Canada’s Hockey Heroes Re­mem­ber

Team Canada ’72 and the se­ries that changed the coun­try for­ever

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS -

MY MEM­O­RIES OF Team Canada’s tu­mul­tuous hockey se­ries against the Soviet Union in 1972 are as er­ratic as the orig­i­nal TV satel­lite feed back from Moscow – im­per­ma­nent im­pres­sions flick­er­ing over the capri­cious medium of a five-year-old boy’s un­formed con­scious­ness.

When I cast my mind back to Sept. 28, 1972, I can only con­jure up fleet­ing images: watch­ing Game 8 in the school gym, the dour-look­ing, hel­met-clad Rus­sian play­ers, Ken Dry­den’s alarm­ing mask, the Team Canada poster on my brother’s wall. But Paul Hen­der­son’s win­ning goal? I’ve seen it re­played so of­ten, I can’t pos­si­bly claim that mem­ory as my own.

Curse my un­timely birth! Be­cause those of an age to clearly re­mem­ber the en­tire eight games lived through what will for­ever be known as the great­est in­ter­na­tional hockey se­ries ever played. It was our best play­ers ver­sus theirs, good Cana­dian boys ver­sus evil Russkies, tenac­ity against skill, with the coun­try that in­vented the sport at risk of los­ing brag­ging rights to these mes­mer­iz­ing Slavic usurpers. Most of all, it was ev­ery player’s daunt­less will to win – at any cost – that’s never been matched since. In the end, it be­came the rare time when a sport­ing event be­comes part of a na­tion’s bi­og­ra­phy.

You won’t need re­mind­ing how the tour­na­ment’s dra­matic twists and turns cap­tured the fas­ci­na­tion of two coun­tries, a riv­et­ing eight-part minis­eries with the cloud of Cold War pol­i­tics shad­ow­ing its ev­ery mo­ment. You’ll re­call that swel­ter­ing Septem­ber night in Montreal when the over­con­fi­dent Cana­di­ans shock­ingly lost Game 1. Your faith was re­stored when we bounced back to win in Game 2. But the desul­tory tie in Game 3 and ugly loss in Game 4 in Van­cou­ver had the crowd boo­ing the team off the ice, per­haps echo­ing your own sen­ti­ments. You were in­spired by Phil Es­pos­ito’s rous­ing “we’re try­ing our best” speech, then devastated by the Game 5 loss in Rus­sia. Hope re­turned af­ter back-to-back nail-bit­ing vic­to­ries in Game 6 and 7. And, of course, the mag­nif­i­cent third-pe­riod come­back in Game 8, with the se­ries-win­ning goal in the dy­ing mo­ments.

Like the epic sagas of the past, it’s a tale that’s been told and re-told a thou­sand times, yet it never seems to grow stale or get drained of mean­ing. That’s why, when 10 rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Team Canada ’72 gath­ered in June to rem­i­nisce about that event­ful time and se­ries, it drew a stand­ing-room-only crowd to the TV stu­dio where they were shoot­ing an episode of theZoomer.

I had the great for­tune to sit with the play­ers through­out the day, from the green room to the photo shoot to a local bar af­ter all was said and done. Not only did I get to meet these hockey demigods up close but I also got a glimpse of what it might have been like in the locker-room dur­ing the se­ries.

As the grey-haired glad­i­a­tors limped into the green room to pre­pare for the show, the ex­cite­ment is pal­pa­ble. Even the younger

mem­bers of the crew in­stinc­tively know these guys are spe­cial. In walks Phil Es­pos­ito, quickly as­sum­ing his old role as team leader and spokesman. Though his once bushy black hair now sits in a sil­ver coif, he’s the same old Espo, force­ful and con­fi­dent, qual­i­ties that made him an un­stop­pable force in the se­ries. In stark con­trast is the smil­ing Pete Ma­hovlich, who takes up his old role as locker-room clown. His in­ces­sant jok­ing (he asks the makeup artist whether she’s mis­taken him for Johnny Depp) eases the com­mo­tion Phil brings to any room. Be­side Pete is his older brother the Big M, Frank Ma­hovlich, at 79, an icon from hockey’s golden era of the ’50s and ’60s.

