Park, intrigued, said, “They’re a mystery.”
Indeed, the Soviets had competed in only five Olympics and were four-time champions. But because of the promotional genius of Alan Eagleson, who was the head of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, Canada’s best N.H.L. players and the Soviets, the world’s top “amateur” squad, were playing a series for the first time.
I had a window into the competition, not only as the reporter for The New York Times, but also as Phil Esposito’s biographer. Esposito kept a diary for me during the eight games, known as the Summit Series.
After a few moments of listening to the players, I realized that the Canadians were making fun of their opponents.
“Look at those cage masks,” one said. “And look at those sticks.” The sticks were called Montreal Surprise, the cheap kind that children used.
Then a Montreal trainer whispered, “They’re drinking mineral water,” as if the Soviets were dilettantes.
I was caught up in disrespecting the Soviets. The Montreal Gazette polled the journalists for predictions. My answer: “The N.H.L. team will slaughter them in eight straight.”
After I asked how good the Russians were, the Rangers’ feisty coach, Emile Francis, probably spoke for everyone in hockey when he blurted: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about them. They’re not in our league.”
The Canadians made fun of just about everything the Soviet skaters did, on and off the ice. Their cage helmets evoked laughter. Most of the Canadians did not wear helmets.
“Let’s see what happens to them when they get hit,” Rangers left wing Vic Hadfield said after I suggested that the Soviets were fast and strong.
Hadfield was part of the Rangers’ Goal-a-Game, or GAG, Line with Jean Ratelle at center and Rod Gilbert on the right wing. What did it matter that Team Canada had been assembled only two and a half weeks before their first game? The GAG Line was intact.
Harry Sinden, the streetwise former coach of the Bruins, came out of retirement to coach Canada. He assembled his players and set the tone.
“Canada,” he told them, “is first in the world in two things: hockey and wheat. In that order.”
It reinforced the image that we, south of the border, had of Canada and that many Canadians had of themselves.
My press-box seat for Game 1 at the Forum was directly over the Canadians’ goal. A rising roar greeted them as they took the ice in red-and-white uniforms with a huge maple leaf on the front of their jerseys. In a sense, they were skating in their country’s flag. I looked down at the figure of goalie Ken Dryden swatting away slap shots in practice. He stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed more than 200 pounds, a symbol that hockey players were growing bigger and stronger.
It was hot in the old arena, which had not been designed for late summer hockey, and the ice was rutted. The Soviets were skittering like bugs on a pond during warm-ups, skating those daffy circles, dashing around, passing, passing, passing.
Then the game began. Thirty seconds later, Esposito gave Canada the lead. The game was barely six minutes old when Paul Henderson made it 2-0. I felt sorry for the Soviets. Yet they didn’t hang their heads.
I remembered Sinden telling me that the Soviets would skate in the same methodical fashion whether they were up or down. It was as if they had no emotion, no memory of what had happened. They were out there doing the job they were trained to do. If someone belted them into the boards, they shrugged it off and continued skating. I began to admire their grit.
I watched the Soviets move the puck toward Dryden. They passed the blue line, and my view was extraordinary: the Soviets stopped suddenly and got into position — pieces in a chess match. Canadian skaters blocked the middle. But Alexander Yakushev sent the puck darting into the players in front of him. Somehow, as if guided by some out-of-this-world technology, it slithered through untouched to Evgeny Zimin, who was standing whispering distance from Dryden. Zimin swatted at the puck. It flew past Dryden, the prettiest goal I had ever seen.
The Soviets tied the score while short-handed. In the second period, they went ahead, and then they followed that with still another goal. Suddenly, the crowd moved to sullen from stunned, and damned Dryden with faint-praise applause whenever he did make a save. Final score: 7-3.
The result was a shock to Canada’s nervous system, front-page news the next day.
“We Lost” was The Sunday Express headline.
The French-Canadian newspaper headlines were just as mournful: “Une Leçon,” and “Le Canada Écrasé.”
On the train to Toronto for Game 2, I sat with Eagleson. He conceded that the scouts for Canada had not done their job well. He suggested, though, that the Soviets had known they were being scouted and did not show everything they could do. (That paranoia manifested itself repeatedly, from players to coaches to management, up to the closing seconds of Game 8 in Moscow.)
Dryden’s father, Murray, approached.
“You suckered us!” he shouted at Eagleson. “What kind of scouting did you have? You told us we’d kill them. You made us think the Russians were a bunch of fools.”
Eagleson, who looked like a high school science teacher in his wire-framed glasses, climbed over me to get face to face with Murray Dryden. They started to argue. Dryden accused Eagleson of not doing enough groundwork. Eagleson called him a sore loser.
The angst of Canada was being played out in front of me.
I went to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the off-day workout, where the Canadian left wing Frank Mahovlich was asked to rate the Soviets.
“Give them a football, and in two years, they’d win the Super Bowl,” he said.
Sinden stunned everyone by benching Ratelle, Hadfield and Gilbert for Game 2, and he sat Dryden in favor of Tony Esposito, Phil’s brother.
“Before this started,” Sinden said, “I was just a guy from Rochester with a million friends. Now I can count them on one hand.”
The Canadians won, 4-1, pressing and hitting repeatedly, dumping the puck in and chasing it, and receiving superior goaltending.
The series was getting interesting, but I left for home. New York’s flagship public television station, WNET, saw the value in showing the games, and I was asked to do commentary between periods of the broadcasts.
After a tie in Winnipeg and another Canadian loss in Vancouver, the series moved to the Soviet Union. I wasn’t there, but Phil Esposito told me that the Canadian players suspected that K.G.B. agents were spying on them.
The Soviets won their first home game, 5-4. Canada had one victory and a tie in five games, but the team had a wild party in Phil Esposito’s room that night. And somehow, the players pulled together.
Canada won Games 6 and 7 to tie the series at 3-3-1. The Canadians’ confidence was peaking, and when they trailed by 5-3 after two periods in the finale, they didn’t panic.
Canada tied the score at 5-5, but the goal judge did not hit the red-light switch. Eagleson charged over to argue. Soldiers pulled him away.
The Canadians rescued Eagleson and hoisted him over the boards to the ice. He slid his way to the safety of the Canadians’ bench. Yvan Cournoyer’s score counted, and that set the stage for the biggest goal in the history of Canadian hockey.
Henderson thrashed at a rebound of a shot by Esposito and finally scored. Thirty-four seconds later, the Canadians were not exactly champions. It was only an exhibition series. Maybe they were simply vindicated. Maybe they were the best team in the world, after all.