Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Everyone Remembers

I must have seen the paintings four times before I suddenly recognized the significance of the image. They sell them at major junior games, you know, not all of the franchises but a lot of them. I don’t know if it’s one painter who sets up booths everywhere, or the same idea copied again and again by a legion of local artists plugged deeply into the collective unconscious. Whatever the mode of production, the booths sell paintings of kids playing hockey in a folksy pseudo-naturalist style, frozen ponds and boots for goalposts, snow painted with a fan-brush in fluffy, spiky heaps. Bob Ross goes to Sudbury.

Anyway, there’s one particular version of this painting that’s always most prominently displayed: the children re-enacting, toques and mittens, the Paul Henderson goal. For all the obvious nostalgia of such a piece, it is probably not wholly inaccurate. That goal has doubtless been reenacted all over Canada, not only in skates on pond-ice but in boots on slushy driveways, in socks on basement carpets. It is probably the single most beloved hockey moment in a country with million such moments to choose among.

The Summit Series occupies a truly privileged place in Canadian hockey history. Everything else that was supposed to be legendary, expected to live forever, has either faded to the sepia realm of obligatory, emotionless hagiography; or grown partisan- hallowed in a certain region, among a certain fan base, or by a certain generation, a matter of indifference for everyone else. The Summit Series, though, is literally famed in song and story. Everyone ‘remembers’ it, even people who weren’t born yet and never actually watched the damn thing. Everyone knows what happened. It’s one of those rare sports events that very nearly transcend the sport, such that even athletic atheists get some tickle of feeling from the moment.

The official reason that the Summit Series was special- the reason people knew it would be special before it even happened- is because it was the first (virtually) best-on-best international hockey match Canada had participated in for decades. International competition, at the time, still idealized that curious 19th century gentlemen’s club hero, the amateur athlete. For some obscure and probably absurd reason, athletes with day jobs were considered morally superior to those actually paid for their labor. Canadian hockey players had been proudly professionalized long before 1972, meaning they played only within the boundaries of the NHL (or one of its subsidiaries, or the new, rivulous WHA). NHL players did not go to the Olympics, or the World Championships, or anything off-continent. However, being communist and therefore having a deep philosophical contempt for anything that reeked of 19th-century-gentlemans’-club-ism, the Soviets felt no obligation to respect the peculiarly capitalist distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’. They gave all their hockey players military ranks and government paychecks, thereby neatly circumventing the technical requirements of the IIHF and IOC.

In short, for a great many years Russia had been sending its very best players to international competitions, while Canada had been sending mostly beer league teams selected, apparently, based on smallness of town and funniness of name. For the World Championships, there was a Canadian team of top amateur players, but as they never won and included none of the famous Canadian hockey stars, their exploits seem to have been largely ignored in North America. The Summit Series is sometimes presented as the sudden revelation of what was going on the mysterious world of Soviet hockey, but in many ways the reverse is more accurate: it was Canada waking up to what the rest of the world had been doing for the past decade.

Not surprisingly, before a single skate was laced or whistle was blown, Canada expected to kick Russian ass from Montreal to Moscow and possibly thence to Magadan. Canadians, having seen a lot of NHL hockey and not much else for the last foreverty years, were well and truly convinced of its perfection. This is still, by and large, true. I don’t think it is either insulting or inaccurate to say that Canada has a tendency to be a bit chauvinistic about its hockey style. Canadians believe that hockey is their game, and are apt to confuse their way of playing with the necessary way of playing, as though everything they do is natural. Other styles are not merely different, they are wrong. They are bad hockey. In the more extreme formulations, non-Canadian hockey practices are effeminate, immoral, and perhaps insane- like Oscar Wilde, except not funny. Trying to persuade a Canadian that people from other athletic traditions, in other cultures, have every right to favor different tactics, styles, or values is like trying to persuade an American that democracy is not ideal for every society: you’re never going to win, because you’re trying to persuade them that something they consider a human truth is actually just a cultural perspective.

