Possum. They were playing possum yesterday," the injured Bobby Orr mumbled incredulously last Saturday night as he watched the Russians (in angelic white) blitz Team Canada's NHL All-Stars. Whatever you want to call what the Russians were practicing on Friday, the next night the name of the game was hockey. In the Montreal Forum, in a confrontation before 18,818 unbelieving spectators which was televised to more than 15 million Canadians, 125 million Russians and a few more millions in the United States and Europe, the Russians gave the Canadian pros a complete lesson in all the finer points of hockey as they skated to an amazing, one-sided 7-3 victory. Said a sad Canadian as he left the Forum, "This is Canada's worst day since winter wheat sank below a dollar during the Depression."
Whether the Russians had genuinely been trying to mislead the Canadians as to their ability before the first of the eight-game "world series of hockey" is a moot point. Their performance in practice had led Orr to observe earnestly, "They seem to be shooting off their rear foot." He was watching half a dozen Russians making easy-to-handle shots from about 25 feet at Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. "Imagine if Dennis Hull were out there! The poor goalie wouldn't have a chance." Bruin Goaltender Eddie Johnston studied Tretiak and added, "Now look what he's doing. When the shot is on his stick side he stabs at the puck. You can't stab at it like he does, you'll miss it a few times. I'll have to tell our guys what he's doing."
By Saturday night it was clear to the guys what Tretiak was doing—he was outplaying Ken Dryden, muffling with relative ease the hardest shots the Canadians gunned at him. No longer was he backing into his net and stabbing hopelessly at passing pucks. Instead, he moved out of his net, cut down the angles and confronted the shooters, who for the most part were firing harmlessly into his pads. "I figure he took at least five goals from me tonight," Phil Esposito admitted after the slaughter.
Tretiak, who in fact dominated the game, came as an especially rude surprise to the Canadians because Toronto Coach John McLellan had given them a one-game scouting report to the effect that he certainly wasn't much. "The night we saw him," McLellan said, "he gave up eight goals and looked awful. He stopped nothing—he seemed to be in a fog." (Informed of this appraisal, the 20-year-old Tretiak laughed. "That night was not one of my best, true," he said, "but you must understand that I was getting married the next day and, oh, my mind was away from the hockey game.")
Early in the game it appeared that the Canadians might chase the Russians all the way back to Gorky Street. Esposito scored for the All-Stars after only 30 seconds of play, and six minutes later, when Toronto's Paul Henderson scored from a face-off, it looked as if the rout was on. Then the Russians stormed back as they began to control the flow of play. A picture-perfect goal by Evgeni Zimin and a shorthanded score by Wing Vladimir Petrov tied it up. Wing Valeri Kharlamov, easily the best player on the ice, scored twice in the second period and the rout was on, all right, but it was going the other way. Although the Canadians narrowed the margin to 4-3 midway through the third period, they did not have enough physical stamina to skate with the Russians the rest of the game, seeming almost helpless as the Soviets added three goals against the beleaguered Dryden. The Russians skated better, shot better, checked better and hit harder than the Canadians; they were whirlwinds, never pausing to let the befuddled All-Stars catch up. A one-on-one rush, say Valeri Kharlamov against Brad Park or Rod Seiling or Don Awrey, instantly became a Kharlamov-in-alone-on-Ken Dryden as Park or Seiling or Awrey melted away. All night long the Russians beat Canadians to loose pucks, all night long the Russians were in perfect position to take good, high-percentage shots at Dryden. Maybe they were not as hard as those taken by Frank Mahovlich and Yvan Cournoyer and Vic Hadfield, but the Russians got them away quickly and accurately. "They outplayed us everywhere," admitted Team Canada Coach Harry Sinden. "We offer no excuses whatsoever."
It was perhaps the most painful of the many embarrassing defeats that the Russians have inflicted on Canadian teams in world and Olympic competition over the last 18 years. Until the Soviet Union invented hockey in 1954 (after studying Canadian instructional manuals, of course, and analyzing films of Rocket Richard in action), there was little doubt that Canada was No. 1. Then the Russians won the 1954 world championship, rudely jolting the Canadians 7-2 in their first official game. Coming up on last Saturday's game the Russians had won 11 world championships, four Olympic gold medals and had not lost a game to the Canadians in either competition in 11 years.
