Team Spirit And More

Team spirit and more
Action off the ice crucial to making Halifax-Moncton co-production chronicling 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series more than a story about a sports event
By TIM ARSENAULT - thechronicalherald.ca

LAPELS AND SIDEBURNS were a lot wider and goalie pads were a lot narrower.

And Canada’s supremacy in the hockey world was unquestioned until the late summer of 1972 and the start of an eight-game series against the Soviet Union.

Canada Russia ’72, a two-part mini-series, airs Sunday and Monday on CBC at 8 p.m. The dramatic retelling of one of the country’s great triumphs in hockey history is a co-production of Summit Films of Halifax and Dream Street Pictures of Moncton.

Summit’s Barrie Dunn gets the credit for originating the project. Colleagues joke that Dunn has been developing the project for 34 years.

When Team Canada’s Paul Henderson scored the final goal in the eighth and final game of the series to claim victory for Canada, Dunn was a university student watching the match in Halifax with a buddy. It’s resonated with him ever since.

"There are things about this story that you could not have fabricated. People would have labeled it a Hollywood script where things happen for the convenience of the plot," said Dunn, co-writer of the screenplay and a producer on Canada Russia ’72, during a phone interview.

"Somebody called it the sports event of our time and it is that, but it’s also a cultural and political event. It’s a nation-building event for our time really."

Inspired by memoirs by Team Canada coach Harry Sinden and hockey backroom figure Alan Eagleson, Dunn was determined to present an absorbing story that didn’t unfold entirely on the ice.

"Eagleson was very helpful as a consultant and the same with Harry Sinden. Eagleson was the guy who definitely would have known all of the behind the scenes stuff and Harry Sinden had the advantage of knowing both on-ice and off-ice stuff," Dunn said.

"There was so much stuff that happened behind the scenes that it was impossible to put it all in four hours."

Years after Team Canada’s exploits, Eagleson would be shunned by the hockey world after pleading guilty to fraud charges. He would also resign from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"I’m interested in from April of 1972, when the negotiations began for the series, until Sept. 29, 1972 – the day after the series was over," Dunn said.

Getting involved in Canada Russia ’72 didn’t require a hockey background, but it didn’t hurt, either. Dunn played Junior B in Pictou and Halifax actor Mark Owen, who plays assistant coach and former Montreal Canadiens tough guy John Ferguson, played junior, senior and university hockey in Nova Scotia.

And even though he was a Grade 2 student in Dartmouth at the time, he said he can recall the series.

"It’s probably one of my earliest childhood memories," he said during a phone interview.

Owen was able to meet Ferguson at a golf tournament in Ontario last September but said he didn’t feel the need to get any feedback before the 37-day shoot last winter in New Brunswick.

"It was weird because you’re playing a real person and there’s a moral responsibility with that," Owen said.

"Who has a face and a nose like John Ferguson? I mean, I have a big head but this guy has a giant head."

The actor said he was able to develop a bond with Booth Savage, the actor playing Sinden, that he felt approximated the real relationship between the two hardened hockey men.

"(Ferguson is) a straightforward, loyal guy. He’s the guy that will go to bat for you. He’s the guy that will watch your back at the bar and fight to the death to protect his friends and his family," Owen said.

"That’s sort of how I approached that role – a very respectful guy who, at moments, will take a stand."

Canada Russia ’72 was shot roughly in chronological order, which was a help for a story that builds to a well-known climax.

"Making this movie was my greatest acting and team experience ever. We made a movie but it felt like we were playing in a hockey series," Owen said.

Also contributing to the air of authenticity is the use of the original play-by-play audio familiar to millions of Canadians.

"We wanted Foster Hewitt and Brian Conacher doing the colour commentary. Foster Hewitt’s voice automatically transports you to that era. Everybody in this country, I’m sure, over the last 34 years has heard him call that (Henderson) goal. It adds a lot of authenticity to the show," Dunn said.

Summit Films’ Mike Volpe, who was also a producer on the project, said that the off-ice aspects of the story are what will ultimately draw in viewers.

"If we wanted to just simply recreate the hockey and what people knew they could just buy the DVDs of the eight-game series. Why would you really want to add to that?" Volpe said during a phone interview.

"I was five but I knew the story intimately. Obviously, every living, breathing Canadian of a certain age and beyond knows the story pretty darn well."

Volpe, who usually works with Dunn on the Dartmouth-shot Trailer Park Boys series, had enough hockey talent to get drafted by the New York Islanders in 1985. He also knew that director T.W. Peacocke had his work cut out for him when it came to recreating on-ice action.

"Hockey’s a very tough game to recreate on film because it’s free-flowing. It’s not like baseball where there’s pitch, swing, hit," Volpe said.

The different settings of the eight games in the series – four in Canada and four in the U.S.S.R. –also put demands on the filmmakers.

"The rink – the Fredericton Aitken Centre – was perfect. It was of the period. We just had to make sure that the surroundings looked as much like Canada in 1972 and the Soviet Union, to some degree, in 1972. It was a tall order to have some cities stand in for those places," he said.

"But Fredericton was really good that way because it’s a government town so they have government buildings and there was a similarity to some Russian buildings…. It’s hard to find places that have not been made over completely."

While Dunn said he is anxious to hear what the public thinks of the show, Canada Russia ’72 has already gotten thumbs up from arguably its toughest audience. A screening last week at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto was attended by several members of Team Canada.

"We wanted to make sure that there were no false notes – that we got it right," Dunn said.

"That was the vote of confidence that we got from the players."