Taking a shot at 72
Phil Esposito (played by David Berni) celebrates the series-winning goal in Canada Russia 1972.Taking a shot at ’72
Everyone knows what happened on the ice between Canada and the Soviets in 1972, but a new film exposing another side of the summit series reveals that making legends can be a dirty game
By Douglas Bell
It’s weird the places acting will take you. On a drizzly early spring afternoon I’m standing in a dressing room in the University of New Brunswick’s hockey arena in Fredericton, wearing a wardrobe heavy on wide and loud – wide tie, wide collar, loud checked sports jacket – and holding a notepad and pen. I have a part in a CBC miniseries tentatively titled Canada Russia 1972; I’m playing a reporter for the Boston Globe, covering the now mythic 1972 Canada–Russia Summit Series. The interior of the UNB arena is doubling as Maple Leaf Gardens, site of the series’ second game. Having just ostensibly witnessed Canada defeat the Russians 4-1, I’m about to confront coach Harry Sinden, questioning Canada’s rough style in response to the opening-game 7-3 debacle in Montreal, a game that, in the course of three hours, utterly redefined hockey as it was then understood. Seconds before (in the film), Russian coaches burst into the referees’ room, berating the American officials for failing to keep control of the Canadian goons.
Boston Reporter (me, complete with broad South Boston accent): The coach of the U.S. National Team says you guys laid on so much lumber you even intimidated the refs.
Harry Sinden: You know, I’m getting sick and tired of all the criticism about the way we play. We’re Canadians. We play tough. That’s our game. As for poor sportsmanship, who was it that pushed a referee tonight? Cashman? No, it was your media darling, Kharlamov.
It was? Our media darling? If I’d ever known that after game one the North American press had instantly canonized Valeri Kharlamov as the first of the Russian superstars, I’d certainly forgotten it. For a moment, my genuine surprise as a fan actually overtakes my character’s cynicism. And I’ve read the script. It’s a weird disconnect. How many more revelations, I find myself wondering while the scene continues, are waiting for a middle-aged Canadian hockey addict under the mountainous myth machine that is 1972?
What else don’t we know?
For Canadians over forty, the 1972 Canada–Russia hockey series was the defining moment of a generation. We don’t just remember that Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal in the dying moments of the deciding game. In Moscow. At the height of the Cold War. Or that Bobby Clarke snapped Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle with a two-hander that still engenders public disgust and private gratitude, or that Phil Esposito delivered a defiant speech after the loss in Vancouver that rivalled Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day pep talk from Henry V (a favourite memory of mine). We remember every detail of where we were and who we were with.
In another sense, we remember very little. Outside the Rocket Richard suspension-inspired riots of 1955 in Montreal, and maybe the FLQ crisis, no Canadian event has been more subject to hagiography than the ’72 Russia–Canada Summit Series – which means no event has been less genuinely examined. We’ve been so preoccupied with the great stuff of the series that the truly good stuff, the inside stuff, has never had a chance to surface. And under the cheering, of course, that is exactly the stuff that we’re dying to hear. The other story waiting to be told.
It’s in this context that Canada Russia 1972 is destined to be a valuable national document, regardless of the reviews (about which, obviously, yours truly has a certain conflict of interest). The untold story was precisely what Canada Russia 1972’s co-producer and co-writer Barrie Dunn (best known as co-writer, co-producer, and actor, Ricky’s dad, on Trailer Park Boys) was thinking about when he decided in 2003 that he wanted to make a movie based on the Summit Series. This became clear to me when, on the same day I shot my scene in the press conference, I watched as director T.W. Peacocke, with Dunn hovering in the background, set up another scene in which Harry Sinden (played by Booth Savage), in an effort to inspire his charges, showed a highlight reel of the 1958 World champion team, Ontario’s Whitby Dunlops. (As of 1972, the Dunlops, whom Sinden played for, were one of only two teams to have won a world championship on Canada’s behalf.)
The scene showed Sinden’s efforts falling flat as Team Canada howls at Dunlops’ vintage uniforms and Sinden’s somewhat more svelte physique fourteen years previous. It was a nice twist on the sort of wave-the-flag sentimentality evident in most sports drama, and the first hint I had that Canada Russia 1972 aimed to be something much different than another chapter in Canada’s Iliad. It was also the moment I decided to start interviewing Barrie Dunn in earnest, as an extra-curricular adjunct to just acting for him.
Ironically, the first obstacle Dunn faced in crafting his account, he told me, was born of the very collegiality that was the hallmark of Team Canada’s success: loyalty – otherwise known as the Great Stonewall.
