Canceling a bunch of good Czechs

September 26, 1976

It was called the Canada Cup, or, if you were a foreigner, the Eaglefest Invitational—a two-week extravaganza of nationalism planned so that Canadians could prove to the world that the game of hockey still is theirs. That the Soviet Union sent its junior varsity mattered not at all. That Team USA, or Team Useless, as the American players were called, extended Canada to the 59th minute before bowing 4-2 was really insignificant. And that Czechoslovakia beat Canada 1-0 during the preliminary round robin was, well, a fluke, like the Washington Capitals beating the Montreal Canadiens. All that mattered were the newspaper headlines last Thursday morning—CANADA TOPS, LE GRAND CHAMPION, WE DID IT—after Darryl Sittler's goal at 11:33 of sudden-victory overtime had given Team Canada a 5-4 triumph over Czechoslovakia and a sweep of their best-of-three showdown for the first Canada Cup.

So, after a summer with the wretched Expos and the humiliation of becoming the first host nation not to win an Olympic gold medal, Canada finally had something to brag about, although Czechoslovakia Coach Dr. Jan Starsi credited Canada's triumph to the home-country advantage. "We would have won for sure if the final games had been played in Prague," he insisted.

For Canada, though, all went according to Alan Eagleson's scheme. Like most Canadians, Eagleson—the lawyer-agent who controls the financial destinies of the NHL's Players' Association, Bobby Orr and about half the individual players in pro hockey—feared that his country was losing hockey's cold war to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Presto! Eagleson created the Canada Cup. He invited six hockey-playing nations—the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the U.S., Finland, Sweden and, of course, Canada; guaranteed all their expenses; offered a pot of $150,000 to the winner; sold the television rights for $2.53 million; promised all profits to the NHL's pension program; taped up Orr's rickety left knee; and dropped the puck.

Canada assembled what was billed as its "greatest team ever"—Bobby Hull, Bobby Clarke, Guy Lafleur, Denis Potvin and 21 other pros joining Orr on Team Canada. And the Canadians had four coaches, with Montreal's Scotty Bowman working behind the bench. "This time we'll have zero excuses if we don't win," said Managing Director Sam Pollock. Or, as Eagleson said, "I just hope Canada wins every game by a minimum of five goals, and then perhaps people like Mr. Fred Shero will agree that we do some things right here." Shero, the Philadelphia coach, is a disciple of Russia's Anatoly Tarasov.

When Team Canada routed Finland 11-2 in the opening game of the round robin to determine the finalists, Eagleson's hope seemed reasonable. But the Canadians had to struggle before they finally subdued the U.S. 4-2, prompting American Defenseman Mike Milbury to say, "I think we proved something to that bunch of egomaniacs." Canada recovered to shut out Sweden, but then Czechoslovakia's No. 2 goaltender, Vladimir Dzurilla, a 34-year-old refrigerator repairman who had spent the previous four seasons in retirement, shut out the Canadians 1-0 in the Montreal Forum. "Now do you Canadians still think you are the only ones who know anything about hockey?" Finland's Veli-Pekka Ketola asked after watching that game. Eagleson's well-laid plans were in danger. In fact, Canada suddenly had to beat the Soviet Union just to qualify for the final series against Czechoslovakia.

The Soviets were a mystery team, probably even to Shero. Boris (Chuckles) Kulagin had been replaced as head coach by a troika of little generals, and most of the household names, including Alexander Yakushev and Valery Kharlamov, had been left behind in Moscow for one reason or another and replaced by a band of 20-year-olds who seemed feisty enough to play for Philadelphia. "When the Flyers outmuscled them last winter, the Soviets decided they needed some tough guys to protect the Kharlamovs and Yakushevs," said Bobby Kromm, one of Team Canada's coaches. "That's why they're trying these kids."

Still, the Soviets had brought Vladislav Tretiak with them, and even the most patriotic Canadian will admit that Tretiak is the best goaltender in the world. He also was the best-dressed Soviet, having signed Bobby Clarke's name to the bill for $1,000 worth of leather, suede and denim at a men's store in New Jersey. In return, Tretiak gave Clarke a Russian fur hat.

Despite Tretiak's brilliance, the young Soviets could not cope with the Canadians, particularly the remarkable Orr, who played keep-away with the puck in Canada's 3-1 triumph. Orr, who had appeared in only 10 NHL games last season, now has had five operations on his left knee. He did not rush the puck with reckless flair each time he took the ice in the series; instead, he operated like a drop-back quarterback, picking the defenses apart with pinpoint passes to breaking teammates. "Orr on one knee," said Clarke, "still is better than everyone else. Do you think the Bruins would like to have him back?"

In the opening game of the finals, Czechoslovakia started Dzurilla in goal again, but the Canadians bombed him with four first-period scores, sent him to the bench and added two more goals against Jiri Holecek in their 6-0 victory at Toronto. Two nights later in Montreal, with his team facing elimination, Starsi started Holecek in Game Two. Gilbert Perreault and Phil Esposito beat Holecek for two goals within the first 3:09, and suddenly Dzurilla was back on the ice. Impressed by his performance in Czechoslovakia's earlier victory over Canada, the Montreal Canadiens had placed his name on their negotiation list, and now he began to play like someone who wanted Ken Dryden's job.

For two periods Dzurilla stopped Team Canada cold. Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Czechoslovakia tied the score at 2-2. Then Bobby Clarke routed a Bobby Hull rebound through Dzurilla's legs to give Canada a 3-2 lead, but the Czechoslovakians rallied for two goals within the span of a minute late in the third period to take a 4-3 lead. Czechoslovakia clearly had assumed control of the tempo, but Canada tied the score at 17:48 when Bill Barber beat Dzurilla from the goal mouth. In the last minute of regulation play, Canada Goaltender Rogatien Vachon made his best save of the night, beating Milan Novy on a breakaway to force the overtime.

Canada scored three goals in the sudden-death period, but only one counted. Guy Lafleur put the puck into the net, but Ivan Hlinka had ingeniously lifted the cage off the ice a split second before, thus nullifying the goal. Then Guy Lapointe put the puck in the net an instant after the green light had flashed signaling the end of the first 10 minutes of overtime. No goal again. Finally, Toronto's Sittler ended all the nonsense with a legitimate score as he broke down the left side, faked a shot that brought Dzurilla to the ice, moved to a clear angle and fired the puck into the open net.

After Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had joined in singing O Canada and after the Canadians and the Czechoslovakians had exchanged jerseys, everyone agreed that tournaments like the Canada Cup signify the direction in which hockey is heading. In fact, the Canada Cup itself seems certain to become a quadrennial event, much like soccer's World Cup. "Let's face it," said Scotty Bowman, "people are going to demand international hockey."


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)