It is hard not to slide into cliches and stereotyping when it comes to the subject of hockey and Canada. However, it is the fortieth anniversary of the epic 1972 hockey series between the Soviet Union and Canada. Eight games: four accross Canada, four in Moscow. European hockey rules. And all the animalistic nationalism Canadian fans could muster in the face of what Team Canada members called “The Robots” (after the Rock-em Sock-em game) and their propagaganda apparatus.
The series wasn’t meant to be fun, nor was it meant to be fair. The Soviets, who proposed the series, wanted to humiliate Canada and the West for the global stage. Chess, ballet, the Olympics….these were all arenas in the Cold War where the Soviets and allies could demonstrate the alleged superiority of the socialist system for the uncommitted parts of the world. Hockey was no different. The hockey rink was as much a battle ground to the grey men in the Kremlin as the Bolshoi stage or the chess board in Reykiyavek. The gullible peace-loving people of External Affairs thought this would be a great idea….
What made it even more difficult in the world of information operations was that the bulk of Team Canada, despite being Canadian citizens, were playing for American NHL teams. They were the ultimate indivdualist capitalist-mercenaries, with no apparent loyalty except to the almighty dollar. The Soviets were all clean-cut, athletic, genetically correct and maybe even bred to play the game, Homo Soviticus dedicated to win for Mother Russia and global socialism. It was almost too much of a cliché to believe at the time and today.
Of course in this morality play, we, the good guys, win. But the good guys have to resort to overt dirty tricks to match the more subtle dirty tricks employed by the chess masters. Like smashing the ankle of a leading Soviet scorer and taking him out of the game. But, according to Chris Henderson, the interception of Team Canada’s food and more importantly its beer supply which was confiscated by Soviet authorities only contributed to lowering the bar. That, followed by the employment of AK-47 armed Militia behind the Canadian bench to intimidate the players, which only made them look like criminals to the world media. And nobody in the world media invited to watch the games noticed when some exuberant Canadian fans were Shanghiaed to Moscow Militia headquarters for some good old Checka harrassment.
The façade of clean cut sportsmanship versus 1970s “Slap Shot” rink behaviour. Hockey was always a street game not meant for gentlemen. Expecting Canadian players brought up on those streets to behave like gentlemen when confronted with an obviously biased pair of referees was an absurd proposition and a great miscalculation by the Soviet propaganda machine. And the Department of External Affairs.
Or, in the words of Gary Bergman as he was being escorted to a penalty box guarded by armed Moscow Militia,
“Kiss my ass, robots!”
Da, da Canada. Nyet, nyet Soviet.