Moscow 72, an unforgettable journey for fans

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Paul Henderson scored the big goals, but gave the assists to those 3,000 fans who made such a racket in Russia.

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What started as an ominous journey behind the Iron Curtain with Team Canada midway through the Summit series has become the adventure of a lifetime for the lucky fools who witnessed – and influenced – the unlikely comeback .

“Thank God you were there,” Henderson said this week at a Moscow Mafia meeting in Toronto. “And thank goodness you’re still here (50 years later).”

The event was organized by Sean Mitton, Paul Patskou and Alex Braverman, co-authors of the new book When Canada closedfeaturing many new stories about what happened on both sides of the hockey world before and after Henderson’s decisive game.

In 1972, the soulless Luzhniki Arena had never seen real hockey crowds. Then came the invasion of flags, cheeky signs, NHL team jerseys, wacky costumes and noisemakers. Their clever chant, “Da, Da Canada, Nyet, Nyet Soviet!” initially shocked the 10,000 Russians present, but they gradually got carried away with the spirit and responded with shrill hisses.

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As each plane landed in Moscow, the fan demographics were quite unique; the rich and famous such as Leafs owner Harold Ballard, Rocket Richard and Whipper wrestler Billy Watson, mingling happily with Main Street moms and pops, a few who brought their kids.

“People find it hard to believe I was there,” said Carroll Castle of Oakville, who booked with her husband Bill at a modest University of Toronto travel agency. “It was like hiking, the most exciting thing we’ve ever done. I kept my ticket stub, framed by a picture with Paul’s last winning goal.

Excerpts from his 7,000-word diary about all four games and interactions with the Russians can be found in the book.

Londoner Neil Fletcher had already used up his vacation time, but asked his boss to go abroad for a few more weeks. He managed one of the last packages available on the spartan Soviet airline, Aeroflot. Its total cost, including hotels and meals, was $649. Some would pay 10 times more today to have gone there.

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“The difference between our fans and theirs was like going from black-and-white television to color,” Fletcher said. “We started shouting ‘Go Canada Go’ before they even stepped on the ice. The Russians did not understand why. But in Game 8, their hiss was piercing.

The increase in decibels was music to Team Canada’s ears. who had been booed off the ice in Vancouver after Game 4 and thought they had been abandoned so far from home. Players were also encouraged by the telegrams and postcards that poured in from across Canada.

“They were awesome,” Henderson said. “We put them on the dressing room walls and (eventually) on the ceiling.”

The fans’ party often began on special buses from their hotels in Luzhniki, through rows of stoic soldiers cordoning off the entrance to the arena.

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The opener of Game 5 saw an expanded show of force with so many Kremlin figures in attendance. A fun cat-and-mouse contest organized with the guards and Pierre Plouffe, part-time trumpeter at the Montreal Forum games, who had smuggled his horn in. He was whispering “Charge!” security intervened to confiscate his instrument, but alert compatriots quickly squeezed it through the seats and returned it to him.

As the four games progressed, the Russians also tried to put a man on the end of the line to intimidate the Canadians, who honed by putting more bums on the bench to get him out.

Some fans were followed in hotels, bars and streets, but found ordinary Soviet people friendly, curious about Canada and hoping to trade souvenirs for gum or nylons.

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Plouffe, however, found himself in the slammer when his attempt to buy drinks for Peter Mahovlich and assistant coach John Ferguson after the last call turned physical. He must have watched Game 7 with his jailers.

John Thompson of Kitchener, then in his twenties, landed an invite to the American Embassy one night and ended up partying until 4:30 a.m. who after an hour of trying to find his address, ended up at the embassy.

Thompson hosted four fan meetings in Kitchener, including defenseman Rod Seiling, and he still keeps in touch with friends he met in Moscow who are now in their 90s.

O Canada, tuned or awkward, rang out after every Luzhniki fight, no louder than after Henderson’s third and final winner as they poured into the rainy Moscow night.

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“About 500 of you got hammered,” Henderson teased. “But never before have I heard the anthem sung more fervently than in the last three games. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
“We just couldn’t let you down.”

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party politics

Fifty years ago, Russia’s rigid government and its stripped-down hotel and tourism industry were largely unprepared to welcome 3,000 Canadian hockey fans to Moscow.

The hosts were originally only expecting 2,000 and had only pulled back the Iron Curtain as an empty run for exhibition games against Italian football teams scheduled for the coming months. After two weeks, officials couldn’t wait for the boisterous Canucks to leave town, especially after their blazing Game 8 celebrations.

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At one hotel, giddy fans danced in a conga line through the bar and lobby, alternately shouting “We’re No. 1!” and “Shai-boo!” (the puck!), imitating the in-game chant of the Russians.

Foreign business travelers who had probably never seen a hockey game joined in the dance, as frightened staff and nervous security looked on. Each hotel had a makeshift jail cell, but most revelers managed to avoid it and make it to the airport the next day.

“Do you know what the Russians are afraid of?” a fellow Canadian remarked to writer Jack Ludwig amid the din. “The last party like this, they called a revolution.”

–Lance Hornby

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