The 1972 Summit Series between the Canadian and Russian hockey teams was, perhaps, the biggest sporting event in our country's history. Life stopped here for that final game in Russia when Paul Henderson scored the iconic goal that won the series for us. I remember the TV being rolled into our classroom to watch the game.
What is conveniently forgotten in our collective memories was the way that series played out, how the Canadians played the role of aggressors, hacking and intimidating the skilled and disciplined Russians. We were win-at-all-costs individualists, the Russians were the machine.
No one ever seems to talk about the brutal and blatant slash Bobby Clarke levelled on Kharlamov, the Russian star, that almost took him out of the series. "He's killing us", was the consensus on the bench, and Clarke took that as his directive to do something about it.
But, as we now know in hindsight, it was really cultures colliding. The two countries were playing different games. Yes it was hockey, but the culture of the game had evolved in isolation in the two places and the game was played very differently in Canada and Russia.
In response to the heavy body-checking, the Russians responded with their own aggression, dirty stickwork, butt ends and spears. In Canada that was taboo. In Russia the stickwork was the equivalent to pasting a guy into the boards. Different cultures. We were solid guys pasting them into the boards, they were dirty weasels, jabbing us with their sticks. In Russia the argument was exactly the reverse.
There was an almost identical clash of cultures with Canada in 1907, a direct premonition of this series. No one remembers it now, though.
In the summer of 1907 a Canadian lacrosse team toured Australia playing a series of 16 games against state all-star teams, and four Test Matches against an Australian National Team. The Canadian team was from my hometown of Orillia, supplemented with seven more top players from the Ontario amateur league. It was the first round-the-world tour by any sports team for international competition... and it's totally forgotten now.
Well, talk about a clash of cultures. Lacrosse had developed totally in isolation in Australia and had become a gentleman's game there, like cricket in England. No body-checking, no hacking and whacking with the sticks, but fast and hard shooting. Of course in Canada it was a brutal game, with fights and serious injury commonplace.
Before the tour the organizers from Australia were adamant the Canadians only bring "gentlemanly" players, they asked that "the boozers" be left home. Accommodating them, 11 of the Canadians ended up being non-drinkers, and all of them, remarkably, were university of Toronto students or alumni.
But no one thought to discuss the rules of the game before the series started. That first game in Brisbane was eye-opening. In Canada the playing field was 50 yards shorter, the ball was heavier and harder, using one's stick to impede an opposing player was expected and body-checking was integral to the game. Not so in Australia. On the huge Australian fields that spread the players out, long sideline passes and quick darting solo forays to get a scoring chance was the typical play. The Australians couldn't understand the need for the protective padding the Canadians wore.
Well, naturally the solo dodging Australians were planted on their rear ends by the Canadian defence, who were then soundly booed by the spectators.
At the other end of the field the Canadians attacked as a phalanx of 7 or 8 players, passing constant short, sharp passes that confounded the defencemen and dazzled the goalie. The poor Aussies couldn't follow the ball as the army of Canadians forged straight up the middle of the field, with highly skilled passing routines.
It took a few games to sort out the issues between the two styles, and during the rest of the tour there was constant back-room wrangling over what rules should be used.
The end result, especially after the Australians stunned the Canadians to win the first Test Match, was an intense and hotly contested final two games of the Test series. To win, the Canadians resorted to their familiar win-at-all-costs mentality, damn the penalties. High elbows, shoulders to the ribs, stick "checks" to knock the ball away that were really just punishing whacks to the arms and legs of attackers who dodged around a defenceman, and then sometimes, just blatant dirty stick work.
In the deciding last Test, which the Canadians were not going to lose, the game descended into a donnybrook. The poor referees who probably never saw a fight all season in the sedate Australian league, were totally helpless to stop it. Finally, they called in "mounted troopers" who separated the teams! The poor Australians who tried to give as good as they got, but weren't nearly as experienced in the Canadian game, limped away battered and bruised.
And, just like in 1972, the Canadians eked out a win in the final game to win the series two games to one.
Is this the Canadian persona? Do we have to delve into violent and aggressive play to win? Or is that just the way we raise our players, with rules that encourage that win-at-all-costs attitude? Do we like and endorse that rugged and individualistic play as a culture?
Long ago, in our formative years, we were a rural society of farmboys and factory workers who were living in a tough world. The 1907 lacrosse team were those boys, but the ones who had been lucky enough to pull themselves above all that through a university education. But they were ingrained with that attitude and it reared it's head when the going got tough.
In 1972, that culture was still there. But today we should know better. We create the world out boys and girls grow up in, the world of minor sports. Is that still the Canadian persona? In the big, epic contests of the last 20 years we don't see that dirtiness any more, at least not as obviously. Maybe we have learned.
I have just researched and written the fist detailed history in Canada of that world lacrosse tour. Doug Fox of the Australian Lacrosse Association wrote a similar history in 2002, but as seen through Australian eyes. Mine is the Canadian version. It will be available through the Orillia Public Library, and hopefully a few copies will be available at the local bookstore. It is a fascinating snapshot of our cultural history.