Can't shake the feeling of the international rivalry

In all honesty, Jim Balsillie has an opportunity to ‘blow the NHL away’ as a pioneer in bringing international hockey to Canada on a regular basis. Hamilton could become a well known landmark location to change the professional game forever…..

In 1972, it was the Summit series.

While the NHL becomes "plastic", the KHL shows their own version of the outdoor classic....who's bringing hockey heritage further these days?

While the NHL becomes "plastic", the KHL shows their own version of the outdoor classic....who's bringing hockey heritage further these days?

I was 11 years old, and living in Beaconsfield, Quebec.

Close to my school, there was a rink in Pointe-Claire. My friends and I had heard the Russians were in the rink practicing for the series. So, we walked over. Knowing they would be there did not prepare me for the life altering memory of seeing the Russian stars in action – practicing their trade. It seemed almost impossible. Today, would the average child be able to walk into a local rink to see the elite of the game practice? Not likely. There would be security and a hefty cover charge I am sure.

The ’72  roster of the Russian team included the famous goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, that all the kids in my neighbourhood were emulating in road hockey nets, street in, street out. No doubt, Wayne Gretzky would recall the feeling that the competition against the Russians brought. Of course, Gretzky would go on to both compete against Russia, and be the head of Hockey Canada, to fulfill a full circle dream I am sure he must have had.

Hockey sure was cool for an 11 year old boy in suburban Montreal.

Any kid at my age would likely recall, coast to coast, as the schools no doubt brought television sets into the gymnasiums so a school assembly could have us all wondering with excitement and anticipation how Canada would do against those seemingly strange Russians.

‘They’ didn’t smile you know.

‘They’ were told that they couldn’t smile, that’s what we Canadians were led to believe. They seemed a strange people. Very rigid, and very structured. Were they a happy people? We wondered, and marvelled. After all, hockey was a Canadian game, and how did these fellows learn how to play so well?

In 1972 there were no Russian players in the NHL, and the names all ended in an ‘ov’ it seemed. Or, an ‘ev”, like “my favorite Russian, Alexander Yakushev.

I delivered the Montreal Star newspaper to about 40 homes. In those days, you had to walk a considerable clip just to get to the ‘depot’, someone’s garage. Then, when you got your papers together, off you’d go.

On collection day, we paper boys had a little collection card, and a hole puncher. If you got a quarter tip on $1.25 collection for the week, it was something boy!

I can’t recall what Peter Mahovlich tipped. I was much too shy. My friends and I would stand at his door, and hope his wife Bunny wouldn’t answer. Ah, it was Peter! “Did you win last night”. “Nah, we lost”. Thanks boys!”

We knew he lost but we were fighting to find words to come out.

He lived on Olympic Drive in Beaconsfield. How suiting a name, Olympic Drive.  It was a new street then, and obviously well established now. I lived on Dublin Drive, and you can see the walk my paper route took me on to get that paper to Peter! To the right on that map, you will see a street named Windermere. It was a long road, and that is where the paper depot was located. We used to ride our bikes no hands down Windermere hill, and there were cement blocks on the ends of driveways. Sometimes you could feel your bike drift towards the cement, and “ahhhhh”,  you eased it back with your legs to the road. Daredevils were we – road warriors. Like our hockey team, the Windermere Warriors. I digress with the memories….on with the story…..

 Mahovlich’s teamates on the Canadiens, and  friends included Guy Lafleur and Guy Lapointe. I didn’t live on that street, but a friend lived around the corner. He said they would come over, and he witnessed them. Man was Peter a big guy.

But, there was a bit of a rivalry in international circles. Who was bigger and better. Mahovlich or Yakushev? It was tight, but, sorry Peter, the Big Yak was really good!

Radulov celebrates the win over Canada in May's World Cup

Radulov celebrates the win over Canada in May's World Cup

. It seemed he was on the ice all the time, and involved in every scoring opportunity. The “Big Yak” he was called. And his play reflected a bigger than life opponent.

Valery Kharlamov, another Russian that ‘brought it’ every game, and seemed to be in on all the plays. Oi, was it a time or what?

Could it be the kids of Canada were emulating their favorite Russian players?

Oh yes we were. And the proof – in those street hockey battles after school. The best players would stand out in our minds, as if we were somehow brainwashed from the announcer that kept saying their names over, and over, and over again. Oh, it was exciting to be a kid in 1972. “Kharlamov, over to Yakushev, he scores!!!!”

Copps Coliseum and the fans 'lit up' in 1987, in support of our Canadian heroes!

