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Fans in Moscow – Matt Fisher Column « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Fans in Moscow
September 24, 2012
By Matthew Fisher, Post Media

MOSCOW — It may not be in the history books, but Canada staged the only successful invasion of the Soviet Union.

Forty years ago this week, nearly 3,000 free-spirited Canadian hockey fans descended on the Soviet capital, screaming “Da, da, Canada! Nyet, nyet, Soviet.”

It was a defiant chant to which the Soviets had no riposte, although the Moscow police mustered one infamous counter-attack, attempting to hustle Alan Eagleson, the fiery Team Canada organizer, out of the Luzhniki Ice Palace before Canada’s Pete Mahovlich intervened.

During their week in Russia, the Canadian tourists provided Soviet citizens with their first significant exposure to western ways since the Murmansk run brought allied sailors, food and war materiel to that isolated Arctic port during the Second World War. Loaded with foreign currency that the Kremlin coveted, and often fuelled by staggering quantities of cheap beer and vodka, the visitors partied madly as Team Canada recovered from a seemingly insuperable deficit to win the last three games of the eight-game Summit Series and in so doing defeated Leonid Brezhnev Big Red Machine by the narrowest of margins.

Much of what Canada achieved on the ice was glorious. Much of what the Canadian visitors achieved off the ice was inglorious.

“My overall memory was that all the Canadians were drunk,” my mother, Barbara Fisher, who attended the four games in Moscow, recalled recently. “Nevermind the Russians. It was the Canadians who were an embarrassment. . . . I thought, ‘What on earth they must think of us, (with) this going on?’ I mean, I knew what I thought of us.”

It is a view shared by Alma Said, who went to the games in Russia with three other secretaries who worked on Parliament Hill.

“Most of the Canadians were rude, impolite, badly mannered. A lot of them were people who liked to get plastered. Some were drunk even before the aircraft left Canada for Moscow. ” Said recalled. “It was embarrassing, but it was the best trip I ever had in my life.”

While some Canadians took umbrage at such behaviour, the Russians did not seem to mind the visitors’ hijinks. Alexander Yakushev, the top Soviet scorer in the series, said last week that the Canadians “behaved liked hockey fans should” because they were much more boisterous than the Russians who witnessed the games at Luzhniki.

“We liked your players a lot as well as your public’s attitude towards your players and your public itself because they were so enthusiastic,” said Yuri Blokhin, who played for a Soviet club team at the time.

Intourist, the dour Soviet tour agency, had never before handled such a mob of foreigners before. A fleet of 30 buses had been requisitioned. They collected the Canadians every morning and shepherded them around to see Lenin’s Tomb and other sights connected with the Bolshevik Revolution or the war against Nazi Germany. On nights when there were no games, the Canadian visitors attended the Bolshoi Theatre or the equally renowned Moscow Circus.

Wandering around on your own was discouraged by the guides, “who kept a close watch on us,” Said explained. But taking public transport, Said managed to get lost one night and found herself on the outskirts of the city.

“Sure enough they — the ‘guides’ — were hiding behind the trees,” she said. “They came out, got me on the bus and made sure I made it back to the hotel. It was the night it snowed. It was cold and miserable and I was wearing shoes with open toes and high heels.”

It was the Cold War. Mutual suspicions were high. My mother recalled that a woman approached her when she was alone in the hotel lobby and pleaded for help to get out of the country. “I listened very sympathetically, but I also had sense enough to be wary,” she said. “I told her I hoped things went well for her, but I could be of no help whatsoever.”

She recounted the story to Father David Bauer, the legendary Canadian hockey coach, who had had many dealings with the Soviet Union.

“Lo and behold, when I got back to Canada, within the month two Mounties in civvies came to the door to talk with me about this incident,” my mother said. “What they wanted, in effect, was corroboration of why I’d told Father Bauer.”

But my mother’s most vivid memories were of the partying. One of the few Canadians who was not drinking was Harold Ballard, the Toronto Maple Leafs owner. What Ballard did was shop like crazy at the Beriozka foreign currency shops.

“One night the hotel was sort of rollicking and Harold was dancing with a Russian lady,” my mother said. “There were Russian ladies assigned to each floor to keep law and order but he and she were dancing. It seems to me (that) she was a large woman. They were both sort of corpulent, but there they were dancing together. Kind of a polka thing and people (were) standing around clapping. It was all very jolly.”

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