Late last Sunday night, Boris Mikhailov, the small, clear-eyed, crooked-nosed captain of the Soviet National Hockey Team, raised a single finger, wagged it in the direction of the Godfather of Canadian hockey, Alan Eagle-son, and proceeded to utter the stunning words that no Canadian thought he would ever hear. "Soviets: one," Mikhailov said, smiling. He raised a second finger. "Kanadski: two."
Right you are, Boris. In hockey, Canada is now No. 2.
Mikhailov and his Soviet teammates had just won the first-ever Challenge Cup series—the Battle of the Century, as it was called in Canada—by annihilating the NHL All-Star team 6-0 in the third, and rubber, game at Madison Square Garden, and for the first time the world of hockey belonged to them. Yes, six-zip. Against Lafleur, Robinson and Potvin. Against Trottier, Bossy and Gillies. Against Clarke, Savard and Sittler. Against Barber and Cheevers. Six-zip.
The Soviets rallied to victory after losing the first game 4-2 on Thursday night and after falling behind 4-2 early in the second period of the second game on Saturday afternoon. For the first 90 minutes of the series it seemed as though the Soviets had left their legs back in Moscow; the NHL players easily beat them to the puck and completely disrupted their normally crisp pass plays. Then, suddenly, the Soviets unleashed their might, and the final 90 minutes were so one-sided in favor of the U.S.S.R. that the Soviet players seemed to become bored by it all.
February 19, 1979
In one quick swoop they whipped three goals past a beleaguered Ken Dry-den to win the second game 5-4. Once the Soviets went ahead on Vladimir Golikov's goal early in the third period, they spent the rest of the game playing a private game of keep-away with the puck. And then there was the ultimate 6-0 insult on Sunday.
Over the final 90 minutes of play—half the series—the NHL was outscored by an embarrassing 9-0 and got off only 33 shots at Soviet goaltenders Vladislav Tretiak and Vladimir Myshkin.
"We prepared ourselves as well as we could, and we worked as hard as we could," said Montreal's Bob Gainey. "It's tough to take."
What made it especially tough to take was the fact that the NHL seemed to have the series under control after winning the opening game with ease and enjoying a two-goal lead midway through the second. For a time it appeared that the U.S.S.R. players were more interested in their sightseeing expeditions. On Wednesday some of them had taken in a porn flick while others, wanting to "see a movie with sex, music and a historical background," as Center Vladimir Petrov put it, went to Superman.
While the Soviets were sleepwalking, the NHL players were high enough to leap tall buildings at a single bound. It took all of 16 seconds for Guy Lafleur to take a pass from Bobby Clarke, fake Tretiak onto the ice and slide the puck behind him for the first goal of the series. Mike Bossy and Mikhailov traded power-play goals, then Gainey scored the eventual game winner by breaking past Defenseman Sergei Starikov and lifting a forehand over the kneeling Tretiak's shoulder for a 3-1 NHL lead.
The Soviets never recovered. The key to the NHL's success was forechecking; muscular forwards such as Clark Gillies and Gainey easily bodied the Soviet defensemen off the puck.
"The Russians played lousy," said Boston General Manager Harry Sinden, who coached the 1972 NHL team that squeaked by the Soviets 4-3-1. "It's true, you only play as well as the other team lets you, but they were making bad plays and bad passes even when they weren't being bothered."
The next day Soviet Forward Vladimir Golikov was asked when a Soviet team would reach the level of the NHL. "Tomorrow," he responded.
Golikov was almost right. However, as the Soviets were elevating their level of play, the All-Stars were lowering theirs. Soon it looked very much as if the winning team from the first night had exchanged jerseys with the losers. On Saturday, it was the Soviets who fore-checked with a vengeance, took slap shots, crashed bodies into the boards and played with such emotion that even the normally stoic Mikhailov struck the boards with a stick when a teammate scored.
Despite controlling the play, the Soviets trailed 4-2 when the second period was only five minutes old. To that point, Tretiak—thought by many to be the world's premier goaltender—had made just three saves. On checking into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with his teammates, Tretiak had cracked, "If this is Broadway, where are the girls?" Clearly, his mind was not on hockey.
Later in the second period, Defense-man Barry Beck was penalized for boarding by Soviet referee Victor Dombrovsky. Such a call likely would not have been made by either of the NHL referees who worked Games 1 and 3, but it was not a horrible call by any means; Beck had crashed into Alexander Skvortsov with such force that the latter's helmet flew off. "It was a score call," said NHL Coach Scotty Bowman, meaning that the referee was particularly watching the team with the lead. "We get them in the NHL, too."
With five seconds remaining on Beck's penalty, Mikhailov—standing in the slot—scooped a shot past Dryden to close the NHL lead to 4-3. Forty-five seconds later, Clarke, who had said after the first game that he didn't think the Soviets were trying on the face-offs, lost a face-off to Victor Zhluktov and—pop—Sergei Kapustin scored to tie the game 4-4. Clarke was the most surprised man on the rink; the Soviets won only 88 of 240 face-offs in the three games.
