Russians and Canadians

I watched a wonderful show on W5 recently hosted by Glenn Anderson, the former Oiler.   It gave a fabulous overview of the Soviet hockey system from the early 50’s through the 90’s.  I knew Anatoli Tarasov was somewhat the father-figure of the Soviet game but didn’t realize he was appointed by Stalin’s son to transform the Soviets into the top hockey power in the world.  The show covered their rise to power through world championship wins in the 50’s and 60’s, with a bit of detail on their games against the Whitby Dunlops and the Penticton Vee’s.

It also covered the ’72 series in a unique way.  Anderson was a 12 year old at the time and his hero became Alexi Yakushev who lead the tournament in points.  There has been much written and filmed about the series but I had never seen the two-hander that Clarke dished out to Kharlamov until last night.  Ouch.  Crazy vicious and called for by John Ferguson on the bench and Clarke obliged on the next shift.  Clarke’s comment was that they probably all did things in that series they wouldn’t have done in the NHL.  Perhaps but they didn’t get the label “broad-street bullies” for nothing.

Anyway, the actual  hockey ended up being the back story in the show – ultimately, the message was that after all these years, players from the many Canada-Russia series teams have become good friends now.   Clarke himself commented that these guys were no more communists than the NHL’ers were politicians – they were just hockey players.

One last element I found fascinating was the experience that Slava Fetisov underwent to gain his freedom to play in North America.   What a brave, hard-assed guy he was.  He was the leader of the Red Army team and after requesting permission to play abroad (before the wall came down), he describes being beaten up by police at the police station and being interrogated by the Minister of Defense (the second most powerful man in the Soviet Union) about why he wanted to leave.  When threatened with exile to Siberia for his request, Fetisov didn’t back down, which he said flabbergasted the Minister.    Fetisov said he didn’t know what would happen next.   They told him he would live out his years in shame and left the room.  A month later, he was granted his freedom to play abroad.

Once here, he said he expected to be welcomed with open arms in the “friendly, humane” North America.  Poor bugger got that one a bit wrong.  He said he felt like he was actually hated, even by his own teammates until he gradually won over their respect.   In 2002, Putin himself contact Fetisov and asked him to return home as Minister of Sport.  Great end to an inspiring athlete’s story.

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