At Madison Square Garden last Saturday afternoon international good will almost melted the ice. U.S. skaters embraced Russian skaters, U.S. skaters shook hands with Russian skaters, both groups of skaters bowed to each other and, in the Russian manner, applauded each other. This orgy of affection took place beneath a scoreboard (above) that recorded a lamentable fact: U.S.S.R. 6, U.S. 3. But the final score mattered nothing—the Russian team was here officially as a part of the Soviet-U.S. cultural exchange program. "It is far more important that we should get to know each other than that we should win a hockey game," the Russian coach, Nikolai Epshtein, declared.
Nikolai roared with laughter a few minutes later when the muttered remark of a disgruntled U.S. newsman was translated for him. The American had said: "Yeah—that's the way it is. When we win, it's a great international hockey match. When we lose, it's the cultural exchange program."
During the last two weeks Coach Epshtein's raggle-taggle band of roving Red hockey players wended its way from New York to Colorado Springs and back again. The cultural exchange on this journey was very big. The Russians learned to say "viskey," and they scored 24 goals against seven for the U.S. team.
They beat teams from the Universities of North Dakota (4-3) and Minnesota (10-2), then three times in a row knocked off a team theoretically composed of the best amateurs in the U.S.
Russian hockey has changed only slightly since last winter's Olympics, when a gutsy but since disbanded U.S. team beat them for the gold medal. The Soviets still play pattern hockey, marked by precise positioning of players and tight puck control. But since Squaw Valley they have added to their game a whistling slap shot, the most spectacular shot in hockey. Time was when a Soviet skater would as soon proclaim fealty to Czar Nicholas as try a long shot. It was pass and feed, feed and pass, all the way to the goalmouth. The Russian players still play pass-and-feed, but every once in a while now they purify the opposition goalie by sending a Bobby Hull-type rocket past his ears from far out.
The Russians arrived at the Garden for last week's game wearing Depression-era workingman's caps and masks of inscrutability. They were assigned dressing room 29, which is barely big enough for a tag team of wrestlers. Coach Epshtein, a Chaplinesque little man who wears the faint smile of somebody who knows something, put in a sign-language complaint; the Garden officials eased the tension by assigning the visitors to another room.
While this crisis was being adjudicated backstage, Garden Organist Gladys Goodding entertained the meager crowd with a routine Russian repertoire—Meadowland, Song of the Volga Boatman, Dark Eyes. She was smack in the middle of a Russian song when the U.S. team took the ice. Quickly she shifted to Yankee Doodle, whereupon the Russian team appeared. The teams stood at attention, and Miss Goodding swung into the Soviet national anthem, while a patriotic American in the audience rang a cowbell. Another fierce American threw a piece of pizza at the Soviets in cordial greeting, but these outbreaks were the exception, not the rule. The Star-Spangled Banner was played in respectful silence, while a stream of air kept the American flag flapping in an artificial breeze, and one spectator murmured in relief: "Anyway, we've out-anthemed them."
Thus inspired, the poor-but-honest American players put on a brave show in the first period, outhustling the Soviets and coming off the ice with a remarkable 2-0 lead. But in the second period the slaughter began. Slap shots, drop passes, behind-the-back passes, give-and-go maneuvers, crisp checking and perfect discipline brought the Soviets five quick goals. A relaxed final period saved the U.S. from deeper humiliation.
There are three or four schools of thought on the significance of all this. One school holds that it is a body blow to the prestige of the free world and will probably cost us Iceland, Pakistan and the Outer Hebrides. Another attitude is that it is indeed a shame, but there are three years to go until the next Olympics, so all is not lost. A third school—made up of eight or 10 people—tries hard to hold to the thought that hockey, even international hockey, is only a game. The three icy debacles, however, do point up one fact: the difference between amateurism in the U.S. and amateurism in the Soviet Union makes it inevitable that we lose in the long run.
Play for pay
Consider the two teams. The Russians are young men recruited from hot industrial clubs like the Moscow Locomotives, the Gorki Torpedoes and the Moscow Dynamos. When they play hockey for the greater glory of the Soviet Union, they continue to draw their full pay, plus expenses.
The Americans, on the other hand, are expected to subsidize themselves. They have to leave their jobs and their families, even pay for their own passports. There are not many young men who can afford to lose four months' pay per year on behalf of American athletic prestige abroad.
Obviously and understandably disappointed by the American showing, U.S. Coach Connie Pleban pointed out after the game in New York that his team has been together less than a month. During that time it had five practice sessions and had to play eight games. Why so many games and so few practices? "That's simple," said Pleban, "we need the money from the exhibition schedule to send the team to the world championships. It'll cost us $32,000 to send the team abroad, and even then we've got to play a 22-game schedule in this country before we leave and a 16-game exhibition schedule in Europe before the championships."
Such exigencies can only produce an inept team, and an inept team is exactly what the United States has. The Russians who clobbered them are far from superstars; they are simply a pick-up collection of younger players sent abroad to exchange culture while the Russian varsity remains at home training for the world championships. It is dismaying to contemplate the destruction this. No. 1 Russian team is likely to impose on the already bloodied Americans when they meet at Geneva in March.