All right, Comrades, who's next? The Dallas Cowboys? The Los Angeles Lakers? The Pittsburgh Pirates? Before some Russian outdrives Jack Nicklaus using a nine-iron, maybe Gary Powers and his U-2 ought to come back and find out just what the Soviets really are plotting behind all those 18-foot fences in Siberia. "I'm ready to believe anything," Montreal's Frank Mahovlich said last week. "After seeing what the Russian hockey players did to us at our game, I'm afraid nothing in sport is sacred anymore."
It is Russia's game now, after the most sobering week in Canadian sports history. In just seven days the Russians destroyed the 100-year myth of Canadian hockey superiority and the 50-year legend of National Hockey League invincibility. At the same time they left a lot of people wondering how they could ever again watch the Toronto Maple Leafs play the California Golden Seals. As the Russians proved conclusively, their 7-3 victory over Team Canada's NHL All-Stars in the first game of hockey's world series was not an outrageous accident.
Last Monday night in Toronto the Russians outplayed the Canadians for two periods of the second game but ultimately lost 4-1. Two nights later in Winnipeg they controlled play throughout and twice rallied from two-goal deficits to gain a 4-4 tie. Then, on Friday night in Vancouver in the fourth and last game of their Canadian tour, the Russians merely toyed with the All-Stars. They scored their first goal after only two minutes of play and then coasted to a 5-3 win. As the Russians departed, laden with dozens of pairs of new skates, gloves, pads and more hockey sticks than you can imagine, all compliments of generous Canadian manufacturers, they led the series 2-1-1. Four games will be played in Moscow (Sept. 22, 24, 26, 28) after a pair of exhibition matches against a Swedish All-Star team in Stockholm on Sept. 16-17. The Canadian adventure will end with a game against Czechoslovakia in Prague Sept. 30.
Oddly enough, Moscow may prove to be a friendlier place than Canada for the All-Stars. Not only did the Russians shatter the professionals with a fascinating exhibition of speedskating, pinpoint passing, precise positional play, amazingly accurate shooting and some exceptional goaltending by Vladislav Tretiak, they also won the crowds in every city. The Canadian players were booed from Montreal to Vancouver, and they were attacked in newspaper and television-radio editorials from Halifax to Victoria. "I'm ashamed to be a Canadian," Bill Goldsworthy said bitterly after the Vancouver crowd jeered the Canadians all night. Phil Esposito, who was Canada's leading player in all four games, said, "We tried our best and gave it our all. I wish the hell these people would realize that."
Most anti-Canadian editorials made issue of the salary war between the NHL and the World Hockey Association, a struggle that has inflated player salaries to astronomical levels. As the Toronto Globe and Mail said, "If Valeri Kharlamov were getting, say, $2 million, and if Alexander Yakushev, Eugeni Zimin and Vladimir Petrov were each negotiating for even more, who would be passing to whom?"
The talk about million-dollar salaries was particularly amusing to the Russians, who describe their players as strictly amateur. One night Boris Kulagin, the No. 2 coach who seemed to be the chief strategist on the bench, was asked how much Tretiak earns as a lieutenant in the army.
"He makes what all army lieutenants make," Kulagin answered, staring at the floor. "And how much is that?" Again Kulagin said, "He makes what all army lieutenants make." "Well, does he make $200,000 a year, like Brad Park?" The Russian smiled. "Is Brad Park an army lieutenant, too?" Later, Boris Mikhailov, a slick forward who scored two goals in the game at Vancouver, scoffed at the conversation about salaries. "Brad Park makes $200,000 a year," he said, "but I get paid once a month." And he laughed.
By NHL standards, at least 10 of the Soviet players are worth more than $100,000 a year. In fact, two NHL teams—the Maple Leafs and the Minnesota North Stars—offered the Russians $1 million for the playing rights to either Kharlamov, probably the fastest skater and slickest stickhandler this side of Bobby Orr, or Tretiak, the spectacular goaltender. Nyet was Kulagin's response.
