The first time I went to Russia, with my two kids and first wife, was in 1991, when St. Petersburg was still called Leningrad, and when historic changes were underway. Statues of Lenin had been toppled, revolution was in the air, the U.S.S.R. and its communist ways were in the process of collapsing, and although we were warned not to go because it was such dangerous times, we went anyway.
Leningrad was exactly as I had pictured it and wanted it to be – dark, old, strange, just like in books and films, and I was so excited. We came in by train from Helsinki late at night and our Russian friends hadn’t received our letter saying we were coming, so we were alone and more than confused when we stepped onto the train station platform. Eventually, a fellow who spoke English asked if we needed help, and things got sorted out thanks to him. Surprised the heck out of our friends too.
Russia has changed over the years, with fancy cars, mega-movie theatres, high fashion, and serious money being thrown around now, but back then it was the real Russia to me, the one I expected and wasn’t disappointed with. It was also the bargain to end all bargains. Almost everything was dirt-cheap. Eight of us went to a restaurant one night, had chicken or beef meals with all the trimmings, plus a couple of pitchers of Cokes along with dessert, and the entire bill came to the equivalent of seven bucks. Now it would be several hundred at least.
Here’s a few photos from our big trip 21 years ago, when Russian citizens still had to line up for hours to buy a few things in shops, when many ordinary Russians had no choice but to share an apartment with several other families, and it goes without saying, when life wasn’t easy for all but the chosen few. It was also a time when it was very unusual for westerners to see the inside of a Russian home, it rarely happened, and I was very proud that we were able to experience that. (It took some serious red tape). I also attended a meeting of the Leningrad Montreal Canadiens Fan Club, where they made me their first non-Russian member.
When we got back home, I wrote a full-page account of our trip, which was published in the Calgary Herald. It was all very heady times, and I have wonderful memories of this huge trip, which also included Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen along the way..
The cameras panned the Palace of Sports at Luzhniki in Moscow, where fans, the majority men and soldiers, stared hard at the ice and at the long-haired Canadian players swooping around. What were these fans thinking about these foreigners? They saw the long hair, they saw Esposito and others they recognized. They would scan the stadium, watching the Canadian fans whooping and hollering, and they must have wondered.
Of course they were curious, because in 1972, long before perestroika and glasnost (restructuring and openness), this was a novelty of the first degree. Westerners live and in colour, something not often seen in their closed country, and names they knew only slightly glided around the ice below. To have seen NHL games in their homes meant sporatic action on television, with announcers who droned on, in the middle of the night broken up periodically by agriculture commercials and speeches from Leonid Brezhnev and other stonefaced leaders from the Politburo. The Russians definitely didn’t have Hockey Night in Canada or TSN going for them back then.
Opening night, game five in Moscow meant serious business. At this point, three Canadian players had decided to go home. Vic Hadfield, told he probably wouldn’t see any action in Moscow, felt he should be preparing for the NHL season with his Ranger teammates. Jocelyn Guevremont’s wife, who had come along with her husband on the trip, fell ill and needed to enter a hospital back home. And Rick Martin said he felt pressure from Sabres boss Punch Imlach to return and be with his Buffalo teammates. Gilbert Perreault would do the same shortly after.
Canada had won just once in Canada, and to lose again meant having to win the final three, which seemed as remote a possibility as seeing Lenin scratch himself in his Tomb at Red Square. It would take a miracle, even if Canada could somehow pull it out on this night and narrow the gap.
During the opening festivities on this night, young Russian ladies skated out with flowers, and as one came near Phil Esposito, a petal fell off the stem and floated to the ice. When Espo was introduced, he stepped on the petal and fell flat on his rear end, to the smiles and laughter of the crowd and both teams. He did an exaggerated bow, seemed to be fine about the whole thing, and maybe we were more embarrassed than he was. Regardless, to show the high esteem the Soviet players held for our captain, Vladislav Tretiak would say years later that Espo did this on purpose to lighten things up for his tense teammates. It might have worked, but it certainly wasn’t on purpose. (see video below).
Maybe it was the 3000 Canadian fans cheering and blowing their horns and making such wonderful noise, but Team Canada came out with bounce, and late in the first period, J.P. Parise (father of Zach), converted on a Gilbert Perreault pass and Canada found themselves in the lead. At home we cheered, but we needed more. We’d seen in the past that leads can evaporate quickly against this Machine.
Early in the second period, Bobby Clarke shoved one past Tretiak, and the 3000 Canadians at Luzhnicki and 15 million back home cheered again. We liked what we were seeing, and we liked it even more when Paul Henderson made it a lovely 3-0 lead. Take that, you Russians.
It was heady times going into the third period. It would be such a beautiful win, a win for NHL and western hockey superiority, and a narrowing of the gap. Unsmiling Russian fans would be impressed by the NHLers. Soviet players might get nervous. It was perfect.
But Yuri Blinov scored and suddenly we weren’t so giddy. But although Henderson once again gave us a three-goal lead to allow us to breathe again, Ken Dryden mentioned later that, “We played stupidly. Instead of continuing the forechecking tactics that had worked so well in the first two periods, we stayed back and let the Russians take the puck to us.”
Anisin beat Tony Esposito to narrow the gap to 4-2, and then, just eight seconds later, Shadrin scored and it became 4-3. At this point, we needed a pill. Maybe some Anisin. And maybe we needed something much stronger than Anisin when Alexander Gusev’s shot was tipped by a Canadian player over the shoulder of Esposito, and the game was tied with still nine minutes remaining. The Soviets then won the damn thing when Vladimir Vikulov scored the winner.
5-4 Russia. We were perfectly aware of what this meant. A miracle would be needed, and we weren’t so sure it would happen. But something extremely important had transpired during this game five loss. Canada seemed in better shape and showed more drive. They had outplayed the Soviets before things collapsed in the third period, and they seemed to have found a way to hogtie the enemy with furious forechecking. Team Canada knew, even in losing, that they weren’t out of it yet.
The Canadians were beginning to feel better about themselves, but they were in a deep hole.
The first time I was in Russia, it was Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in October of 1991, at the time when communism was being dragged down kicking and screaming, and capitalism was about to take hold. It was where statues of Lenin had been toppled only days before, soldiers and tanks were in the streets both there and in Moscow, and history was being made in front of my eyes. It was the beginning of the end of the USSR.
But it wasn’t just history I was seeing. I was also invited to the home of the president of the Leningrad Montreal Canadiens fan club, where he and I and four other Russian hockey fans sat and ate cake, drank tea, and with the help of an interpreter, debated the merits of the Habs, discussed various players around the league, offered opinions on the 1972 Summit Series, and all in all, had a tremendous time.
Then the president gave me this fine letter saying that I was now an official member of the Leningrad Montreal Canadiens fan club. I was the only non-Russian member of the club, and it made me very proud.