"The series got out of our hands when we blew that 4-2 lead," said Bill Torrey, the general manager of the NHL team. "That showed the Soviets that all of their training wasn't in vain."
If the NHL had been able to take a two-goal lead into the third period, it no doubt would have won the game and the series. As it was, Vladimir Golikov scored the winning goal early in the third period. In all, the NHL was outshot 31-16. Said one NHL official, "The Russians had the puck 70% of the time, and 40% of the time that they had it, it was bouncing. Give them a flat puck, and I'd hate to see where we'd have been."
The Madison Square Garden ice surface was wretched; some of the cavities in the ice were almost like potholes. The Millrose Games had been held in the Garden the night before, and the ice had to be removed following the opening game. The new sheet of ice never had time to take good form. The reason for the afternoon start on Saturday, even though the game would be played on ice that sneakers could grip, was—tantara!—the once and future NHL network-television contract.
In devising the Challenge Cup format and scheduling all three games in Manhattan, the NHL figured that once CBS, NBC and ABC got a whiff of the excitement stirring in the Big Apple when Soviet hockey came to town, they would fall all over their billfolds trying to outbid one another for national TV rights. But the only falling done last week was by the National Hockey League—on its face, in front of 250 million television viewers in Europe and Canada, and a yawning New York City, which almost ignored the Series of the Century.
There was no local excitement over a series of immense significance to the hockey world. Promotion was nil, and U.S. network interest was limited to a quick showing of highlights on the CBS Sports Spectacular—heavily edited to blot out the advertising on the boards.
Madison Square Garden is a miserable place to watch hockey because of its poor sight lines, and when the majority of the seats cost $25, it is also an outrageous place to watch hockey. Asked how the NHL could justify asking fans to pay such a price, Torrey said, "Do you have any idea how much it costs to feed the Soviet hockey team for a week at the Waldorf? I had breakfast there this morning, and it cost $28 for two people. They eat a lot more than me."
By Sunday night, no one had any better idea who might win than before the first game. The first match was totally dominated by the NHL; the second by the Soviets. In both games the aggressor had been the winner. "They played an excellent game Saturday and beat us by a goal," Gainey said. "Today we'll have to play a more offensive game, starting from our own end. We had trouble getting three people skating up together in our loss. They kept breaking up our rushes, and I don't think we were as ready mentally as everyone thought we were."
In a surprise, both sides changed goal-tenders for the deciding game. The NHL switched to Boston's Gerry Cheevers, whose stickhandling outside the net was expected to help the NHL defense cope with the Soviet ploy of dumping the puck in and chasing it. The U.S.S.R. went with a 5'7" shaggy-haired blond named Vladimir Myshkin, who would be playing his first game for the National Team.
The scoreless first period was the roughest of the series. The NHL wanted to test the inexperienced—and no doubt nervous—Myshkin early, but the Soviets provided him with such solid checking support that he didn't even see a shot until the period was more than eight minutes old. Myshkin was at his best early in the second period, when he robbed Gilbert Perreault and Lafleur at a time when the NHL seemed ready to get its-act together. Then Mikhailov, the Soviets' most valuable player, took a pass from Alexander Golikov at the blue line, skated right, froze Beck with a faked drop pass and snapped a shot six inches off the ice just inside the far post. Cheevers never had a chance. It was the Soviets' first shot of the period and the only goal they would need.
Two minutes later, Zhluktov poked in a power-play goal from the crease for a 2-0 lead, and there were raised arms and cheers from the U.S.S.R. bench and its players on the ice. The Soviets scored four more goals during a six-minute span in the third period and the rout was complete. Their passing was uncanny; their skating tireless. They took brutal, sometimes vicious checks—and retaliated with goals. Afterward, Gillies said, "Nothing seems to bother them. They don't show any pain when you hit them, and that gets frustrating."
Cheevers admittedly did not play well, particularly once Helmut Balderis scored to give the Soviets a 3-0 lead, but on his finest night Cheevers' team would not have come within three goals of the Soviets. And they did it without the three best-known names in Soviet hockey: Tretiak, who was benched, Valery Kharlamov, who suffered a Charley horse in the first game, and Alexander Yakushev, who is 33 and considered to be over the hill. "In 1972 the Soviets had better individuals," Clarke said. "They used to try to beat you one-on-one. Now their team very seldom tries that. They just moved the puck around like crazy on us. This is a better team. If they had a weakness, we never found it."
When the series was over, Bowman was awestruck. He didn't even bother to single out specific players who might have helped or hurt the NHL. "I don't think two or three men could have made a difference," he said. He shook his head in admiration of the Soviets. "They're beautiful skaters, eh? Beautiful skaters, whew!" Asked if that was not the difference between his own team, the Montreal Canadiens, and the NHL's norm. Bowman thought for a moment and said, "I suppose on some nights we can get going like that. On our level."
The NHL selected the team it wanted and was satisfied it had performed at its best. So the guard has changed. And now the NHL must certainly rephrase this description: The Stanley Cup: Awarded annually to the team winning the National Hockey League's best-of-seven final playoff round. It is symbolic of the World's Hockey Championship.
Better still, the NHL might as well give the Stanley Cup to the Soviets, too.