Replaying Hockey History

Replaying hockey history
Two part mini-series recreates the drama, on and off the ice, of the 1972 Canada-Russia game, where our shot was heard 'round the world
Apr. 8, 2006. 08:20 AM
CHRIS ZELKOVICH - Toronto Star

If there's one event in the history of Canadian sports that has been overexposed, it's the Canada-Russia hockey series from 1972.

The eight-game series has produced a slew of books, magazine articles, documentaries, boxed sets and endless hours of discussion on television and radio.

But amazingly, there has never been a movie on the series that captivated a nation - until now.

Almost 34 years after Paul Henderson scored the goal heard halfway around the world, the series has been brought to life in a four-hour miniseries called Canada Russia '72, Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on CBC.

So why did this story take so long to get to the screen? After all, it has everything from behind-the-scenes intrigue, Cold War politics, great action and most important an incredible story.

"I think it was too big," says executive producer Barrie Dunn, who co-wrote the script with Malcolm MacRury. If those names sound familiar it's because Dunn is one of the brains behind Trailer Park Boys and MacRury wrote the Mel Gibson movie The Man Without A Face.

Dunn says the prospect of restaging this Canadian hockey watershed moment was just too daunting a task. Falling flat on your face on a series that meant so much to so many would be disastrous.

Despite a relatively low budget (less than $8 million) and a largely unknown cast, Dunn and company have not only avoided a face-plant but have succeeded in the extreme.

This is great television, with lots of drama, solid acting and credible action sequences.

In many ways, the story is a natural. The Canadians showed up for training camp out of shape and confident they would win all eight games easily.

After an opening loss and two games peppered with roughhouse Canadian tactics, the NHL pros found themselves being excoriated in editorials and booed by their own fans.

Both on and off the ice, the series became a war and by the end the players truly believed they were fighting for our way of life instead of for a trophy.

An opening loss in Moscow put the team on the brink of defeat, but somehow they came together to win the series in dramatic fashion.

Despite the oceans of words the series has produced over the last three decades, this actually breaks new ground. There are scenes that will surprise even the most avid sports fan, as well as some of the people who were there.

"There were a few things that were news to me," Team Canada '72 defenceman Bill White said recently after the miniseries was screened at the Hockey Hall of Fame. "A lot of that behind-the-scenes stuff was kept from us."

White was one of several team members invited to the screening and all had high praise for it.

"They've really captured the sense of what happened," said series hero Paul Henderson, who scored the winning goal in the last three games to help Canada take the series 4-3 with one game tied. "You never know what they're going to do with a movie, but this is pretty true." Ron Ellis, like the others in attendance, found a few scenes were pure Hollywood but felt it's an important story to tell.

"For young people who are wondering what all the fuss was about, this will tell them," he said. "Other than a few moments, it's true to what happened."

Getting the story right was paramount, says Dunn, who relied heavily on the main characters such as Phil Esposito, coach Harry Sinden and then players' association head Alan Eagleson. He soon learned nothing was cut-and-dried.

"Everybody you talk to has a slightly different take on what happened," says Dunn. "Some of the players had absolutely no recollection of events that most of us consider quite momentous.

"We wanted to be absolutely accurate. But then we thought, 'How can we be right when the people who were there can't agree on what happened?' "

Eagleson told Dunn about a pivotal speech he made in Sweden before Team Canada headed to the Soviet Union. The problem was that while Sinden confirmed it, the players had no memory of it.

So Dunn went to Esposito, the team leader, who told him no such speech was given.

"Then he said, well, if it did nobody would have listened to (Eagleson) anyway," Dunn says,

In the movie, Eagleson starts his speech but Espo cuts him off and delivers his own oratory.

"We allowed them both their point of view," Dunn says.

Because of the low budget, there are no big-name actors in the movie. The closest thing to it is veteran Booth Savage, who made his mark as a hockey player in a made-for-TV movie called The Last Season.

But the cast delivers. Savage is convincing as Sinden, Judah Katz portrays wheeler-dealer Eagleson brilliantly and Gabriel Hogan is solid as conflicted goaltender Ken Dryden. David Berni is a solid Esposito.

Director TW Peacocke, who also plays Soviet captain Viktor Kuzkin in the action sequences, has also coaxed convincing performances from Gerry Dee (tough guy Wayne Cashman), Mike Dopud (malcontent Vic Hadfield), Hugh Thompson (class clown Gary Bergman) and Jeff Roop (paranoid Frank Mahovlich.)

The most amazing performance comes from Yuriy Sobeshchakov, a Ukrainian-born businessman making his acting debut as Soviet coach Vsevelod Bobrov. How did he do it?

Sobeshchakov answers by pulling out his Soviet Communist Party membership card.

"From 8 in the morning until you went to bed you had to be an actor," he says. "You had to act like you believed.

"This was easy."

Canada Russia '72 airs in two parts, Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on CBC.