The goal of the century!

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EDITOR’S NOTE—September 28, 1972. That was the date of the final game in the Canada-Russia “Summit” hockey series. And virtually every Canadian of a certain age knows exactly where they were when Henderson had scored the go ahead goal in the game’s final seconds, giving the series to Canada’s pros. The 40th anniversary of that pivotal moment passed at the end of September, giving veteran sportsmen and hockey enthusiasts the notion to recreate the series and what it meant to Canadians almost two generations ago…and still does today.

Mark the date: September 28, 1972. A collective country-wide inhalation…hold…hold…hold…, it just had to go in; hold once more…It, it…is in!—a nation-wide Canadian sigh of joy/relief! 19:16 of the 3rd period. Another tense 34 seconds…and finally, a buzzer sounded in Moscow’s Luzhniki arena! We, Canada, had downed the mighty Soviets, the U.S.S.R, the C.C.C.P., the big Red Machine! We knew all their names now. Just a month prior they were simply “Russia,” to myself and fellow Canadians. But now, at this moment, we had just driven through the heart of the IRON CURTAIN!…in downtown Moscow even. Exhilarating!

Where was their Cold War now? Why we had just won the only cold war important to us, the one on ice! Canadian “war analyst” Foster Hewitt kept repeating: “Henderson, Henderson, Henderson with thirty-four seconds remaining!”

The wounded Russian bear, Tretiak, was down, flat as could be. Our sharp-shooter was Henderson—Paul Henderson! Who would have thought he would be the one? Perhaps Mahovlich, Espo or Cournoyer…but Henderson? But it just didn’t matter. We were elated; we had downed the fearsome Communists…and on their own turf!

Torontonians, Montrealers, Vancouverites fled their office buildings this glorious afternoon even stopping traffic in the streets! Horns blaring, screams of joy, Maple Leaf flags waving. And in the small towns of rural Canada, Timmins, Peterborough, Streetsville and yes, Manitoulin people high-fived, slapped backs, exchanged phone calls, greeted neighbours outside across their country fences! In Little Current, West Bay, Gore Bay…in crowded livingrooms, classrooms and offices, people erupted with pure joy.

Myself, I happened to be in Wikwemikong at Pontiac School as the puck seemed to crawl across what seemed to be a massively thick red goal-line. In a Grade Seven class with a teaching colleague it was bedlam!

But this was not supposed to be the way it would happen. A month before, the same Foster Hewitt would say, “Canada’s two goals a game better. It looks like 8-0 Canada.” Wow Foster, really eight straight victories! In early September Toronto sportswriter and future Hall-of-Famers, Milt Dunnell had been a bit more polite: “Canada will win handily; they might lose one in Moscow.”

Other sportswriters agreed. The New York Times wrote: “The NHL will slaughter them in eight straight games.” The Boston Globe agreed: “8-0, Canada—and that’s the score of the first game!” Unaminity: Canada was a shoo-in. They would hardly have to break a sweat!

Espo vs. Petrou; not even close!

Cournoyer vs. Kharlamov; who he?

Mahovlich vs. Mikhailov; no match!

Russian names all end in “ov,” we laughed. And we would make irreverent jokes about what the “ov” sounded like in English. Lastly we believed Phil Esposito when he pronounced: “They’ve never played against the Pros. So how good can they be?”

CANADA

On September 2, 1972 we would first find out. Canadian fans, fanatics and simple observers collected popcorn and “pop” and settled before our TVs for game one of the eight game series. We were all ready to watch our good Canadian lads whomp those dark, mysterious Ruskie commies.”

My wife Corinne and I had…and I might add “very ceremoniously”…placed our three boys, André (age 5), Jean-Paul (4) and Wade (2) in our then-Manitowaning house so that they might say some day that they had seen “history-in-the making.” Our youngest, Scott, would not arrive until 1973 but then his three older brothers could relate to him what they had been witness to. At least one of the boys wore a Montreal Canadiens jersey. This was serious stuff.

The puck was dropped that night in Montreal and only 30 seconds later it was in the Russian net. The scouts had been correct in saying that Soviet goalie Tritiak was a sieve! When some six minutes later, Canada scored again the “colour” man, Brian Conacher, joked that at this rate we would win 20 to 0. No one disputed it! We were on our way; all the prognostications had been correct. Vlad Tretiak seemed to be like the proverbial and predicted “sieve” and, hey, we had Ken Dryden in our goal!