This is actually justifiable. Canadian hockey is an incredibly refined and sophisticated form of the sport, despite its meat-head ethos. It is better than a lot of other forms. The country’s belief in its superiority isn’t just careless nationalism, it’s rooted in the idea that they love the game so deeply that they have pursued its perfection with a relentlessness unmatched anywhere else, and there’s a core of truth to that- the best hockey practices and ideals are Canadian ones because Canada would not settle for anything less than the best in hockey. Nevertheless, insularity is a liability in the NHL as anywhere else. Players who play only those from the same background are apt to develop peculiar exaggerations in their style, pursuing those things the culture values most at the expense of other facets of the game. The NHL, by 1972, had developed a very insular style indeed.

It takes a hell of a lot to dent Canadian confidence in Canadian hockey. It takes more than a couple of losses, it takes more than conditional defeats by no-name players in unpronounceable foreign towns, it takes more than the abstract knowledge that other nations are also trying to perfect hockey in even more systematic ways. It takes the cold, undeniable shadow of looming failure.

A hypothesis: If the Russians had been good in the Summit Series but not won anything, if they had not taken the games in Montreal and Vancouver, if they had left Canada losing by even the slimmest of goal differentials, you would not remember anything in particular about 1972. Just like you (average-Joe-you, not passionate-hockey-historian-you; the readers of this blog are probably not a representative sample of the overall hockey-watching population) don’t remember much about 1974 or 1976 or 1981, or all those Super Series games. The official reason for the historical importance of 1972 isn’t what makes it truly important. What makes it big is the tension, the closeness, the near loss.

The boy came back from Canada last summer with an anthology called Words on Ice, one of those gift collections of short stories, essays, and excerpts from the great books, everything artistic and intellectual about the game. It includes a short story called “Hockey’s Night in Canada”, set in an alternate reality where the Soviets won the Summit Series. In it, a big tough Canadian kid can’t get a position on the Maple Leafs defense, because the sleek, fast Russian style of play is so dominant in the NHL, supported by fan dollars and Tikhonov’s pontifications on Coach’s Corner. The premise is exaggerated, of course, but it is a true mirror of the way people feel about 1972, then and now: it was a battle for the soul of hockey, one which would vindicate whichever style emerged victorious. If Canada had lost, we might all be playing the Russian way today.

Of course, the Canadians won, but the NHL doesn’t play a perfectly Canadian style anymore. The Russians did so well, were so quick and coordinated and efficient, so impressive to the eyes, that they planted the first seeds of a grudging respect for European hockey in the minds of the Canadian audience, and probably no few future NHL managers and coaches. These tense observers did not wholeheartedly adopt the Russian style, but after its near-victory over the Canadian way, they certainly saw some of its ideas as worthy of adoption, some of its players as worthy of import. The Summit Series proved to be not so much a victory for either style of play, but the mother of the modern, hybrid way- the hockey now played in the NHL.

During the hockeyless doldrums of this past August, Pat McLean over at Black Dog Hates Skunks (a brilliant and highly individual Oilers blog) and some collaborators undertook some deep counting on the Summit Series games: Corsi, scoring chances, faceoffs by zone; all the numbers that hadn’t been counted before, but are increasingly intrinsic to the analysis of the modern game. Before we go any further, serious props to McLean and his crew for the labor involved: between the shitty video quality, satellite problems, and Foster Hewitt’s colorful but often incorrect commentary, it is hard to count anything in those games. I only assisted with one, and it took a good four hours of hard watching to collect the events, and another two to break them down according to player. The kind of watching this involves is closer, clearer, and much more careful than anything we would normally consider ‘watching a game’, and the results that come from it- both in the numbers and the impressions of the people who did the work- are very different from the traditional Summit Series story.

The Canadians dominate. Even in Games 1-4, on home ice, when they were supposedly getting humiliated by the vastly superior Russians, they are actually getting more and better scoring chances. Maybe they are outpassed, occasionally outskated, but they are never outshot or outchanced. Look at the underlying numbers, and the Canadians are the better team from the very beginning. Their performance is not noticeably damaged by their ‘poor conditioning’, but rather by poor goaltending from Dryden, silly penalties (both just and unjust), and stupidly long shifts. Mostly, however, they just have bad luck, and Tretiak is fantastic. Watching the games closely, looking at the number and quality of the scoring chances, you would not put your money on the Soviets to win. A few different bounces, and the Summit Series might have been the almost the blowout everyone in Canada anticipated.