At the end of the ta­ble sits Brad Park, a stylish two-way de­fence­man in ’72, ex­plain­ing de­fen­sive strate­gies to me with the weary look of a teacher try­ing to en­lighten an un­promis­ing stu­dent. Next to him is Ed­die John­ston, Team Canada’s back-up goalie who jokes that though he didn’t see any ac­tion he had “the best seat in the house for ev­ery game.” At age 81, he’s still work­ing, a hockey lifer who’s now se­nior ad­viser for the Stan­ley Cup cham­pion Pitts­burgh Pen­guins. Across from EJ is Yvan Cournoyer, still the dap­per French Cana­dian, whose ex­cel­lent se­ries cul­mi­nated with him on the ice for Hen­der­son’s win­ning goal. He jokes that his re- cent shoul­der surgery was caused “by lift­ing so many Stan­ley Cups.” Close by, the cool Jean Ratelle and the gritty Wayne Cash­man – whose teams lost multiple play­off se­ries to Cournoyer’s Montreal Cana­di­ens’ jug­ger­naut – roll their eyes the­atri­cally; they’ve heard that one too many times be­fore.

Among all these fa­mous names and big per­son­al­i­ties, it’s easy to over­look Pat Sta­ple­ton, the un­sung de­fen­sive hero from ’72 who didn’t score much but fig­ured out how to dis­rupt the baf­fling Rus­sian at­tack. “They be­came pre­dictable,” he says “So we put our foot on their throat and didn’t let up.”

A cheer­ful Ir­ish­man (he came for a beer af­ter the event and would have stayed for a few more if he didn’t have to catch a 5:30 train back to Strathroy, Ont.), Sta­ple­ton was hit hard by the re­cent loss of Bill White, his long-time team­mate and de­fence part­ner on Team Canada. He notes that five other team­mates pre­de­ceased White, in­clud­ing Gary Bergman, Bill Goldswor­thy, Richard Martin and J.P. Parise and assistant coach John Fer­gu­son Sr. Oth­ers are ail­ing, in­clud­ing Paul Hen­der­son, fighting a long-time bat­tle with can­cer, Stan Mikita, whose de­men­tia has oblit­er­ated all mem­o­ries of the Se­ries, and coach Harry Sin­den, who had to can­cel his ap­pear­ance at the last mo­ment due to ill health.

To help en­sure that the team’s magical story will be passed down to a whole new gen­er­a­tion be­fore too many more de­part for the great arena in the sky, Sta­ple­ton now serves as the chair and driv­ing force be­hind Team Canada 1972 ( team­canada72.ca), an or­ga­ni­za­tion that runs cross-coun­try events to re­live all those great mo­ments. Ev­ery­where they go, they’re mobbed by cu­ri­ous young fans ea­ger to learn more and older fans grate­ful to meet heroes from the past.

If the event I at­tended is any in­di­ca­tion, these gabfests are as mean­ing­ful to the play­ers as they are for the fans. Re­count­ing the high drama of Game 8 in front of the stu­dio au­di­ence, Phil claimed he still gets goose­bumps talk­ing about it. Later, Frank and Pete strug­gled to con­tain their emo­tions as they re­counted their own spe­cial mo­ments in ’72, and Brad got all choked up re­call­ing a tear­ful re­union with his mother soon af­ter he re­turned to Canada.

“When we won with Team Canada,” re­calls Phil, “we knew we’d walk for­ever with these guys.” With so many dra­matic sto­ries from that mag­nif­i­cent au­tumn 45 years ago yet to be told, we wish they could talk about it for­ever as well.

Team­mates for­ever: Wayne Cash­man, Pat Sta­ple­ton, Phil Es­pos­ito and Ed­die John­ston. Op­po­site: Calm be­fore the storm: Team Canada lines up dur­ing player in­tro­duc­tions be­fore Game 5 of the 1972 Sum­mit Se­ries against Rus­sia at the Luzh­niki Ice Palace in Moscow, Sept. 22, 1972.

Smiles abound as Brad Park, Peter Ma­hovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Frank Ma­hovlich and Jean Ratelle gather to re­live glo­ries past. Op­po­site: Frozen in time: Cournoyer (12) hugs Paul Hen­der­son af­ter the win­ning goal of the eight-game Sum­mit Se­ries against the Soviet Union at the at the Luzh­niki Ice Palace in Moscow, Sept. 28, 1972.

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