But then things went “BUMP” on that night! Shortly thereafter the roles reversed…The Russians were beating us to every puck. Our hitters were unable to touch their forwards…and on the few occasions that they did it was we who fell down. Soon Mr. Tretiak began to knock down and freeze everything we threw at him…and our Ken Dryden became the sieve! Except for a few scattered boos, you could hear a pin drop in the Forum as the battered Canadian Pros left the ice following a very unexpected 7 to 3 trouncing.

We were devastated. We had lost to a mysterious country, of which we knew little except what we read in the papers—and that was mostly fearful and fierce. Heck, Russia had only started playing hockey in 1946! How could this be? What the h___ was going on? How could these stone-faced communists beat us…and on our home ice? Hadn’t we invented hockey?

It was easy to blame Dryden’s sloppy performance, yet it was much more than that! Tretiak would later say, “We were afraid of you. Your newspapers were laughing at us, asking why we came, saying we would be destroyed and beaten with double-digit scores. That’s why we trained so hard…you couldn’t be in better condition. We had trained three times a day and we knew that no human being could have trained more.”

That certainly explained a lot of it. Canada looked slow and sluggish and without energy. After the first 10 minutes, the U.S.S.R. zipped around, over and through our NHL Pros. They also outthought us. They introduced a puck-possession pin-point passing game that had our cocky pros and fans asking, “What are the Russians doing? What kind of hockey is that?”

It was confusing. How to defend? They never dumped the puck in. They would keep possession until they had the shot, the goal-scoring one. They indeed made the “shots-on-goal” statistic virtually meaningless.

Our fans were very puzzled by the Russians’ lack of facial expressions and body language. It was weird: they seemed like automons. Russia’s #17 appeared to be a very fast robot. We could not seem to defense him. Bobby Clarke would attend to that situation in a later game!

September 4th in Toronto seemed to right the wrongs—Canada would win 4-1. We would all breathe much more easily. All seemed right with the hockey world. We thought, “Boy the commies were lucky to have surprised us in game one!”

Game 3, September 6th in Winnipeg was frustrating. It certainly didn’t seem to solve Canada’s on-ice problems. The contest ended in a 4-4 tie…much like “kissing your cousin!” Our fans were jumpy, restless and discontent with the NHL heroes. They continued to look slow and tired. Kharlamov, in particular, still seemed unstoppable, his skates fueled by high-octane at all times. And we found Yakushev and Mikhjailov to be extremely tough. We asked ourselves, “Who were these guys?”

The questions would continue to be more anxious and numerous. The fans were about to explode at their “multi-millionaire prima-donnas.” We all couldn’t take much more. And fans wouldn’t take it anymore!

September 8th in Vancouver would be the final straw for the patience of Canadian fans.

Team Canada blew two goal leads. They (frankly, it was now “they”, no longer “us” or “we”) were skating in gravel while the Soviets were on fire, mystifying us with “transition” and “regrouping.” Boos, slowly at first, then cascading down to the ice. A lack-lustre 5-3 loss brought fan anger to a boiling point. Coach Harry Sinden summed it up perfectly: “We were never in the game.”

As my friends and I sat around our Manitowaning TV, our hearts were broken, truly broken…not an exaggeration at all. Our pride in our players and in our game had been torn out of us. We were desperately despondent facing a 1-2-1 record and the need to complete the series in the dictatorship of Red Russia…behind the Iron Curtain.

Then to make us feel worse, Esposito’s face flashed on the TV screen. The guy we had come to call “Phat Phil” in derision of his play would depress us even more. This night he was “the talking head” for his teammates.

“To the people of Canada, we tried. We gave it our best. To the people who booed us, geez, all of us guys are really disheartened. We’re disillusioned and disappointed. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we got in our own building. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it.”

The people in my house were not buying it. To us it was Espo whining and crying. We were not encouraged by his speech. We were angry at these out-of-shape, overpaid under-achieving fat-cats.

Thank God that there was a two week break before the series resumed in Moscow. We, the fans, needed it every bit as much as the players! Gloom permeated the entire Nation of Canada.