Counter-hegemonic narratives are always fun, and having participated in the project, it’s cool to see that it actually came up with something new. Nevertheless, I have to wonder: if, at the time, people had known the ‘truth’ about the Canadian performance, would it have been a good thing for hockey? If the fans at home in 1972 had been counting chances, if the commentators had been referencing Corsi numbers, if everyone hadn’t been focusing on the Russian speed and style and the bright modern sheen of their game, would Canadians have developed any respect for the European style? Or would they, despite the losses, have felt more secure in their superiority throughout?

The surface results of the Summit Series, and the narratives that attached to it, turned out to be absolutely perfect for the eventual integration of European and Canadian styles that characterizes the modern game: the Canadians won, in dramatic fashion, but the tension ensured that the series was memorable, and the initial fall behind demonstrated that Russian hockey was a legitimate force. It ‘proved’ that there might be something to this whole big-ice game. And I can’t help but feel that it thereby made the game better. The Canadian style in 1972 is impressive in many ways, but it is highly individual, frequently undisciplined, chaotic, and often irrationally aggressive. The Russians tend to make one too many passes, but the Canadians tend to make one too few, and Phil Esposito won’t get off the fucking ice for damn near entire periods, and if the Canadian penalties sometimes show the need for individual passion, then the Russian ability to walk away from a throwdown shows the need to put the team’s position ahead of your own honor once in a while. The synthesis of the two is a much more brilliant thing than either of them individually. But, were it not for the misinterpretation of the Summit Series, I doubt if many Canadians would have seen anything to learn from the Soviets. The only way people could be persuaded to adopt foreign hockey customs is under the illusion that they might possibly be superior ones.

Most people who are into deep hockey knowledge are very critical of storylines based on surfaces and appearances. They’re made up ex-post facto, or else they’re the result of confirmation bias, or they’re just the tricks that eyes play with a half-distracted mind. But I think the differing interpretations of the Summit Series raise the question of whether the ‘wrong’ narrative can actually be the ‘better’ narrative. Not just the better storyline, but better message for the growth and development of the game. If people had thought about the Summit Series in 1972 the way McLean and his readers do now, it would likely have only reinforced Canadian chauvinism about their superior play style, slowed the acceptance of European players and European-influenced tactics, and given us a very different game- and probably a worse one. Watch the series and you realize: the Soviets are the more modern looking team. Their fitness, their constant collaboration, and their drill-honed technical skills are much more suggestive of the NHL to come than the Canadian side. In the Summit Series, these things weren’t necessarily very effective, insofar as they didn’t get the Soviets better shots from prime scoring areas than their opponents. But, refined and adapted, they’ve proven essential improvements to hockey.

So I close with a question, addressed to both the nostalgists and the pursuers of pure truth: In hockey, is there some either moral or utilitarian value in wrong ideas? Is it on occasion better for the sport if people not understand too clearly the causes of winning and losing? Does hockey have useful fictions, things that are not true, but nevertheless contribute something important- even essential- to the game?

Read about the whole series at Black Dog: Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5, Game 6, Game 7, Game 8.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful writing again. Thanks so much.

Yes, absolutely, on the useful fiction. Who ever heard of an eight game series in the first place? And I remember even as a 12 year old being strangely dissatisfied with the outcome after the initial flush of excitement.

In retrospect, the series was a necessary romanticization, that helped us to manage the larger transformation of the game from local subculture to larger consumer and corporate practice. I'm not sure a kind of globalization is the right context in the first place; in my memories, it now seems entangled with the transformation of 6 to 12 and 14 teams. . . of the WHA ... I guess, in general, a transformation towards the wrong kind of professionalization. Eagleson, after all, is the dominant personality hovering in the background. So I'm inclined to think about style and more about structure. . .

Tom benjamin said...