It quickly became apparent that all thirty-five members or their heirs (Bill Goldsworthy and Gary Bergman having died in the interim) would have to agree to the project before Dunn could move forward. And it was about more than just money. (Though it was still somewhat about money. What Dunn termed a “considerable percentage” of the movie’s $7.8-million budget went to pay a licensing fee to Team Canada ’72 Representation Inc. allowing the production to depict the players’ lives and stories, use the name Team Canada, reproduce the team jerseys and logos, and perhaps most importantly make use of precious archival footage.) “As far as I can tell,” says Dunn, “it’s one for all and all for one. If one guy objected to any aspect of our approach, that would have been it.”
But as 2004 was coming to an end, marking the fast-approaching deadline for financing, Dunn and the agent for Team Canada ’72, Horst Streiter, had actually succeeded in working through the entire roster, except one: Ken Dryden. Dryden, author, intellectual, and Minister of the Crown, was apparently concerned that the film live up to the drama, suspense, the sheer narrative power of the event as he remembered it – and as he’d written about it himself in his 1973 book Face-Off at the Summit.
During the course of a long negotiation over the phone, by e-mail, and fax, with the clock ticking, Dryden kept repeating again and again that he wanted the work to “achieve greatness.” Dunn asked every way he knew how which substantive dramatic issues Dryden wanted covered. “He just kept repeating the same thing over and over about wanting us to make a film that lived up to the grandeur of the event.” On the one hand, it’s hardly surprising that Dryden might feel a frisson of impotence in the face of a project on this scale. Films and television tend to get the final word, especially as it relates to events that touch the popular nerve, and Dryden, as national hockey amanuensis, had a double role as custodian of the legend. But it also transpired that Dryden had been more involved than was commonly known in one of the more infamous backroom moments of the ’72 Series, what might be called the Hadfield Uprising.
Team Canada was on its way to the showdown in Moscow, during a disastrous series of exhibition games against the Swedish national team in Stockholm (after which the Canadian ambassador demanded that Team Canada apologize to the people of Sweden for their rough play). And it was in Stockholm that Dryden attended a meeting with New York Rangers star Vic Hadfield and the series’ chief organizer, Alan Eagleson.
As portrayed in Canada Russia 1972, Hadfield, disgruntled by his lack of playing time, is joined by Dryden in asking Eagleson to censor, if not fire, the prickly Canadian coach and GM Harry Sinden prior to the games in Russia. While they apparently share a certain disdain for Sinden’s method, Hadfield’s intentions are obviously the more malevolent and self-serving (Dryden’s concern specifically, born of his experience playing under the
rigorous disciplinarian Sam Pollock, turns on Sinden’s willingness to fraternize with the players). Still, Dryden was clearly present at the meeting, and while managing to straddle the fence, made some common cause with Hadfield in voicing his complaints. Subsequently, as the film makes clear, Hadfield tried to foment a full-scale revolt, setting as many as thirteen members of Team Canada to consider abandoning the team. The upshot we know: In the end, only four players – Gilbert Perrault, Richard Martin, Jocelyn Guevremont, and Vic Hadfield – packed their bags and headed home. History remembers Vic Hadfield as a rat who jumped a buoyant ship, whereas Dryden is feted for stoning the Soviets when we needed it most. Canada Russia 1972 gets beyond at least half that myth, portraying Dryden for what he also was, a cagey politician in the making – a fox in goalie’s clothing.
Whatever sweet nothings Dunn’s people murmured into Dryden’s ear, they did the trick. At the eleventh hour, Dryden faxed his approval. That bullet dodged, the question for Dunn and co-screenwriter Malcolm MacRury (The Man Without a Face, Deadwood) remained: How to do it? What approach to the story would bring a fresh perspective while rekindling the revelry of the public event? “A line in passing from Alan Eagleson’s autobiography [Power Play] about how the real story of the ’72 series took place behind the scenes,” recalls Dunn, “was the impetus for telling that story concurrent with what was happening on the ice.”
The research, beyond reviewing newspaper clips and the plethora of books on the subject (Harry Sinden’s Hockey Showdown and Dryden’s account being the best of the lot, according to Dunn), involved hours and hours of interviews with the Russian and Canadian principals. What emerged were the previously invisible parts of a dozen anecdotal icebergs, stories that were hinted at by the popular press at the time, but never divulged.
One of the most dramatic concerned the aftermath of that first stunning, eviscerating 7–3 blowout loss to the Soviets in Montreal. First, Dunn and MacRury discovered that perhaps the most astonished two dozen people in Canada that night were the Soviets themselves. As depicted in the film, shortly after Canada fails to honour the post-game handshake, a Soviet documentary camera follows their quarry into their dressing room, where what reigns is a palpable sense of delighted surprise. Coach Bobrov moves around the room, kissing each of the players and saving the warmest embrace for his newly minted superstar, Kharlamov.
