(Note: This is the second of a four-part series.)
In 1972, it was Us vs. Them when the original Team Canada squeaked past the godless Soviets in the historic Summit Series.
Four years later, Darryl Sittler’s overtime goal against the Czechs won the inaugural Canada Cup for a team that still ranks as the greatest collection of all-star talent ever to don the Maple Leaf sweater.
Between those two epic clashes, unjustly dismissed as somehow less significant and today all but forgotten, was the so-called ‘Friendship Series’ — the World Hockey Association’s gallant attempt to carve out its credibility in an eight-game series against the Soviet national team in September 1974.
In the wake of the Summit Series debacle, nobody believed the two-year-old WHA had a snowball’s chance in hell of even being competitive. Yet when GM Bill Hunter and head coach Billy Harris assembled their hand-picked squad in Toronto in mid-August, there was a quiet air of confidence.
Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe were there. J.C. Tremblay and Gerry Cheevers, too.
There were even three veterans from the ’72 series: Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson and Pat Stapleton.
After the Big 7, however, most of the rest of Team Canada ’74 was faceless, even to hardcore hockey fans. A handful — Johnny McKenzie, Ralph Backstrom, Mike Walton, Marc Tardiff and Bruce MacGregor — had played in the NHL long enough to have made an impact, but who were the rest of these guys?
Serge Bernier and Barry Long? Tom Webster and Wayne Dillon? Pat Price and Smokey McLeod?
“My biggest concern was to help make sure we weren’t disgraced,” Howe recalled in a 1997 interview for my book Big Bucks & Blue Pucks.
“The guys on the team knew what we were capable of doing, but the media had written us off even before we got to training camp.
“That was a little unsettling, especially considering how many young guys we had. And don’t forget, the Russians had been building for two years off what they learned in 1972. They were much better prepared.”
In retrospect, Howe’s pre-tournament observations were uncannily accurate.
What turned out to be the most crucial factor in the final outcome — one win and three ties for the WHA, four wins for the Soviets — was that the Russians so thoroughly went to school on the lessons they’d learned two years earlier.
The opening game in Quebec City was one of the most entertaining international contests ever.
Twice Team Canada held one-goal leads, only to see the Soviets fight back. Late in the second period, Paul Shmyr took a penalty for cross-checking and 10 seconds later Vladimir Petrov put the Soviets ahead 3-2.
Team Canada attacked furiously through the first half of the third period, but Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak weathered the storm.
With six minutes left, Hull, playing on a line with McKenzie and Andre Lacroix, notched his second goal of the game to even the score.
Then, with 40 seconds remaining, the line of Backstrom, Howe and Mahovlich launched one last desperate assault.
Howe knocked down two defenders to retrieve a loose puck just inside the blue-line, then fed a perfect pass to Mahovlich in the slot. The Big M deked the sprawling Tretiak, but his hurried shot zipped wide of the top corner.
A Team Canada win instead of a tie in the opener would have dramatically changed the rest of the series. As it was, Canada triumphed 4-1 in Game 2 in Toronto, but then some lineup juggling led to an 8-5 loss in Game 3 in Winnipeg.
Harris rested Cheevers and put Don (Smokey) McLeod in goal. Howe, Mahovlich and starry defencemen Rick Ley and Brad Selwood were likewise scratched.
The opening period of Game 4, two nights later in Vancouver, was a classic. Hull beat Tretiak three times on four shots and Howe and Mahovlich sniped singles as Team Canada roared to a 5-2 lead after 20 minutes. But over the last two periods the Soviets kept pecking away and finally battled back for a 5-5 tie.
When the series shifted to Moscow for the last four games, it was a different Team Canada.
Only once did the WHAers manage to be on even terms heading into the final minute of play. That was in Game 7, when Canadian referee Tom Brown, ruling time had expired, waved off a goal by Hull that would have meant a 5-4 victory.
After dropping the first two in Moscow by scores of 3-2 and 5-2, Team Canada needed to win Game 7 to retain any chance of a split.
Had Hull’s goal been allowed (a videotape later showed the Soviet timekeeper let 11 seconds tick off the clock during third-period stoppages), the WHA squad still had a chance to win Game 8 — in which case the series would have ended with each team getting three wins and two ties.
To this day, some members of Team Canada ’74 maintain the outcome of Game 7 was preordained by what happened at the end of Game 6, when Rick Ley was goaded into throwing punches at Valerie Kharlamov.
Ley and several of his teammates had to be restrained when some of the Russians responded by kicking, spitting and spearing, even as a phalanx of Soviet police surrounded the Team Canada bench.
But at least those guys got to play.
The most awkward to explain casualty in Moscow was Team Canada defenceman (and future Edmonton Oiler) Pat Price, the No. 1 pick in the WHA amateur draft two months earlier, who had signed a $1.3 million deal with the Vancouver Blazers.
The 19-year-old Price, who probably wouldn’t have seen any game action anyway, was knocked out of the series when he sprained his ankle after ... ahem ... falling off his platform heels. Very ’70s!
“I’m not really used to them, and I tried to run,” Price sheepishly told a TV interviewer.
“I just tipped over. Boy, was it ever embarrassing!”
Pt. I: Oct. 7, A League of Their Own
Pt. III: Oct. 9, Skating into History