TORONTO - If Paul Henderson could make Sean Mitton’s mother break down and bawl about hockey, he must have done something truly extraordinary.
“She wasn’t even a hockey fan,” Mitton says 40 years later. “She was a housewife in Georgetown, Ont., who happened to be listening to Bob Cole’s CBC radio feed from Moscow during Game 8. But she got so nervous, she couldn’t help just wandering around, cleaning everything. When Henderson scored, she just started crying, then felt she had to go outside and talk to the lady next door, who probably thought she was crazy.”
Sean was a three-year-old in September of 1972, with no clear memory of the series or the goal. But as hockey consumed him and the tale of Marilyn Mitton’s tears was retold at family gatherings, Sean realized her experience wasn’t singular. Mitton read up on the series and heard a steady stream of where-were-you-in-’72 yarns from friends. Whether they’d heard Cole, were glued to the TV, saw the games live in Luzhnicki or were on the Canadian bench, everyone was touched by the event in different degrees.
When Mitton moved to North Carolina, he found one of the best icebreakers with the large ex-pat Canadian population was to talk hockey and specifically, ’72. Mitton was surprised how many Americans either followed the series or knew its significance.
So in 2010, with the 40th anniversary approaching, Mitton thought it was time to collect as many introspectives for posterity as he could. The ambitious project morphed into The Goal That United Canada.
“When I started, I thought, ‘Is this book viable or am I crazy?’ ”said Mitton, whose day job is working on a website for Canadians abroad. “But what had happened with my mother showed this was not just about hockey, it was big on the lives of people from all 10 provinces.
“If you’re the younger generation, you see the goal, the hugs and wonder, ‘Is that all?’ But you had to look at the context of the time and the many layers to the story. What I worried was, how good would people’s memories be 40 years later?”
Mitton needn’t have fretted. His subjects eased themselves back to ’72 like they’d popped a dusty cassette in their old Philco tape recorder.
Barb Lane, a cardiac care nurse in Barrie, Ont., recalled her dilemma the day of Game 8. Her patients were mostly recuperating heart attack patients who still followed the roller coaster series. Worried about the danger another close game might cause, the staff considered muting the broadcast, but the doctor in charge decided the stress of not knowing the result would be much worse.
“In those days when anything was unusual with a person’s heart rhythm, beepers went off and everything,” Lane told Mitton. “So every beeper in the unit went off after Henderson scored because everyone’s heart rate went up so fast. But it was positive. I don’t recall anyone having bad results from it.”
Henderson, whom Mitton met for the first time in 1997 at the team’s 25th reunion, told his own story of the husband and wife on the brink of breaking up during the series. On the day of Game 8, he came to her residence to co-sign the divorce papers, but both became riveted by the drama on TV. When they embraced after Henderson scored, love bloomed anew.
“I know that if you would not have scored, my husband and I would have signed the papers,” the woman wrote Henderson at Christmas of ’72. “He would have walked out and it would have been all over.”
To frame the time period, Mitton lists what else was going on the week of Sept. 28, significant milestones that were obscured by the series. CITY-TV went on the air in Toronto, CBC aired the first episode of a show called The Beachcombers. Bill Stoneman of the Expos no-hit the Mets at Jarry Park, a first outside the U.S., and a heated federal election was underway.
Truro, N.S., phone lineman Richard Galpin took girlfriend Leslie’s new transistor radio to work for Game 8, perching it precariously 100 feet up so he could shout updates to his workmate at ground level. When Henderson scored, an excited Galpin fumbled the radio, which look the long plunge and smashed to bits.
“It died in a good cause,” said Leslie, who forgave Richard and became his bride of 40 years.
The series had a career-changing effect on Peter Friesen, a young Prince Albert, Sask., high school student. Fascinated by reports of Vladislav Tretiak’s duck-walking warmups and tennis ball reflex drills, Friesen devoured books on conditioning and eventually became the Carolina Hurricanes’ strength coach. Years later, he was thrilled to meet Tretiak when with Team Canada at the world championships in St. Petersburg.
Mitton spoke to many of the 3,000 Canadians who spent the princely sum of $800 in ’72 to endure a Cold War country to see some or all the games. But he found they’d pay three or four times that to do it again today.
“There was a great sense of community among the people there,” Mitton said. “You’d have a cold or get sick, but every day there would be an aggregate of pills that the Canadians brought in and shared. When they needed news from back home, every morning one of the media people would read out the radio copy. In this era of social media, we take that for granted.”
When the police and soldiers tried to confiscate the Canadians’ horns and noisemakers at the games, Aurora, Ont.’s Jim Herder recalls his quick-thinking countrymen passed them briskly undetected through the seats. When the security officials sat at the end of the bench at Luzhnicki to try and intimidate the rowdy visitors, the Canucks perfected getting more bums on the row until the cop was squeezed off the end. But candy bribes often worked best on the Russians, deploying everything from currency rates to getting a better seat.
Mitton tracked down coach Harry Sinden’s Russian barber, who had attended the Moscow portion of the series before emigrating to Boston. And he got American referee Steve Dowling’s detailed take on the series. Dowling was trying to remain neutral at a time when the NHL’s Canadian officiating supervisors were second-guessing him — and had the power to quash his new big-league contract.
Mitton also spoke to many celebrities from ’72, both established and undiscovered. Greg Keelor was exiting the ice during a tryout in goal for the Toronto Marlies at the Gardens when the injured Bobby Orr and some Team Canada players came on for practice. A star-struck Keelor ended up in net for 30 minutes and later that month, watched Game 8 at the same house party as Jim Cuddy, his future musical partner in Blue Rodeo.
Two future provincial premiers, curler Glenn Howard, newsman Peter Mansbridge and Walter Gretzky, the descendant of Russian immigrants, also weigh in. Don Cherry, then coach of the Rochester Americans, was running practice during Game 8, getting updates from a trainer who had the radio in the dressing room. The team crowded in the room for the third period and went wild when Henderson scored, Cherry laughing at the sight of players with red, white and blue “Americans” on their sweaters, jumping around for Canada.
There were some painful episodes associated with Henderson’s goal, too. The Gander, Nfld., man who accidentally bit his tongue while jumping up and who still has the scar. An over-excited auto mechanic who knocked himself walking into a steel beam and was unable to remember the goal. Jim Prime, Mitton’s co-author, was driving an American business colleague to Halifax airport got so nervous listening to the game, his nose bled profusely.
“A Canadian thing,” he told his puzzled passenger.