Even less well-known was what produced the turnaround in the Canadians’ fortunes, leading to their 4–1 win a few nights later in Toronto. Phil Esposito’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech in Vancouver is as well-travelled now as Espo’s famous “sprawl” in Moscow; but a scathing dressing-down delivered by Boston Bruins winger Wayne Cashman following the loss in Montreal (a game Cashman hadn’t even dressed for) may have actually had a greater impact on the series as a whole. The problem for Dunn and MacRury was in recreating that dressing-room moment. Creative licence was the answer. The medium, shall we say, became the message.
“We had a general idea,” says Dunn, “that Cashman had been the one to call guys out, but obviously we didn’t have the exact dialogue. We didn’t even try to script it. We just let the actors improvise in a dressing-room scene. We gave them the premise and let the cameras roll.”
The result in the film (if, as a fellow thespian, I may say so) is electric. The actor who plays Cashman, Gerry Dee, is a stand-up comic by trade and formerly an outstanding collegiate hockey player, and brings a genuine menace to his performance as the quintessential **** disturber. In the locker room, amid the general grousing that followed their 7–3 defeat, Cashman tells his teammates, “Let’s stay together on this, it’s only one game.” To which Gary Bergman (played by Hugh Thompson) responds, “Shut up, Cash.”
Cashman, apparently smelling blood, bares his teeth. “You fuckin’ shut up. Seven fuckin’ goals. You’re a defenceman, take some claim to it.” Moments later, on his way back to his stall, he sees his name on the lineup card for game two.
“Cavalry’s comin’, ” he says.
You can’t write this stuff.
Beyond the Cashman affair, the full-length DVD version of Canada Russia 1972 (the CBC broadcast will be considerably shorter) clarifies and builds on several other aspects of the historical record. For instance, the reality of playing four games in Moscow during the Cold War hits home as we watch both the substantive impediments the Soviets threw up in an effort to disorient Team Canada, and the paranoia that took hold on the Canadian side of the equation as a result. The Soviets steal a supply of beer and steaks laid in by the Canadians in an effort to avoid Soviet-era cuisine. Sometime later, several Canadian players unscrew what they think is the cap for a listening device hidden under the carpet in their room. It is in fact the support for a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the room below. You can guess the rest.
A meatier bit of historical speculation involves a scene depicting the father of Soviet hockey, Anatoly Tarasov, and Victor Bobrov, the coach of the Soviet side in 1972. Tarasov and Bobrov had a notoriously tense relationship; in the midst of the Canadian comeback, Tarasov confronts Bobrov, criticizing his efforts at mimicking the Canadian system by developing “stars” (Kharlamov specifically), undermining the traditional Soviet collective.
Tarasov (In Russian with English subtitles): This is what happens when you try to create stars. When an individual becomes more important than his team, all that is necessary to defeat that team is to defeat its star.
It’s a mirror of the Canadian conundrum: One team coming apart over the emergence of its stars in light of its success; the other pulling together as its stars fade against the backdrop of a common goal born of desperation.
By far the most surprising, and in a way disorienting, aspect of Canada Russia 1972, though, is its treatment of Alan Eagleson. Among the twenty-five or so subjects interviewed for the film, two stood out for their candour and their knowledge of what it took behind the scenes and on the ice to play and eventually win the series: Harry Sinden and Alan Eagleson. And it was Eagleson, the disgraced and convicted former head of the NHLPA for his role in massive fraud, who made the single greatest contribution to the script’s verisimilitude.
It’s easy to do the now-reflexive Canadian eye-roll at the mention of everyone’s favourite hockey pariah, to assume that if Eagleson was co-operative with Dunn and company, it was no doubt an attempt to seek a measure of redemption. But Dunn isn’t having any of it: “He was totally co-operative and, from all that I can gather, totally honest.” Eagleson’s generosity adds not merely to the script’s depth and breadth but to the subtleties and nuances of Eagleson’s portrayal, all of which adds a layer of paradoxical complexity to an already complex situation. Eagleson would, under any circumstance, be a mainstay of the ’72 story.
“He made the series happen,” says actor Judah Katz, who plays Eagleson on-screen. “He had this incredible tenacity. He was perfectly willing to be a bully, absolutely ruthless in negotiations. As for what came after, it has no relevance in this story.”
In fact, without Eagleson, the behind-the-scenes story of the ’72 series wouldn’t exist, nor would the series itself. Eagleson was the fulcrum around which the crucial storylines revolved. It was Eagleson’s skill as a negotiator and master tactician, by turns ranting, conniving, and charming, that kept the series and Team Canada from going off the rails. This much, despite the later cynicism, most of us knew. What the film makes clear, moreover, is that Eagleson motivated and cajoled Sinden and the series hero, Espo, to previously unimagined heights of leadership and inspiration.
