Big Moments, Tiny Details

Big moments, tiny details
Drama painstakingly recalls the Summit Series, from Espo's rant and Clarke's slash to the tape on players' sticks, writes GUY DIXON

GUY DIXON

Mastering the art of the gum-chewing, 1970s-era NHL swagger is one thing. Recreating the play-by-play of the 1972 Summit Series is another.

But try finding all the right gear to equip a full team of 35, from the old-style Victoriaville and Northland sticks to the polyester Team Canada jerseys and outdated tube-bladed skates.

In dramatizing possibly one of the greatest stories in contemporary Canadian history, inside or outside of sports, the creators of the CBC-TV miniseries Canada Russia '72 tried something that scared off many other filmmakers for the last three decades.

Not only did they have to find actors who looked like the young Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito and all the other hockey greats and who could carry off their bigger-than-life personas. They also had to have actors who could play well enough to recreate the 1972 Canada and Soviet hockey series on ice -- games etched in the minds of countless Canadians.

And then, the filmmakers knew they had to get the myriad equipment and costume details down pat for all the hockey nuts with their thumbs on the pause button scrutinizing everything for accuracy. The sticks had to have the correct manufacturers' names matched to the proper players. (Stick manufacturer Sher-Wood made the wooden sticks, and old brand names like Northland were stencilled on.)

And actor John Bregar, who played Bobby Clarke, had number 16 sewn on to his skate boots (Clarke wore 28 on Team Canada, but 16 was his Philadelphia Flyers number). They even made sure the grammar in the Moscow fans' Russian-language, Cyrillic-alphabet signs was correct.

"Those kinds of details could have slowed the production to a halt, but at the same time, it's that attention to detail we were really particular about. We knew that for the die-hard fans who stop the frame, you just know. . . ," says Barrie Dunn, one of the producers, writers and lead creator of the mini-series airing Sunday and Monday.

"They made sure every player shot [the puck] the proper way," adds Judah Katz, who played the controversial NHL player rep and tournament go-between Alan Eagleson. Katz himself has a spot-on pair of Eagleson-like metal-rimmed glasses in the film. "They made sure that every guy's tape on his stick was the right colour and the right amount of strips on the blade, and a thick knob, a thin knob, all this kind of stuff."

The details were difficult given the typically low budget for a Canadian miniseries, Katz says. The production is said to have cost $7.8-million.

Then there's the complexity of distilling the on- and off-ice Cold War intrigue and the pressures on the key players and coaches Harry Sinden and John Ferguson into a four-hour miniseries. When the filmmakers originally pitched the production to the CBC back in 2003, Dunn says Deborah Bernstein, who was then head of arts and entertainment programming, told them: " 'We're only ever going to get one shot at this and we gotta do it right.' "

Right from the start, as if holding a white flag in front of the scrutinizers, the miniseries has an opening caption warning that some scenes have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.

But all the classic scenes are there: Paul Henderson's wild, winning goal in the final game, Eagleson running across the ice and hiking up his pants, winger Jean-Paul Parise threatening to hack down a referee with his stick. The famous scenes were the easiest, Katz notes, because they were such iconic moments. All that had to be done was to reshoot them. Similarly, the famous on-ice plays were recreated with the director looking at the action being filmed on one monitor and a tape of the original footage on another.

But the point of dramatizing it all was to capture the individual players' stories and everything off the ice, Dunn says. "Just from the hockey players' point of view alone, there are 35 stories to tell, and so it's daunting," he says.

All of the original players had to give permission to the two Canadian companies behind the miniseries, Dunn's Halifax-based Summit Films and Moncton-based Dream Street Pictures. Years ago, Hockey Canada had given the rights to the story to the original players, who in turn are incorporated and represented by an agent in Toronto, Dunn says.

He contacted a number of the players, and all of them signed off in the end, even left winger Vic Hatfield, who left the team in the USSR after it became clear he wouldn't be given any more ice time. "I find this interesting, and I don't know what to make of it, but he was one of the first people to sign off," Dunn says.

Team leader Phil Esposito, famous for his impassioned, on-air criticism of the Vancouver fans who booed the beleaguered Team Canada after a loss in Game 4, was supportive of the project. Dryden, known for his introspection as much for his goaltending, was one of the last to agree to the film.

"I suppose of all of the players, Ken was most reluctant, to tell you the truth," Dunn says. Given the books he has written and his CBC documentary hockey series Home Game, Dunn added, "he felt a certain, I would guess, ownership of the story. And he's a lawyer. He does his due diligence. I think he wanted to know who we were, and were we the right people to tell the story."

In a drama based on contemporary events, it's an unwritten rule not to show the script to the real characters. So none of the players saw a script, says Dunn, who is also the producer who brought the Trailer Park Boys to television. Despite some pre-release descriptions of the miniseries, Dunn says he wouldn't describe it as a warts-and-all portrayal.

"I don't think we presented these guys in a negative way," he says. "But I think we did present these guys as real people, under tremendous pressure. And under this pressure, some guys buckled and some guys overcame it."