Hockey history brings memories
After having the last week dominated with the extended ceremonies surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it’s likely there will be plenty of air time devoted in the next few days for the 50th anniversary of the Canada-Russia hockey series, of which I have some rare memories.
It’s hard for younger Canadians to understand the hockey world that existed so long ago. Until only four years earlier, there were just six NHL teams, two of which were in Toronto and Montreal. When the National Hockey League (NHL) expanded, all six of the new franchises were awarded to U.S. cities. Almost all the players were born and trained in Canada.
Internationally, Canada had gone from a time when we could send just about any team to the Olympics or World Hockey Championships, supposedly for amateurs, and win, to having our clocks cleaned regularly by the Russian team. Though they qualified as amateurs, we all knew that most of the Russian team played hockey full time for the Soviet army. If only we could have our best players in the NHL play the Soviets, we’d show them who was best, Canadian hockey fans said with certainty.
Finally, in September 1972 a Canada-Soviet series was set up with four games in Canada and four in Moscow between the best Soviet players and the best Canadians with the NHL teams featuring such all-time-great players as Bobby Orr, Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke. Now we’d show them, Canadian hockey fans said knowingly.
The first four games were in Canada and the final four in Moscow. Canadians were shocked when the first game, in Montreal, ended up with a 7-3 Soviet win. As the series went on Canadians would learn to appreciate the skill and determination of Soviet players like Alexander Yakushev, Valeri Kharlamov and goaltender Vladislav Tretiak.
Things returned to the expected when Canada won game two 4-1, but the two teams played to a tie in game three and the Soviets won the fourth and final game in Canada to take a 2-1 lead home. Back in Russia, the Soviets won the first game to take a 3-1 lead. For shocked Canadians, the future seemed helpless. Things looked better after the Canadians won the next two games to tie the series.
In the final game, however, the Soviets led by two goals heading into the final period. In that period, the Canadians surged back under the leadership of Esposito and his less-well-known linemate Paul Henderson. In the end, Henderson scored the series-winning goal with 34 seconds left. Canada went crazy.
I missed all that. I’d gone to cover the International Plowing Match which was just outside Stratford that year. In nearly every booth the radio was broadcasting the series which, since being in Moscow, was several hours ahead of us. It wasn’t until after “the goal” was scored that I found out about it and I didn’t see it until I saw the replay, again and again and again.
I did, however, have a special connection to the hero since Henderson was a native of my hometown of Lucknow. At the now-defunct Lucknow District High School, many track and field records were held by Henderson. Though he was older than me and had left Lucknow to play in Goderich and Hamilton before joining the NHL with Detroit and then traded to Toronto, I was in a class with his sister Marilyn and played on a softball team with his brother Bruce.
The entire Canadian team came home to a hero’s welcome. But the pressure on Henderson was so great (he had scored the game-winning goals in the sixth, seventh and eighth games) that he disappeared from the Toronto Maple Leaf lineup, needing to escape the attention.
Much later, I learned that his escape had been to stay with his mother in Lucknow, who lived very near my parents. He stayed there until the atmosphere cooled down and he was ready to rejoin the team. It was then that my parents heard the story of his refuge in his hometown.
He’s been back to his hometown many times since, of course. There’s a huge mural on the side of a main street building recalling his joyous celebration of the most famous goal in Canadian hockey history at that time.
Like most arenas of the pre-1970s period, the ice surface he played his hockey on has long since gone, replaced by a new sports complex, but the name of Paul Henderson still has a special place in Lucknow and area lore.
He later bolted the NHL to join the rebellious World Hockey Association before it joined the NHL, leading to more Canadian teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and (originally) Quebec City. Vancouver was also awarded an NHL franchise. All have foreign-born players now.
So when the Canada-Russia series is commemorated I’ll have my own memories.