Well, then, he was asked, would the Russians consider lending one of them to the NHL for a year or two? "There is no precedent for such an exchange in our country," the coach said. And besides, he added, both Tretiak and Kharlamov were in the army, and they had their jobs to do. What jobs? "Tretiak," he said, "is a lieutenant, of course." Hold it. Last week he was a private, wasn't he? "Yes, perhaps, but now he is a lieutenant."
Despite being the two best players on the Soviet team, neither Kharlamov nor Tretiak received extra privileges as the Russians toured through Canada. Like all the Soviet players, they carried their own equipment bags to and from the rinks; they sharpened their own skates; they hung out their own uniforms. Such discipline amazed the pampered Canadians.
Along the way the Russians also introduced some novel training ideas that NHL teams almost certainly will not adopt. The traditional postgame meal for NHL pros is a large quantity of beer. "The Canadian doctors insist there is a lot of nutrition in beer," said a Russian journalist. But after a game the Russians consumed nothing stronger than fruit juice, Coca-Cola or springwater.
On the ice their workouts were long and hard. No one ever came to the bench for a squirt of the water. At one point the third-string goaltender, Alexander Sidelnikov, lounged against the boards for a moment. Kulagin appeared instantly. What he said only Sidelnikov knows, but the goalie pulled down his mask, skated to the far end of the ice and began to practice his splits.
The Russian shooting drills were models of logic. There were no slap shots from 60 feet. No slap shots from 10 feet. No slap shots, period. They stressed wrist shots, aiming for spots. As Montreal's Ken Dryden said, after giving up 12 goals in his two starts, "They get their shots off quicker than players in the NHL, and their shots are just as hard, if not harder."
Despite their repertoire of firm, quick shots, the Russians tend to pass the puck a good deal. If they revealed any weakness at all in Canada, it was their inclination to make the extra pass near the goal. Often they were well situated for an easy shot on either Dryden or Tony Esposito, but instead passed off. Kulagin, reminded of a Russian saying that goes, approximately, "Nothing ventured, nothing lost," scoffed at such criticism.
During practices and games the Russians employed a strict unit system on the ice. That is, they kept the same three forwards and two defensemen together at all times. "That's not such a bad idea," said Canadian Coach Harry Sinden. "It certainly helps with the teamwork." In the NHL, teams generally rotate three lines and two sets of defensemen so that the unit starting a game does not appear together again for six shifts—or about 12 minutes. If NHL teams adopted the unit system, though, a Bobby Orr or a Brad Park would see less time on the ice. Sinden thought about that a moment. "Maybe it's not such a good idea after all," he said.
Canada's humiliation, though deep, did not necessarily imply drastic reform. "What it comes down to is that we are different breeds," said John Ferguson, Sinden's assistant. "I don't think North Americans can—or want to—live the Spartan existence." Sinden interrupted him: "I don't know if I could take these guys out to a trampoline after practice and tell them to jump around for a couple of hours."
Another reason why the NHL will resist change has to do with economics. By dollar standards the NHL is a huge success. Forget the lack of parity between old and expansion teams, or, indeed, between All-Stars and Russians. Last year the NHL played to almost 100% of seating capacity in 11 of its 14 cities. The Vancouver Canucks finished last in their division. So how many season-ticket holders canceled their subscriptions? Seven. Why change?
But if Sinden, Boston's Stanley Cup-winning coach in 1970, returns to the NHL, something he almost certainly will do now that the building firm he worked for has filed for bankruptcy, he, for one, will try to benefit from the Russian techniques. "After all," he said, "whoever told the Canadians we knew everything about the game?"
As they left for Moscow, the Russians were saying much the same thing. "We came here to learn from the Canadian pros," Kulagin said, "and now maybe the Canadian pros can learn something from us. These four games have taught us the Canadian players are ordinary people like we are."
How ordinary are the Russians? "If someone gives them a football," said Frank Mahovlich, "they'll win the Super Bowl in two years."