RUSSIA

The media analyzed the first half of the series, literally, to death. Increasing talk of the Iron Curtain, the KGB, cold Moscow, secrecy and the Red Communists had us all peering into a dark abyss. Every pundit-expert and amateur had a different explanation, a different plan of attack.

Meanwhile the players’ hotel rooms in Moscow were at that very moment being fitted with bugging devices. Savard, Lapointe, Clarke, Mahovlich, Esposito, Cournoyer would all, of course, be followed at every step, by the secret police of the oppressive Russian hierarchy! If they, Espo and his gang, were upset and worried after Vancouver…wait until they arrived in Moscow!

A couple of meaningless exhibition games in Sweden allowed our heroes to calm down somewhat. Mentally, they needed to distance themselves from the first half of the series. But how could they be victorious now? They were in Russia and behind the 8 ball!

It was September 22 when the series resumed. Canadian fans had been worried and gossiping for two solid weeks. We mostly hoped that “our guys” wouldn’t embarrass us, and all of Canadian hockey.

The first two periods of Game 5 were wonderful. With 3,000 plus Canadian fans filling Moscow Stadium with boisterous chants of “DA DA CA-NA-DA” and “Nyet, Nyet Soviets”, our pros went to the dressing room with a 3-0 lead (Parise, Clarke, Henderson!).

Russian fans had never experienced such “hooligan fans”; they couldn’t understand the behavior of our supporters who easily out-did the other 12,000 Soviet on-lookers. The Russian army, well armed…was everywhere. Canadians had never experienced such security and gloomy control. Yet it didn’t dampen their spirits. But…the third period did.

Led by the playmaking of Kharlamov, the Russians roared back with five goals in the last 20 minutes to steal the game from Canada by a 5-4 score. Before, we had dreaded the dark abyss of Moscow, now we were enveloped in it!

Whether you were in Moscow, Vancouver, Tehkummah or Evansville, if you had watched the game you were beaten and battered. Down in the series 1-3-1 and in Moscow! Surely it was now impossible to do anything to save our pride! There was truly hockey gloom in Toronto, Montreal, Little Current and Gore Bay—wherever Canadian fans slumped in sorrow.

Had we known goaltender Tretiak’s thoughts at the time, Canadians would have had a little more hope. He later admitted: “If Tarasov had been our coach, he would have noticed our over-confidence. But Bobrov (the then coach) wasn’t very experienced…and he didn’t see that our team was “swimming in glory”. We weren’t training as hard as before. A few of our players even left our training camp sessions to visit their wives for a while! That had never happened before!”

There was a day off for Parise, Ellis, Park and the rest of Espo’s gang to think about what had happened, what position they were in and how they might possibly rally the troops. Phil would refer to it as a war; “It was a stinking war”!

Canada had gone from supreme favourites to underdogs with their tails between their legs! Or so the Russians believed, as did many, many Canadians. Numerous fans in every part of the country were threatening to not watch any more games. Forty years later, we are so thankful that our players did not take up that attitude. The Canadian fans in Moscow were a-never-say-die kind of group. “DA-DA-CA-NA-DA; Nyet, Nyet Soviet” was knocked up a few more octaves as the players lined up for game 6. If the Muscovite fans were incredulous before, they had not yet seen the power of the Canadian fans and their resurgent players!

The game of September 24 in Moscow would be a major tipping point. Things would start to turn Canada’s way. Canadian players were just now, finally, beginning to get in shape and the larger Soviet ice surface would help these highly skilled athletes. Add to that the fact that rugged Bobby Clarke just happened to hack Valeri Kharlomov’s ankle, with Canada ahead 3 to 1, and Canada began to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.

With Kharlamov ailing, the big red Russian machine sputtered. Hull (Dennis), Cournoyer and Henderson scored to give us a 3 to 2 victory in the Moscow “Mausoleum.” It also helped that Dryden was on his game this time, stopping 29 of 31 Soviet shots. Our crowd, the “7th player” continued to confuse and upset the staid Russian fans and the armed security surrounding them. “Go Canada Go,” continuously rang through the Russian stadium, but would that help Canada manufacture a “miracle”?

