September 26, 2012
By Matthew Fisher, Post Media
Moscow – The exact spot at the Luzhniki Sports Palace where Paul Henderson entered Canada’s hockey pantheon by scoring goal that won the series against the Soviet Union 40 years ago this Friday is now under an elevated stage used for concerts including some for elderly singers who were national icons during Leonid Brezhnev’s “Golden Age of Stagnation.”
The place where Team Canada’s players dressed for the four games in Moscow has been converted into a bright, tidy powder room for entertainers. But most of the rink where Henderson scored with 34 seconds to play in the 8th and last game of the Canada-Soviet hockey series, including the ice making plant and corridors lined with walls of wood and marble and massive chandeliers, is almost exactly as it was when nearly 3,000 Canadian hockey shook the dowdy capital to its core back in 1972.
Canadians of a certain age are forever indulging themselves with nostalgic recollections of those games. The latest orgy of self-congratulation has been taking place for weeks now.
Much less has been heard from the Russian side, but word about the grim Soviet political context in which the series was played is finally seeping out. Last week, journalist Seva Kukushkin, who is the institutional memory of Soviet hockey, revealed to Postmedia how the series with Canada was of such monumental importance to Brezhnev and his already sclerotic regime that it hard warned that there would be serious consequences for those involved if the Soviet team had been humiliated, as the communist leadership feared that it would be.
Now Alyosha Tarasov, grandson of the Soviet hockey master, Anatoli Tarasov, who died in 1995, has broken the news that Brezhnev’s predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev had actually approved a series of matches against Canada in 1964, only to reverse himself after speaking with his Politburo.
“For years Tarasov had had the idea to play against the professionals,” Tarasov said, referring to his grandfather in the third person. “After the 1964 Olympics (in Innsbruck, Austria) there was a big Kremlin party. Khrushchev had had a bit to drink and told him, ‘Do what you like.’ But the politicians were always afraid of losing games, which was something that they would permit. So Khrushchev changed his mind. He was gone soon after that.
“My grandfather decided to ask (Khrushchev’s successor) Brezhnev about playing the Canadians but only when Brezhnev was in a good mood. To support him he took along his friend and the biggest Soviet hero, Yuri Gagarin (the cosmonaut and first man in space). But Brezhnev was not so brave. It became a long, long story. There was always another reason why it could not be done that year. So it took nearly 10 years after Khrushchev had first agreed until it finally happened.”
The Canadian-centric story line for the series is that after being initially stunned by the Soviets during the initial games in Canada, and finding themselves in great turmoil, Team Canada dug deep and found a way to win. This is true enough, but it ignores the fact that the Soviet team was in deep confusion, too, because most of the players had trained for years with the national team and Red Army under Tarasov.
But the father of Soviet hockey – who acknowledged having borrowed some ideas from Canada’s great hockey innovator, Lloyd Percival, as well as new tactics involving passing and puck possession and imaginative exercises that involved dance, acrobats, gymnastics, soccer, swimming and punishing physical labour – had been sacked after winning the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo.
According to his grandson, Ayosha, the beginning of Tarasov’s downfall can be traced to a game that Red Army played against Spartak in 1969 at which Tarasov pulled his team off the ice after a controversial Army goal halfway through the third period. In refusing to send his players back on the ice “Colonel Tarasov ignored direct orders” from Brezhnev and others in the Soviet leadership, who were in the stands.
Another factor, his grandson said, was that Tarasov had refused a political request to throw a game against the Czechs at Sapporo that would have had no affect on the Soviet team’s gold medal but would have allowed the Czechs to win silver, pushing the US down to bronze. Tarasov was fired soon thereafter.
Tarasov’s replacement, Vsevolod Bobrov, a former Olympian in both soccer and hockey, was a hugely celebrated athlete. But he was not well known to most of the players on what was sometimes called the Big Red Machine.
“Bobrov was not able to establish a good rapport with the players in such a short time, especially with the CSK (Army) players,” who comprised most of the national side, Alexander Yakushev, the top Soviet scorer in the ‘72 series, told me recently. “Babrov had a different approach to hockey and a different approach to the players. Tarasov had an authoritarian method. Bobrov was some kind of democrat. The CSK players were not ready for this democratic approach.”
A made-for-television movie on the 1972 series that aired recently in Moscow focused on the allegedly bitter rivalry between Tarasov and Bobrov, almost ignoring the drama of the games with Canada. It was not something Alyosha Tarasov enjoyed watching.
“The story of their rivalry was more exaggeration than truth,” his grandson said. “The film shows that both were nervous. I would say that that was bullshit. There was competition. My grandfather respected him. He always said that Bobrov was a brilliant athlete. But Bobrov was not a brilliant coach.”
Asked how the ‘72 series might have turned out if Tarasov, who had won three Olympic gold medals and 9 consecutive world championships as national coach before being fired, had been behind the bench instead of Bobrov, Alyosha replied: “It is not something that I ever discussed with my grandfather but he was very unhappy not to have been chosen. Tarasov was like an Indian. He never expressed sorrow. He was a man in the classic sense. He was introverted, keeping everything inside.
“But Tarasov was a maximalist. I think that he would have invented something so that we could have won.”
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