We all remember the big events. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969. For my parents, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. For others, the day John Lennon was killed. Indelible moments and we can usually tell you exactly where we were at that precise moment -- that may have shaped and changed our lives.
For me, September 1972 was that moment. It was game eight of the Canada-Russia Summit Series. I was in the seventh grade at school and they brought TVs into the classroom and we were allowed to watch game 8 -- the game that had the whole country holding its breath. That was September 28th -- 40 years ago!
My parents, Magnus and Anne, had flown to Moscow, along with 3,000 patriotic hockey fans as Team Canada battled the Soviet Union’s National Hockey Team for hockey supremacy. My parents were part of that “Da-Da-Canada, Nyet-Nyet-Soviet” brigade -- a fifth column of die-hard hockey fans giving their all for the Canadian boys defending this nation’s honour.
Back home, in Burnaby, British Columbia, I’d watched all the games on TV. The Canadian half of the series had been brutal. Our national pride took a beating when the NHL’s Canadian best ran into the Soviet’s powerhouse.
If you’ve ever seen the Stalinist-era propaganda posters of tough, Russian youth, the Communist revolution brawny and wholesome, gods, ready to conquer the world -- well, that was the Russian team. The face of the evil empire.
Not to suggest we were slouches. Our heroes were the stuff of Hockey Night in Canada and Stanley Cup victories: Esposito, Clark, Ellis, Cornoyer, Lapointe, Mahovolich. And behind the bench John Ferguson and Harry Sinden. Born of Canadian ice rinks and this nation’s passion for our game and the very embodiment of hockey holiness.
So, as my parents headed for Moscow and I sat watching the games on TV, Canadians were forced to confront their own hockey mortality.
As a 12-year-old, I watched those games and I loved the determination of our Canadian stars, but one player stood out above the rest and he was a Russian: Alexander Yakushev. He became my hero and that was the reason I wanted to become a hockey player. We all need heroes and Yakushev became mine and so began my fascination with Russian hockey.
For those who were perhaps living on another planet and paying attention (with apologies to the unborn), Canada’s heroes fought back and won the series in the last moments of the eighth and final game. Our national pride was restored, but in our private moments we knew that it was only a matter of time before we met them again -- and, having figured out our national game, they might take it away from us.
Hockey Hall of Fame
Fast-forward to 2008, I was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the first thing I did was thank the Russians because every time I played against them I ramped up my game. They brought out the best in me. I also told the world that Yakushev was my idol.
In the intervening years from that 1972 series that inspired me, I went from peewee hockey to college hockey, to the NHL. I found myself amid the best and honoured as one of the best. Surrounded by Gretzky and Messier and the fantastic Edmonton Oilers we won five Stanley Cups. Traded and eventually finding a home with the New York Rangers I won one more: six in all.
When I eventually retired I kept playing. And kept thinking and learning more about our game. And the more I did, the more I came to realize just how much Russian hockey teams and players had contributed to and changed our game -- even before that fabled 1972 series, or the later match-ups, like the 1987 Canada Cup in which I was honoured to represent Canada.
To Russia With Love
The more and more I thought about those influences, the more I wanted to make a film about Russian hockey and how it had shaped the Canadian game -- in fact, the entire game of hockey. And now I have!
Although I thought about this for years, I started my journey of discovery only a year ago. I learned that the Soviet hockey program began in 1946, after World War Two, and the architect was General Vasili Stalin, son of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin.
Stalin-the-younger believed in Soviet world domination -- certainly on ice. But where to begin. The Russians had a soccer coach, named Anatoli Tarasov. A genius, Tarasov set out to revolutionize our game. He employed soccer tactics – abandoning the rigid Canadian game – and worked out new strategies, like doubling back with five-man units completely involved in the play.
Vasily Stalin also gave Tarasov a ringer: a soccer great named Bobrov, a powerful athlete, sports legend and Communist idol. As magnificent as Bobrov was at soccer, he was also a great hockey player. The Soviets practiced, studied Canadian tactics, adapted and then waited until 1954 to unleash their newly designed scheme. They won the world championship in 1954 and stunned the world.
One has to remember that until the 1980s, Olympic rules dominated international sports. Professional athletes were banned. Only amateurs could compete at competitions such as the World Hockey Championships. Of course, Canada’s best players quickly moved to the professional ranks of the NHL and so couldn’t compete.
In the communist Soviet Union, professionalism was a dirty, capitalist word. Their National Team players were called “amateur” even though most were in the Russian Red Army and paid, full-time to only practice and play hockey.
It meant that the only teams Canada could put on the ice at the World Championships were real amateurs, usually our Allan Cup champs, to face amateurs from other Western countries and the so-called amateurs from the Soviet Union and Communist Czechoslovakia.
Our Senior League teams had been well-capable of defeating the Europeans. In 1954, we sent the East York Lindhursts, an okay Ontario Senior B Team, and we were accustomed to that being enough to dominate the hockey world. In the first six games the Lindhursts outscored their opponents 57-5.
But that year the Soviets had entered the World Championships for the first time and, in the gold medal match, the Lindhursts were taught a lesson by the Bobrov-led Soviets, defeating the Canadians 7-2.
