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Dan's View from Center Ice - 6/29/2012

by Dan Rusanowsky / San Jose Sharks
They came from different countries, and different ways of life, but they were blessed with the love of the game of hockey and the desire to be the very best. They weren’t playing for the Stanley Cup, or for the IIHF World Championship, but were instead competing for the joy of achievement and for the pride of their country. It could be said that they represented opposing ways of life.

Forty years ago, a team of legends from the USSR and another from Canada caused the hockey world to stop, stare, and shake its collective head in awe. There was nothing routine about it, from the fact that it was an eight-game series instead of a best-of-seven, to that it was played in September instead of May and June, and that it marked the first time that the Soviet and Canadian hockey cultures had ever collided at the very top level.

On Wednesday evening, some of the Russian legends came to Sharks Ice at San Jose to begin a commemorative tour of California with their former teammates, holding a clinic with some lucky young hockey players, and playing in an exhibition against a few former Sharks and Jr. Sharks coaches in a fundraiser for the Jr. Sharks Scholarship Fund.

The appearance of the Russians brought back all of the memories of that 1972 Summit Series, which was ironically called the “Friendship Series,” a name that was soon forgotten alongside the détente that inspired it. It was a series for the ages, and one that changed professional hockey forever.

Back in the halcyon years of the NHL, players showed up to training camp to do two things: (1) to negotiate their salaries for the season and (2) to get in shape after a relatively sedentary summer. The Russians trained 11 months of the year, were isolated from their families, and had virtually no freedom of choice.

There were many in the West who believed that the series would be a rout in favor of Canada. The Russians themselves noted the tremendous strength of the Canadian players, with powerful skating strides and shots. While noticing that the Russians had tremendous hand skills and were in superb condition, the Canadian scouts also noted that the Soviet starting goaltender, a young man named Vladislav Tretiak, was having trouble stopping the puck in several games prior to the beginning of the tournament. Canada’s Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito would be superior, they reasoned.

By the end of the first game, the Canadians knew that they were in for one tough battle. It began with Phil Esposito scoring in the first minute, and Canada taking a 2-0 lead. But the final score was the Soviet Union 7, and Canada 3, and an entire country was stunned from Glace Bay to Victoria.

By Game Three of the series, a 4-4 tie in Winnipeg, it was clear that Tretiak was as great a goaltender as any in the National Hockey League, and that the Soviet style of play was a formidable one against the still-conditioning NHL’ers. Then, at the end of Game Four in Vancouver, won by the Soviets, 5-3, Team Canada was booed unmercifully off the ice.

It was here that Phil Esposito addressed the crowd and his nation in an impromptu speech that has been called the “Gettysburg Address of Hockey.” Brilliantly describing the frustration in the Canadian dressing room, he reminded the crowd that all of the players were playing in the series because they loved Canada, and that they were trying, and that they didn’t deserve to be booed.

It was a rallying point, and though Canada continued their habit of taking an early lead, and falling back in part due to the superior conditioning of their opponent, they also were getting their skating legs. They led 4-1 in Game 5 in Moscow, but lost 5-4. In Game Six, superstar Valeri Kharlamov, one of the best players I have ever seen skate, was “tapped” on the ankle by Bobby Clarke, and wound up with a broken ankle in the process. Canada won, 3-2.

Game Seven featured a less than prideful moment by Boris Mikhailov, the “Bobby Clarke of Soviet Hockey.” In an altercation with Gary Bergman of Canada, Mikhailov actually kicked Bergman with his skate twice before the fight ended. Perhaps it was a “Clarke breaks Kharlamov’s ankle, so I’ll kick Bergman” moment, or perhaps it was a prelude to a moment in Sharks history many years later. You may remember Andrei Nazarov head-butting Stephane Quintal in Winnipeg, followed by a game misconduct, followed by his humorous explanation: “In Russia, this is allowed.” Okay, we are paraphrasing here.

But back to the series: Game Eight was played at Luzhniki Arena in Moscow on September 28, 1972. It wasn’t for the Stanley Cup, it was for the pride of a nation. Many of you remember that with the series at 3-3-1, Canada absolutely had to win in order to capture the competition. Most of Canada took the day off to watch on television or listen on radio. One of the most famous goals in hockey history was scored with 34 seconds remaining, by Canada’s Paul Henderson. “Henderson has scored for Canada!” cried play-by-play man Foster Hewitt, and an entire country celebrated and heaved a sigh of relief at the same time.

The next generation of U.S. players had a seminal moment in 1980, also against the Russians, but in the Olympics. Like Henderson, Mike Eruzione fired home a shot heard around the world, and the U.S. was en route to its incredible moment: gold in Lake Placid.

Canada would have its moments in the Olympics, winning its gold medal in 2002 in Salt Lake City, with the U.S. taking the silver. It would have another great moment, also at the U.S.’s expense, in 2010, when Sidney Crosby scored a goal to remember forever, and Roberto Luongo would completely understand what Ken Dryden had been feeling all those years earlier.
But while the Olympic moments were certainly memorable forever, they could not compare to what these men on both sides of the Cold War experienced in 1972. Yes, there were similarities, but the Summit Series, certainly not a “Friendship Series,” was a moment in time for both sides to remember and treasure. Yes, it was similar, but no, it was not a clash of civilizations.

It was a signature moment to end signature moments for Canada, not only in hockey, but in life as a nation. It would be remembered in Russia, too, for the greatness of the competition, the things that the Soviet players had to overcome, and for the fact that in total goals at least, 32-31, the Summit Series favored the squad from the USSR.

Back to Wednesday at Sharks Ice at San Jose: it was a real pleasure to see Alexander Yakushev, the Jean Beliveau of Soviet hockey, on the ice and showcasing some of the hand skills that led him to the very top of the USSR’s scoring list in that Summit Series. It was also something else to realize that all of that hockey hoopla had occurred forty years ago this year.
On the other side of the ice, there were some outstanding representatives of Sharks hockey, including Evgeni Nabokov, Owen Nolan, Kyle McLaren, and Curtis Brown, along with Cup winner Bret Hedican on the same ice as Yakushev and company. As it turned out, the San Jose side would get the 2-1 on a Nolan power move in a game where many were marveling at the hand skills of the Russian legends, some of whom played in that series 40 years ago.

The Russians move on for the rest of their tour, and a major jubilee will be held in Moscow this August, when the Canada-Russia rivalry will rekindle in a junior tournament in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of one of hockey’s greatest playoff series, and, in memory of the Lokomotiv air tragedy a year ago that took the life of Sharks prospect Daniil Sobchenko, along with so many others.

We had our moment of silence on Wednesday, too, for both the loss of Russian hockey great Vladimir Krutov, who died on June 6th, and for Alex Motley, a fine young member of San Jose’s hockey community who died suddenly on June 25th. We had a fun evening of watching hockey. But we also had more.

The hammer and sickle has long gone, replaced by the white, blue and red standard of today. It is Russia now, not the Soviet Union. The fans were at Sharks Ice from all countries, and like the players on the ice, they were enjoying the evening of competition, fun, and friendship sown from those years of great rivalry. Oh, yes, each side wanted to win, but on this evening, it really was about friendship.

Click here to see photos from the event.

Click here to read about Dan's nomination to the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.
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