Veteran of '72 knows real pressure

By JIM KERNAGHAN, SPECIAL TO QMI AGENCY



Calm down, Olympic hockey fans.

As Team Canada prepares for its game against Germany Tuesday night, a guy with powerful history on his side calls for perspective from those disembarking from the bandwagon after Canada’s upset loss to Team USA.

Pat Stapleton has lived through a far worse international grind than Team Canada having to play an extra game.

“It was one game,” Pat Stapleton said Monday of Sunday night’s 5-3 loss. “You have to realize the No. 1 law of sports. Some nights, some teams play better than others.”

Sunday night, it was Team USA, which exposed shortcomings in the Canadian goal and on their defence.

Stapleton, a former mainstay on the Chicago Blackhawks blue-line, was not alone in questioning the play of goalie Martin Brodeur. Moreover, he felt Team Canada’s passing game was off.

That, he said, could have been poor ice, quickly pointing out both teams were playing on it.

“It always seemed to be poor ice in Vancouver,” said the veteran of the NHL and World Hockey Association. “I don’t know whether it’s the humidity off the ocean or being at sea level or what. But both teams had to play on it.”

If Sunday is to be considered a dark moment, imagine what it must have been like for Stapleton in 1972, when it was the better part of a dark month as Team Canada’s National Hockey League pros finally got a crack at the vaunted Soviet Union team that had had its way with Canadian amateurs for so long.

If Vancouver fans were upset with Sunday’s result, they were absolutely apoplectic when the ‘72 team lost there to send the eight-game series overseas for the four remaining games, Canada down two games to one, with one tie.

Stapleton was on the ice when Paul Henderson scored the goal that won the last game and the series (and still has the puck). Just about everything was different then, he said.

“I read, too,” he laughed. “They weren’t supposed to be able to play at our level. Looking back with 20-20 vision, they were used to tournament play and we weren’t. Our training methods weren’t up to what was needed.

“When we went there, it was on their ice, with their crowds and their referees. It really was a credit to the guys we were able to pull it off.”

Those of a certain age can recall vividly where they were and what they were doing Sept. 28, 1972, when Henderson scored at Moscow’s Luzhniki Arena late in the final game of an eight-game series to send much of Canada into delirium.

They can recall the disappointment borne of the Soviets’ 7-3 opening-game victory in Montreal, the renewed hope in Canada’s 4-1 win in Toronto, the concern over the 4-4 draw in Winnipeg and the deflation when the Soviets won 5-3 to head home with what seemed an insurmountable edge.

Maybe that’s why what has been called the biggest goal in history still resonates. It came 34 seconds from the end of the eighth and last game and completed an improbable sweep of the last three games by Canada, with Henderson scoring the winner in each game.

Who’d believe a players’ mutiny, a team executive being roughed up by Soviet soldiers during a game and an unsung hero?

Consider the course of the series: After the biggest wake-up call in hockey history in the opener, Canada won just one game at home. It got worse.

After a number of the pros embarrassed Canadian hockey with goonery during exhibition games in Sweden, the air went out of the balloon big-time in the opener on Soviet soil.

Down 4-1 after two periods, the Soviets came back with four third-period goals to take a stranglehold on the series. As if to underline the futility Team Canada was experiencing, veteran Phil Esposito did a pratfall when he stepped on a flower stem during the player introductions.

The whole thing was fraught with another kind of drama, for those who lived it. It came during the Cold War, when the arms race and space race were joined by a race on the playing fields of sports. It was us vs. them, our way of life vs. Communism.

A one-game loss against that backdrop is a laugher. Get a grip, naysayers. The quest for hockey gold is far from over.

POLL