That night (and others) constant noise filled the air around the hotel that housed the Canadian players…and hotel telephones would ring at all hours of the long dark night. At least our renewed players had the following day off…perhaps they could sleep during the day.

September 26 would bring game seven which might very well tell us if our team was really back on the tracks. Four minutes in, Phil Esposito would seem to signal that “yes we were” as he tucked in a Ron Ellis pass to put Canada up 1 to 0. Unfortunately, the roller coaster ride would continue as the Soviet Union would reply with two of theirs. The “Leave it to Phil” program continued, though, as Espo manufactured a short-handed goal at 17:34 bringing Team Canada back to even by the end of the first frame.

The remainder of the game would mirror the first period-back and forth. With “God” seemingly in our corner, Canada scored the final goal of the game to make the miracle comeback entirely possible!

In the Don “Scotty” Fisher/Odjig’s Wikwemikong livingroom, the feeling was positive and optimistic in the greatest series ever”; not so sure was the Leblanc household in Manitowaning.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Canadian players would continue to be harassed by honking horns, ringing phones and uneasiness about the K.G.B.

Off ice, other intrigues were taking place. Russian officials would soon renege on referee arrangements. Throughout the games in Moscow, Canadian officials (led by the later-disgraced Al Eagleson, Team Canada Manager) constantly complained about the referees. For the seventh game the Soviets had given the Canadians their way in the selection of officials and the game had transpired to everyone’s satisfaction. However for the 8th and deciding game, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation would throw a curveball at Eagleson and his associates.

On September 28, 1972 as Phil Esposito lined up for the opening faceoff, who was there to drop the puck but the much maligned and distrusted German referee, Josef Kampala! This gentleman had upset all Canadians, players and fans, in every previous game he called. It was not so much that he might be a tool of the Soviets when he made his calls. It was moreso that he was just too plainly and consistently incompetent!

It would not be long before our compatriot Canadians on ice would show their displeasure. For the first 3 to 4 minutes of the game there was a wild palpable tension in the air. Russian fans had learned how to be loud. They answered Canadian boos and player roughness with a chorus of ear piercing whistles. Moscow stadium this day sounded like the Montreal Forum on a typical Saturday night. This would be one rousing game!

At this time M’Chigeeng’s Adam Debassige and friends were ready at his then-residence in Kaboni to take in the contest. And they had prepared the “champagne” with hopeful and optimistic anticipation.

The great Russian Yakushev would dim Canadian frivolity quickly. Three minutes and thirty-four seconds into the first period, he would convert a Maltsev pass. There was pushing and shoving, yelling and screaming. Boos and whistling. Mr. Kampala had quickly made Canadian blood boil. When Yakushev scored there were already two Canadians sitting in the penalty box….White (holding) 2:25…P. Mahovlich (holding) 3:01…followed by Yakushev from Maltsev at 3:34! Was this not just the way the Communists had planned it? The noise in the arena was thunderous, deafening.

Perhaps to quell the uproar, Kampala called the Russian Petrov 10 seconds later (3:44) for a questionable though acceptable (from Canada’s viewpoint) hooking penalty. No one knows what was running through this ref’s mind but 26 seconds later he whistled down Canada’s J.P. Parise for interference! Perise went nuts! He raced at top speed towards Kampala with stick held back like an Arabian sword. Kampala ducked but J.P. never swung.

Manager Eagleson, Coach Sinden and his assistants joined in the screaming matches. Every Canadian player was now on the ice! Canadian fans chanted “Let’s go home” at the very top of their voices. And announcer Foster Hewitt described the situation as being at its “boiling point.” He also reported that as many as 100 policemen now surrounded the Canadian bench.

HOSTILE, HOSTILE, HOSTILE described the tawdry scene. It seemed that the game would not, could not go on.

But slowly, very slowly, cooler heads would start to prevail. Peter Mahovlich, Esposito, Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Serge Savard and others would talk their brother teammates into calming down. Parise was thrown out and left the ice surface. That seemed to help. We would get 22 minutes in penalties for “threatening” the official. After what seemed like an eternity, the game resumed.

In Philadelphia, Pa, Little Current and Manitoulin hockey prospect Don McCulloch was watching in his hotel room. Needless to say, with a roomful of hockey pros, the mood was tense. Don described it as “pretty crazy.” At this point in the game I’m sure he and his hockey buddies were wishing they were in Moscow, rather than in training camp.

