive leader of the NHL Players Association.

Without Alan it is unlikely we would have had the pick of players and certainly not the scale of success in attendance, viewers, revenue, profits, and our fans in Moscow.

As one who was sometimes trampled by Alan’s boisterous input from the time the series began to take shape after the deal was made in April, 1972, with the USSR by a joint CAHA-Hockey Canada mission, the Eagle became both the symbolic leader and the largest continuing influence on the team’s esprit and grit in the series we now are memorializing. Nonetheless, before he took and made this role there had been much real politicking by Canadian politicians and their aides to get a run at the Soviets.

Pierre Trudeau had promised some Westerners in the ’68 election campaign he’d do something about our lamentable record in sport, in particular in hockey. Post-election, he gave the job to John Munro, his health minister. Munro was always a driver, not a talker. He bulldozed into the sport chores, drawing in help from many federal officials like Robert Ford, “our” man in Moscow, and Lou Lefaive, the federal sport director. He named Charles Rea, an oil company executive (and Carl Brewer’s father-in-law) to head the Trudeau task force on sport. Rea urged the creation of Hockey Canada, a most unusual Crown corporation, to work at brightening our dimming hockey scene. Immediately, minister Munro launched Hockey Canada and shortly, Charlie Hay, another oil company head, became its volunteer chairman.

For years officials of the CAHA, Canada’s voice at the IIHF, were anchored by its astute secretary, Gordon Juckes. Repeatedly, Juckes and the CAHA had been balked from use of pro players on Canada’s team by the anti-Canadian bias of Bunny Ahearne, an Englishman who had long been the IIHF’s mastermind, backed by the USSR and its satellites.

In 1970, Stafford Smythe (then sharing control of the Maple Leafs with Harold Ballard), the NHL and its president, Clarence Campbell, began thinking more about international hockey and the speculation that Russians, perhaps the Swedes and Czechs, had become a match for Canadian and American pro players.

In particular, Stafford warmed the Wirtzes, owners of the Blackhawks, and the Norrises, owners of the Red Wings, to the vision to come of an American team in a regular world hockey series, like soccer’s World Cup. He also got the owners of the Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks on side, then made public an undertaking that if the USSR would play a Canadian team of NHL players the Canadian clubs would guarantee their best.

The new initiative stirred by Hockey Canada’s emergence (with board members from the CAHA, the NHL, and the NHL Players’ Association) soon created a crisis within the IIHF. At first Ahearne and friends agreed Canada could use nine pro players for its team to host the IIHF world championship in Winnipeg in 1970, then reneged on the deal at Russia’s behest. In response, the decision was taken, pushed by minister Munro, to cancel the IIHF series, the government picking up both the cost losses and the breakup expenses of the permanent team-in-being which Father David Bauer had conceived and gathered in the mid-1960s. The message to the IIHF and the Russians was blunt: Canada was out of international hockey series until it could play its best, i.e., NHL players. Such was the Canadian confidence!

And so Hockey Canada and, perforce, the CAHA, waited. They passed on the IIHF title games in ’71 and the Olympics in ’72 but kept pressing on the Europeans. Once the ’72 winter Olympics were over the Russians decided on an experimental series, not for any reason more vital than the Canadian reason – to prove themselves the best! The answer they got, and which we witness this month on our TV screens, is almost, but not quite, the best.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2002, SunMedia Corp.