From the instant that 20 hockey-playing chaps from Russia stepped to the ice at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens last week, Canadians became uneasy. More than 200 men watched the Russians practice that day. Since the public was excluded, all were sports-writers, scouts, coaches, managers and players. They positively marveled at the way the Russians skated, passed, dribbled the puck with their feet like soccer players, skated on one foot for vast distances, jumped four feet in the air, drilled pucks into goal corners, shaved their own hockey sticks and sharpened their own skates.
Afternoon papers used 96-point front page headlines saying such things as, REDS AMAZE. Bobby Bauer, a former NHL great, said they had improved in everything over the Russian team that beat the Canadians whom Bauer coached at the last Winter Olympics; especially in shooting, he said gloomily, which had been their only weak spot before. Kenny Reardon was an all-star NHL defense man. He thought that the Whitby Dunlops, amateur champions of Canada last year, who will represent us at the world championships in Oslo next February and were to play Russia in the first game of this Canadian tour, might be too slow for the Russians.
When Russia took the ice last week against Whitby, 14,327 were on hand (nearly 2,000 of them standees). The Gardens had been sold out 70 minutes after tickets went on sale, a week before. More millions across the country would follow the game by nationwide TV and radio. Everywhere the psychic scar of losing to the Russians at our game in the 1954 world championships and 1956 Olympics ached and stung, because most people suspected it was going to happen again—and right in our own backyard.
That was the feeling as the Russians lined up four times at different parts of the ice, to face all sections of the crowd and give a stick-raised, shouted salute. That was the feeling as the rink was darkened and the players lined up on their blue lines and the band played God Save the Queen and then the Russian anthem, Gimn Sovietskogo Soiuza.
The game began. The puck went back to Nicolai Sologubov. He's the Russian captain and star defense man, and his big grin had been the delight of photographers for two days. Head up, long-featured face intent, baggy red pants windblown, he rushed; the puck flickered along at the end of his white-taped stick as if tied there by an invisible string. Across the Whitby blue line. Short pass to Nicolai Khlystov at center. Dark and slick Yury Pantyukhov was flying in on right wing, to take Khlystov's pass. In on goal, all alone, he stick-handled the puck right past Carl Detzel in the Whitby net. The time was 57 seconds.
Well, we all said rather sickly, applauding the beautiful play, that was a pretty good goal.
And 56 seconds later, with the dazzled Whitbys flailing the empty air, the Russians were in again with a checkerboard passing play, Loktev to Guryshev to the husky blond Veniamin Alexandrov. A quick accurate shot, and it was 2-0. Shocked applause came again. This was stunningly even worse than we could have imagined. Could they go to 10? to 20?
However, as Conn Smythe, president of the Gardens and an old artilleryman, was to say later, "I used to watch the Germans goose-step and think nobody ever could stop 'em. Then we found out that when you knocked them off stride so they couldn't goose-step any more, they could be licked like anyone else."
That's what happened. For six or seven minutes of the first period the Russians mesmerized the Canadians with beautiful passing, great puck control and blinding speed (they were clocked by Lloyd Percival of Canada's Fact-Finding Sports College in faster time than any NHL player who has ever been timed). But then the Canadians began to knock them off stride.
They found out how during a penalty to Alex Cherepanov, for hooking. One component of any good power play is fierce forechecking, dogging the opponent stubbornly in his own end, never giving him a chance to get up speed or work pass patterns. The first Whitby power play revealed a Russian weakness—the defense tended to back in, obscuring the view of their goalie. There was a maze of defenders in front of the Russian goal when George Samolenko of Whitby fired a waist-high shot that caught the corner.
There is a noise a hockey crowd makes a few times a year. It is like a high sustained chord, pounding and jubilant, bouncing back from walls and roof and ice. We heard it then; and as the forechecking went on and the Russians were kept off stride, we heard it again, less than two minutes later, with the tying goal; and again in less than three with the goal that proved to be the winner; and again, diminishing now, more relaxed, with apprehension removed, twice more before the end of the period. The second period was scoreless, but the Russians never hit their early stride again, and in the third Whitby added two more to make the final 7-2.
Yet, as Russia headed out to continue its tour against teams of about the same caliber as Whitby, the scare remained. (Two days later it had scarcely abated after the Russians had held the Windsor Bulldogs to a 5-5 tie). The Russian team was chosen just a week before it came to Canada. Many good players were left behind and will be added later. Russia undoubtedly will improve, Whitby not as much.
And the Russians, even in one-sided defeat, impressed. This wasn't purely on the hockey side. Canadians liked a return to the symbols of sportsmanship, long gone from most hockey that we watch. Before the game, the teams exchanged mementoes and handshakes in center ice. Sid Smith, a 186-goal man in the NHL who recently was released by Toronto to Whitby as playing coach, gave Nicolai Sologubov a silver cup, received a purple pennant in return. And Sologubov, handing out the first heavy body-check of the game, cleared the puck and then turned to help the fallen Whitby player to his feet. Other friendly incidents were repeated through the game.
Later, also, the Russians refused to alibi, on any grounds. The heat of the rink obviously sapped the energy of men used to playing outdoors, or in colder rinks, but they wouldn't admit this. And Coach Antoly Tarasov established a striking new mode for losing coaches in his comment on the refereeing: "Very objective."
The Russians started playing ice hockey seriously only 10 years ago. They are already among the world leaders in speed skating for years. Essentially what they have done so far is to give hockey sticks to speed skaters and teach them the game, a superimposed rather than integrated process.
But now they are starting youngsters of 13 in organized leagues, as Canada does at an even earlier age. In that respect, Roman Kisselev, official interpreter with the team (he stands near the player bench at all times, for emergencies), made perhaps the most significant postgame remark. "It was a good lesson for us," he said. "This is what we came over here for. Your teams can teach us a lot."
To which a Canadian might make wry reply: "That's exactly what we are afraid of."