But all this was against Canadian rinky-dinks qualified as amateurs. The high-priced pro stars were never involved. Three years ago Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL's Players Association, went to Stockholm for the world championship and watched the Russians rout the Canadians 7-1 and 4-2. Eagleson tried to pass off the defeats as meaningless. "Our team is hamburger," he told a Swedish official. "Our NHL players would destroy all the teams here without any trouble." The Swede stared at him and shook his head. "But this is the world championship," he said, "and your players have CANADA on their sweaters. We all think these are your best players. They should be." Right then Eagleson pledged the total cooperation of the Players Association in the hope that a team of NHL All-Stars, or the Stanley Cup champions, would be able to play the Russians for, well, the championship of the universe.
Canada was scheduled to host the 1970 world championship, and for a time it appeared that the Canadians would be able to use nine professional players in the tournament. Then, at the last minute, Avery Brundage warned Britain's John (Bunny) Ahearne, head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, that the other competing nations might lose their Olympic eligibility if they played against Canada. As a result, Canada immediately disbanded its national team and the tournament was shifted to Europe.
Ironically, one of Canada's few sympathizers was Russia. "It became boredom for us to play in the world championship once the Canadians left," said Georgei Rogulsky, deputy chairman of the Soviet Sports Committee. "We like to get the most use from games against the strongest opposition and Canada always provided the toughest opponent. The Canadians had the best skills and we wanted to make the utmost use of them." There was another reason for the Russians' concern. Soviet hockey seemed to be in a decline. Indeed, Sweden and Czechoslovakia and even the United States were rapidly becoming formidable foes in the world and Olympic tournaments. "It was time," Rogulsky said, "for the Soviets to move up to a different level of hockey, a level with the professionals. So we would have to play the professionals and learn from them."
For two years the Russians and the Canadians negotiated secretly, and then last April an agreement was reached whereby the Russians would meet a team of Canadian professionals. Bunny Ahearne was astonished when he learned about the proposed series, and he mumbled the usual threats about Olympic ineligibility to the Russians. The Soviets ignored him. Realizing he was too late to prevent the games, Ahearne then volunteered to make the announcement that they were to be played. After more negotiations, including talks with reluctant NHL owners, it was agreed that Team Canada would really be team NHL, meaning that any player who signed with the rival World Hockey Association could not play against the Soviets. So no Bobby Hull, no Derek Sanderson, no J. C. Tremblay, no Gerry Cheevers. Millions of Canadians protested these exclusions, particularly Hull's, with marches, billboard messages reading "To Russia With Hull," newspaper ads and telegrams to politicians. "What it came down to in the end was that we could risk blowing the entire series by trying to use non-NHL players," Eagleson said. "And we all felt the series was more important than any player."
Team Canada bowed to the Russian demand that international rules be used in all eight games. There were to be two international referees (from the U.S., as it turned out, for the games in Canada) with equal authority, rather than a referee and two linesmen. Body checking would be permitted all over the ice as usual, but a team would have to play short-handed for 10 full minutes if one of its players were ejected from the game. "The Boston Bruins would spend the whole season playing shorthanded if we used these rules in the NHL," said Sinden, who used to be the Bruin zookeeper.
The Russian team prepared for this elaborately arranged confrontation by reporting to its training camp in Moscow on July 5th, almost six weeks before the NHL players gathered in Toronto. Coach Vsevolod Bobrov did not permit his players to skate for almost a week, however. "Physical fitness, psychological fitness and courage combine with technical ability to make skill," he says. "We work on the first three parts, then think about the technical part." Each day the Russians started their training on a basketball court—a little basketball is good for the reflexes. Next the medicine balls. Then some weight lifting and some gymnastics. Finally, some hockey on the hardwood floor. The forwards and the defensemen passed weighted pucks with lead hockey sticks. "When at last they get onto the ice," Bobrov says, "the regular sticks and pucks feel like nothing to them." Off in a corner the goalies used one hand to dribble a weighted puck with their lead goalie's sticks; with the other they repeatedly flipped a ball in and out of their goalie's gloves. "Very good for hand-eye coordination," Bobrov says. All the time they were taking physical and psychological tests, and only those who passed remained on the team.
For the Canadians, in contrast, the first game of this series came during the off-season, and their training program had been limited to the old-line skate and scrimmage practices employed by all NHL teams. Sinden worked his players three hours a day and held three intrasquad games so that the Canadians could accustom themselves to the unfamiliar international rules. "All training camps are boring," Sinden said, "but ours was worse. The players worked hard, and I tried to be tough with them, but nearly three weeks in one place without playing games against other teams is murder. Let's face it, you get in shape because of real game competition—and that is something we never had."
The Canadian players, to a man, felt that their individual skills would count more than the Russians' superior conditioning. They were wrong, and Canada was left stunned by what one NHL official described as "the catastrophe of the century." That may have been overstatement, but it was certainly a poor way to start a world series.