The torch was next passed to the 1955 Penticton Vees. By isolating and hammering the Soviet star, Bobrov, the Canadians upset Tarasov’s plans and humbled the Russians 5-0. But the writing was on the wall. The Soviets were a growing force in the hockey world.
The Whitby Dunlops won the 1958 World Championship, captained by future Boston Bruins coach and General Manager, Harry Sinden, but it was becoming apparent that Canada’s Senior teams were not up to the task. One man took very careful notice: a priest and sports superstar, Father David Bauer.
Faith in hockey
A native of the Kitchener-Waterloo region, Father Bauer had attended St. Michael’s College School in the 1940s and was a formidable hockey player. He went off to World War II and, when he returned to Canada, Fr. Bauer entered the priesthood.
Back at St. Mike’s he became a teacher and hockey coach and inspired a generation of future hockey players.
In the 1960s, Fr. Bauer, by then at St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia, assembled the best amateur hockey players in the country, enrolled them in university and this student-athlete group took on the ever-growing Soviet hockey force.
I was one of those players that played on the National Team in 1980. Fr. Bauer’s influence on me knows no bounds. When I was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in September of 2008, I was honoured as a special member of the “brotherhood” of hockey. Hundreds before had preceded me and I look forward to the talented players to come who will join us in the future.
But, recalling Fr. Bauer that day I almost broke up remembering how inspirational he was and how he touched us all.
“Although he knew the game inside and out,” I said, “he was more concerned with the human spirit. He had such an inner strength. And it rubbed off on me. I was blessed to have met him, while he walked among us.”
The National Team brotherhood -- forged with Fr. Bauer -- taught us more than a game, but how to have faith in ourselves to be the best. His was the perfect model, but we fell just short of achieving its goal. We never gave up. The Russians were just too good.
The constant Canadian complaint was that, if only our best -- the NHL’s superstars -- could play the Soviets, we’d surely give the Russians a real drubbing. When that chance came, in 1972, there were some who thought the game scores would be 20 to nothing, in favour of the Canadians. How wrong they were.
The ’72 series was all-out war right to the final minutes. Saved by Paul Henderson’s goal, regarded by many as the goal of the century! That one-goal, one-game win restored our national pride. But along the way, we had already learned something about how our game had to change.
Through the 1970s and 80s our game went through a transformation -- because of the Russian influence. It was their training methods and their doubling-back free-flow game that gave them puck control and we adapted.
We adapted so well that in 1987, when I played on Team Canada, it was arguably the best hockey ever played. We lost game one -- and I was glad to help with a late-game goal -- but Canada fell short, 6-5. We came back, winning the final two games. Most will remember the final goal -- Gretzky to Mario Lemieux -- and a 6-5, game-three thrilling victory.
End of Communism
But dark clouds loomed on the Soviet horizon. In 1989, Glasnost was ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the old Stalinist system was gone. The Berlin Wall came down and Russia promised a new, open society where individual freedoms would reign and everyone could speak their mind.
It looked good until the Soviet’s greatest player of the day, Slava Fetisov, announced he wanted to play in the NHL. He was promised that he could -- then the Stalinists tried to deny him the chance. Fetisov spoke up as was carted off to jail and beaten. He had to face the Minister of Defence -- who still had the power to exile him to Siberia -- but Fetisov held to his desire. After a month he was released to leave for the United States, to join the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
After Perestroika the floodgates opened and many Russian greats joined the best hockey league in the world. But it was Fetisov who stood up to the system and made NHL hockey truly an international league of the best players in the hockey world.
Meanwhile Fetisov’s coach, the legendary disciplinarian Victor Tikhanov was left out to dry in the new Russia. The Soviet Union had collapsed and there was no place for Soviet hockey or former Red Army generals to lead teams with dreams of world domination.
In the 21st-century a new breed has taken control of Russian hockey and once again it is challenging Canada’s game. With the approval of President Putin, oil-giant Gazprom Export and their mercurial chairman, Alexander Medvedev, created the KHL, Kontinental Hockey League. There are 20-plus teams stretching across Russia into the Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Come to a game -- like the one I attended in St. Petersburg -- and you’ll find thousands of rabid fans cheering their home team. There are sexy cheerleaders, reminiscent of the NFL, a mascot and an entertaining game of hockey that fills the arena every night. And lacing up skates are many of Russia’s best players, joined by those from Europe and, yes, Canada.
While not every rink is as successful, it’s a great start and a wonderful new chapter to Russian hockey. What Medvedev has succeeded in doing is to out-NHL North America’s National Hockey league. Where this new league goes is anyone’s guess but, just remember, the early days of the NHL started with lumber barons in the 1890s in eastern Ontario and Quebec.
So, 40 years after a 12-year-old hockey player was inspired by a monumental clash of systems, what it unleashed was a reinvention of the Great Game, hockey. I know the one thing we both have in common is passion for the game. And as my old teammate Wayne Gretzky says, “No one’s above the game.” Our game became everyone’s game, theirs became ours, and we all play the best hockey ever.
Oh, and along the way on my own personal hockey journey from Canada to Russia and back, I met my childhood idol, Alexander Yakushev. What a thrill. And, yup, he can sure still play The Game. And he is still my hero!