CBC shoots and scores

CBC shoots and scores

Sat, April 1, 2006

A new mini-series on the Canada-Russia Summit Series of 1972 plays up the facts, plays down phoney dramatics and serves up a winner.


Frank Lennon of the Toronto Star captured the moment just after Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in the final game of the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series.
It is a Canadian question alongside VE Day and the assassination of John F. Kennedy as an historical bookmark.

Where were you when Paul Henderson scored the Goal?

Those of a certain age can recall vividly where they were and what they were doing Sept. 28, 1972, when Henderson scored at Moscow's Luzhniki Arena late in the final game of an eight-game series to send much of Canada into delirium.

Many can recall the runup to it, when the vaunted professionals of the National Hockey League did not, as expected, roll over the perennial world and Olympic champions from the Soviet Union.

They can recall the disappointment born of the Soviets' 7-3 opening-game victory in Montreal, the renewed hope in Canada's 4-1 win in Toronto, the concern over the 4-4 draw in Winnipeg and the deflation when the Soviets won 5-3 to head home with what seemed an insurmountable edge.

Maybe that's why what has been called the biggest goal in history still resonates. It came 34 seconds from the end of the eighth and last game and completed an improbable sweep of the last three games by Canada, with Henderson scoring the winning goal in each.

Canada-Russia '72, a dramatization of events leading up to the pivotal goal, runs April 9-10 on CBC. Thankfully, the producers largely steer clear of the sort of dramatics that produce a hollow ring and remain faithful to the facts.

The story was dramatic enough on its own. Who'd believe a players' mutiny, a team executive being roughed up by Soviet soldiers during a game and rescued by Canadian players, a star player going off the rails, and an unsung hero?

Consider the course of the series: After the biggest wake-up call in hockey history in the opener, Canada won just one game at home. It got worse.

After a number of the pros embarrassed Canadian hockey with goonery during exhibition games in Sweden, the air went out of the balloon big-time in the opener on Soviet soil.

Down 4-1 after two periods, the Soviets came back with four third-period goals to take a stranglehold on the series. As if to underline the futility Team Canada was experiencing, veteran Phil Esposito did a pratfall when he stepped on a flower stem during the player introductions.

The whole thing was fraught with another kind of drama, for those who lived it. It came during the Cold War, when the arms race and space race were joined by a race on the playing fields of sports. It was us versus them, our way of life versus communism.

Shot in documentary style, with hand-held cameras adding authenticity, the production rings true for anybody who was around at that time. The clothes, uniforms, music are on the mark and so are events, with chief organizer and then-NHL Players Association chief Alan Eagleson accurately portrayed throughout the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing.

A common weakness in sports flicks creeps into some of the on-ice action, but that's to be expected. Hardly anything out of Hollywood, or anywhere else, captures the ebb-and-flow of top sports action very convincingly.

It gets the story right, though, with a minor dramatic departure. Political aide Gabrielle Fournier, played by Sonia Laplante, didn't exist but is a compendium of various government people involved.

The original soundtrack of Foster Hewitt's play-by-play provides another ring of truth.

Some of the actors resemble the players they portray, such as Gabriel Hogan as Ken Dryden. Judah Katz has the peripatetic Eagleson down reasonably well and Booth Savage's coach Harry Sinden is on the money. Interestingly, Marc Savard plays his father, Serge.

The events are accurately depicted. Among the 35 players selected, not all saw much action going into the Soviet Union and four -- Vic Hadfield, Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Jocelyn Guevremont -- left for home.

Frank Mahovlich's suspicion the hotel would be bugged -- he suggested the team should camp outside the city in tents -- was true. So was the search for bugs by Gary Bergman, Esposito and Wayne Cashman. They thought they'd found one beneath the carpet and loosened a screw -- sending a chandelier below plummeting to the floor.

One of the ugliest episodes of international hockey underscores how seriously Canadians took the series. Bobby Clarke broke Soviet star Valery Kharlamov's ankle with a vicious slash -- the turning point of the series, many Soviets maintained -- and more than a few Canadians cheered.

As many as cheered the Canadian players, led by Peter Mahovlich, who led the rush to Eagleson's assistance when he was being manhandled by Soviet soldiers. Eagleson had raced to rinkside to protest the scorekeeper's failure to register a Canadian goal. Players jumped the boards, wrenched him from the soldiers and escorted him across the ice to the Canadian bench while the Soviet crowd rained down piercing whistles of disdain.

The film doesn't show Eagleson flipping them the bird, as he did in reality.

The $7-million production works as a sort of documentary because it didn't have to manufacture anything. This was Good versus Evil before the thaw of the Cold War, democracy versus totalitarianism, pros versus amateurs, style versus style.

The plot seems pure Hollywood. The good guys run into terrible setbacks. Everyone turns against them, it seems (Esposito's emotional post-game comments after the team was booed in Vancouver are exactly as he said them).

Team Canada loses the first game in Moscow and now must win three straight to win the series. They will all three, all by one goal scored by an average guy named Henderson from Lucknow (or Kincardine, as those folks claim), a fellow who would go on to become an ordained minister.

You couldn't make it up. You couldn't invent the sort of national emotion rivalled only by Canadian troops taking Vimy Ridge in the First World War.

Canada Russia '72 brings back a whiff of the times to those who lived through them and might even give a sense of them to younger ones who wonder what all the shouting was about.


What: Canada-Russia '72, a two-part mini-series

Where: CBC

When: April 9-10, 8 p.m.