At 6:45 Esposito (in what was undoubtedly the best game of his entire life) scored from Park to tie the game and settle things down from a Canadian perspective. The teams would trade goals in the last ten minutes to make it 2-2 going into the dressing room.

Unfortunately the Canadian roller-coaster returned in the second period. Another exchange of goals was followed by a disastrous two goal Soviet outbreak.

Our fans were back to wishing-for that “miracle” once more. One thing that had made a huge impression on our players was the support from those fans back home in Canada. Thousands of telegrams, phone messages and letters had poured into Moscow since Team Canada had arrived. These were posted all over the dressing room and hotel. Pros like the Mahovlichs, Espo and Savard among others, made this out-pouring of affection a rallying point for their deflated squad. We, the fans, would not know this till later, though, as our players filed back onto the ice for what might be the final treacherous 20 minutes. There were still more circus acts to come!

Meanwhile, I had decided to leave my office in Manitowaning where we had been listening to the game on the radio. Disheartened, I decided to drive to Wikwemikong to take care of a chore I needed to do at Pontiac School. At the time my thoughts were that Canada might be able to come back from a one-goal deficit but that being down two goals made it well nigh impossible. When I arrived at Pontiac the score was 5-4! Hope springs eternal!

It was a “pins and needles” atmosphere wherever Canada’s fans gathered. It must have been especially tense to be a Canadian in Moscow’s famous Luzhniki Arena.

Once again, Phil Esposito had willed his team back to life as he scored early after some great work by Peter Mahovlich. The score sat at 5 to 4.

Now every puck-possession seemed increasingly worrisome. Players handled it much like they would a grenade…not-to-make-a-mistake…not-to-make-a-mistake…

Ten minutes of cat and mouse went by, not much of significance having taken place.

Meanwhile to South Bay and Larry Killens (later a long-serving OPP officer on Manitoulin) who proved to be the “exceptional” Canadian…one of the very few not watching the game because he was in North Bay, shopping! He “alibi’s” that at least he was getting the family groceries! Oh well, each to his own!

Suddenly at 12:56 Yvon Cournoyer swiped twice at an Esposito pass before dumping it over a prone Vadislav Tretrak. The miracle, indeed, seemed to be continuing! But the goal light didn’t come on!

A scuffle of some sort broke out at that moment on the other side of the ice. Brad Park and Peter Mahovlich led the charge of Canadian players to the opposite boards. There, embroiled with the Russian police and fans was the truculent Allan Eagleson. Canadian players wrestled him from the clutches of the police and, no doubt, the K.G.B. They dragged him, stumbling, across the big ice surface. The irascible Eagleson (later a disgraced felon in Canada) gave the Russian crowd an obscene gesture.

Canadians in Luzhnki screamed almost mindlessly, not only for the tying goal, but also in triumph for a fellow citizen who had just been rescued from the fate of bring a denizen of some Russian gulag! In it’s own way, this was a huge Canadian victory but more was to come. But not before a Soviet delegation proceeded to the Team Canada bench to inform coach Sinden that they would be claiming victory should the game remain tied. International rules stated that series that were tied in points would go to the team with the most goals over the 8 games. It would be extra motivation for Canada now!

There would be five more minutes of desperate back and forth hockey. Then in a voice that only Peter could hear, Paul Henderson summoned Mahovlich to the Canadian bench. There was less than a minute in the series! Henderson in for Mahovlich…a stab at the puck and a miss…a tumble behind the Soviet net…get up! Get up Paul! So back to the slot…an Esposito pass. One swing, then a second swipe at that puck!

Teacher Bruce Wiggins’ elementary school class went absolutely hysterical! Watching the game in Mindemoya’s old school basement classroom, the students were viewing history! Bruce would also remind me that then-Premier Bill Davis had given school children permission to do so. Time to party!

With just 34 seconds remaining Paul Henderson became a Canada hero! 6-5…6-5…6-5!

Hockey styles had changed forever. The Russians had been somewhat de-mystified. Canada had saved its’ Hockey Reputation. We all breathed a giant sigh of relief.

Were we not just the best darn country in the world! Manitoulin, you can breathe easy now.

Larry Leblanc


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