On both counts, Dunn’s research pays off. We watch as Eagleson hastily writes a personal cheque to a pay off a debt stemming from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, owing to an aggrieved party who convinced a Montreal judge to embargo the Soviet’s equipment in lieu of payment on the morning of game one. We see Eagleson challenging both Esposito and Sinden to rise above themselves in favour of national honour and pride. We see him wrestle deals to keep the Russians from walking away from the series after game two and to keep Canadian players from abandoning ship in Moscow after game five.
To an extent, Eagleson is, warts and all, the hero of Canada Russia 1972. The rub is the warts and all. Think of a play titled Richard the Third: The Carefree Years. It’s difficult, watching history unfold, to keep the scheming, hunchbacked misanthrope from our minds. At one point during the production, apparently, Barry Dunn was under pressure from network execs to incorporate an element in the script that might foreshadow Eagleson’s future malfeasance. A source close to the shoot reports that Dunn was steadfast in his refusal to blackwash the historical record. “I don’t care what anyone says,” Dunn told him. “There’s no way I’m gonna skewer [Eagleson] for the CBC.”
Phil Esposito couldn’t have said it better himself.
Phil – ah Phil! Where are you, Phil? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. It has to, because of course, the ’72 Series was never a true slam dunk, mythically, not if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. A few inches below the surface, all those doubts lurked. We won by exactly one goal, scored thirty-four seconds before a tie immemorial. We were pathetically ill-prepared, drenched in hubris. Bobby Clarke broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle. Our tactics were suspect. In the midst of all this, Barrie Dunn, whose own memories of ’72 invariably raise a lump in his throat, is pensive, even daunted, when asked what he thinks the nation took with it from the Summit Series.
“You know, I really don’t have a fucking clue. I remember an e-mail discussion I had with author David Adams Richards about this, and he said that the intellectual elites in this country are always going to look down their nose at the ’72 series as a national accomplishment because of the physical way we played that series. Even Ken Dryden had problems defending our style of play.” Dunn lifts his shoulders as if trying to shrug off a weight. “Listen, it’s about passion, man. It’s something you can’t intellectualize. There was a collective joy and it evoked passions in Canadians that continue to resonate. This movie is an effort to stir those passions and to feel good about an ideal.”
And to humanize everyone. If the Russians weren’t such robots, maybe we weren’t such jerks. At one point in Canada Russia 1972, Soviet superstar Valeri Kharlamov (at least the actor playing him) notices a gaggle of scoffing Canadian players sitting in the stands watching the Soviet practice prior to game one. What does he do? He fires the puck into the stands, scattering his opponents and bringing down a rain of curses. What a moron! What an a-hole!
It’s exactly what a Canadian would have done.
And at another point in the film, thirty-three years after the fact, an actor named David Berni skates across the ice of the Halifax Harbour Station arena, doubling for the Vancouver Coliseum, and begins to recite The Speech, the one delivered by Phil Esposito, drenched in perspiration, in the wake of the game four defeat that put Canada squarely behind the eight ball, down two games to one with one tied, heading to Moscow. The Vancouver fans had just booed Team Canada off the ice, and I remember not being able to watch or look away, even though I also knew Berni was playing the part wearing a wig. (Throughout the production the wig was constantly under the care and supervision of various hair and makeup personnel, who treated it as though it were a fledgling showing no inclination to fly.)
Berni (be-wigged) begins, and momentarily bridges the divide separating memory and imagination.
“People across Canada, we tried,” says Espo. “We gave it our best. For the people who booed us, geez, I’m really – all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned and we’re disappointed in some of our people . . . . We cannot believe the bad press we got, the booing in our own buildings . . . . Some of our guys are really down in the dumps. We know, we’re trying, but hell, we’re doing the best we can. But they’ve got a good team, and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean we’re not giving it our 150 percent because we certainly are. Every one of us guys, thirty-five guys who came out to play for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason. They can throw the money for the pension fund out the window, they can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home and that’s the only reason we come.”
“This story shall the good man teach his son,” says Henry V, in Shakespeare’s play of the same name:
. . . from this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother . . .
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.
“What’s the thuggery of a few Canadian hockey players,” wrote the late Irving Layton in a newspaper editorial during the Canada–Russia Summit Series, “compared to the suffering genius of a Solzhenitsyn?”
You can have Solzhenitsyn, Irving. I’ll take Espo.
Douglas Bell is a Toronto-based writer.