Copps Coliseum and the fans 'lit up' in 1987, in support of our Canadian heroes!

Fast forward to 1987, and the Canada Cup.

Ah yes, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and the boys, all bigger than life heros. I was at one of the final games at Copps Coliseum. They say the game could be heard for blocks and blocks from the arena. The crown  noise was deafening, the atmosphere electric.

Great hockey again. And the Russians were still not in the NHL. The wouldn’t be for two more years, when:

One of the all-time NHL greats is leading the way. Vyacheslav Fetisov had the Soviet authorities’ blessing when he became one of the country’s first players to move to the NHL in 1989 after more than a decade of success with CSKA Moscow.

We Canadians were a little more familiar with the Russians, so the culture shock was not the same as in 1972. They seemed to smile a lot more in ’87 and’ 89 as well.

They seemed to have loosened up for the better.

Fast forward again, to May 2009, at the World Hockey Championships, the Russians beat Canada to take the title.

And my mind goes back to 1972, when hockey was hockey.

And then I think of Jim Balsillie.

And then I recall the boring contest of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators the other night.

Then I think of a ridiculous article that everyone at Make it Seven seemed to say was ridiculous. I agree. It was posted by the National Post newspaper. Should we really say, “anti”-National Post? Why not?

And, then I marvel at another National article, this one from “The National”, not to be confused with the laughable National Post. No, this one has content! I urge you to read this inspiring article on how serious the KHL league really is.

According to the league, they are five years or less away from meeting and possibly becoming a major threat to the NHL:

Fetisov will be hoping that the trend continues. “If we continue this way then within five years we will be able to compete with the NHL,” he said.

“We are ready to catch up with Americans as to the quality of the game, and the level of the games organisation. But there is, of course, a lot of work ahead of us.”
There is a long way to go. The best Russian players still head for the NHL and there is little sign that the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) Alexander Ovechkin will be heading for home, not with 11 years to run on his NHL-record-setting 13-year, US$124 million (Dh455m) contract with the Washington Capitals.

There is an interesting irony in today’s NHL versus the Russian attitude of 1972.

In 1972, it was the Russians who were seemed stern and rigid compared to the freewheeling style of North American culture.

It would appear there is a shift.

The NHL may try to restrict the NHL players from entering into the Olympics, and Ovechkin is not too happy, and might have other thoughts:

Forget the 'Chunky Soup', O V doesn't need to be reminded where his roots are!

Forget the 'Chunky Soup', O V doesn't need to be reminded where his roots are!

Even in the short term, the KHL could become a bargaining chip for some of the biggest players in the NHL.

With the lure of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the NHL’s MVP Ovechkin, perhaps the best player in the world today, says he cannot rule out a return home – if the NHL refuses to allow him to play in the Winter Olympics in his native Russia.

Looking back to 1972 and 1987, and looking to the present, rather mediocre offering of the NHL, I can’t help but wonder what Hamilton’s future could hold if only someone had a strong vision to develop the game beyond the relatively puny North American borders, and deteriorating mindset of the NHL.

Jim Balsillie may have been shunned by the NHL, but could become a huge friend of International hockey circles.

Balsillie could be destined to change the way we look at hockey, and be responsible to bring back the level of excitement in the game we hunger for.

The Maple Leafs played the Senators in a mediocre contest the other night. A sleeper for all intents and purposes.

We in Hamilton could do much better.

Much, much better!

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2 responses to “Can't shake the feeling of the international rivalry

  1. Heres a little history for you….I grew up in Hamilton watching the Redwings play out of the Hamilton Forum on Barton street…….IN 72 i was 12 and my school (Queen Mary) closed up sent us all home so we could watch the final game against those pesky russians…All I can remember is the emotian I felt when Canada won……fast forward a little….I remember when Ron Joyce tried to relocate a team to the hammer……He was told that he needed a new arena and then he would get an expansion team……Well Copps was built…..The expansion came and the only Canadian team who was awarded a team was the Ottawa Senators who never had an arena at the time….Please tell me if you can that the MLSE didnt veto the expansion into thier territory

  2. Nice journey down Memory Lane Craig. I was 15 in 72 playing Minor Midget in the MTHL (GTHL now). We dreaded playing against a team out of Hamilton/Stoney Creek as those boys were tough as nails & we always had a real battle on our hands. I remember when Copps opened & was blown away by its’ fantastic site-lines & for its day state of the art facilities. Such a shame that a fantastic city, home to Keneskys, with fabulous, dyed in the wool fans & innumerable players, coaches & managers who have contributed so much to the game at every level are still being treated like the redheaded stepbrother by so many.

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