As always, terrific writing, but I don't buy the premise. I don't think we misunderstood the series at the time. We knew the Canadians were outshooting and outchancing the Soviets. We knew Tretiak was the big story, and was arguably the series MVP. None of us were very happy with the Canadian goaltending or the Canadian luck.

We knew all that, but it didn't mean very much given who was supposed to win and who was actually winning. Still, even after Vancouver, lots of fans remained optimistic simply because the results had not fairly reflected the play.

I don't think a different result would have taken us to a different place. We learned that the Russians could play, that every one of them was good enough to play in the NHL. Maybe they weren't as good a team as the best the NHL had to offer, but they were still plenty good.

The game did change and change for the better as the result of the European influence, but the blended game was a natural consequence of the decision to play not just the first series, but all the subsequent ones. No matter who won, it had to improve both the Canadian and the Russian games.

E said...

anon- i wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on your points re: professionalization and corporatization? it's an interesting suggestion, insofar as the influx of european plays is a large part of what mitigates talent dilution and makes expansion palatable, but i'm not sure if that's what you're getting at. more!

tom- oh, mr. benjamin, you so contrary. i'm willing to concede that might be how you thought about it at the time, but looking through the quotes and articles from the period, there's a fair amount of hubris going in and anxiety coming out. i can find pretty clear evidence that a number of canadian hockey personalities were thinking in terms of a near-sweep, and felt that the team had been badly outplayed in games 1 and 4. and, of course, people were booing in vancouver, which is generally not a sign of optimism.

there's nothing more difficult than trying to recover how a majority of people felt about something nearly 40 years ago, especially considering the intervening hagiography. so you may be right- but you're still the first person i've read taking the position you're taking.

it's true that the same result might have been achieved based on some of the later series. for me, the question is whether the later series would have been played at all if the results in 1972 hadn't been so close and so dramatic. but i suppose dreaming alternate history really should be the realm of fiction...

Jim Hall said...

Alas, not sure I (not in anonymous mode) can be more articulate about what is fuzzy in memory and merely instinctual in critical hindsight. The distance from the mythic Leafs' victory of 67 to 72 just feels substantial, a triumph of the not-local over the subcultural, but never quite the triumph of the cosmopolitan over the provincial. If I was acting in historian mode, I'd be after the interrelationship of the ways the series was marketed (and who did the marketing) and a the kinds of ways everything was "expanded." I want to say something substantial here about Canada and not hockey, but can't get at it yet. I think we won and lost and won and lost again, but can't quite get my emotional timeline straight yet.

Tom Benjamin said...

i'm willing to concede that might be how you thought about it at the time, but looking through the quotes and articles from the period, there's a fair amount of hubris going in and anxiety coming out. i can find pretty clear evidence that a number of canadian hockey personalities were thinking in terms of a near-sweep, and felt that the team had been badly outplayed in games 1 and 4. and, of course, people were booing in vancouver, which is generally not a sign of optimism.

No doubt there was hubris going in, and very high anxiety after Vancouver. I thought it was going to be a sweep or a near sweep. And we were losing! Under those circumstances - results far, far worse than expectations - the fact that the Canadians had played better than the results showed cut very little ice.

We were shocked to learn that the Russians could actually play well enough to win whether the hockey gods helped a little bit or not.

ithere's nothing more difficult than trying to recover how a majority of people felt about something nearly 40 years ago, especially considering the intervening hagiography.

I understand the problem, but I think you can do a pretty good job of recovery if you imagine how today's fan would react to those games. I think it would be the same way we reacted.

Time - and a 7-3 score - has led many of us to misremember Canada being badly outplayed in the first game, but it is kind of insulting to suggest fans saw it that way at the time. Until the roof fell in in the third, it felt like it was Canada's game. We knew that the next day when the armchair analysts tried to figure out what had happened. How could we not? The score declared it was a pasting, but it did not feel that way well into the third period.

I think most fans probably did think the Canadians were outplayed in Game four. It never felt like a game that Canada was going to win. I don't think they were anywhere near bad enough to be booed, but they were never in control.

A fan today would not focus on the Russians, or how the Russians played (although you would almost immediately admit that they were good, and that they had been woefully underestimated.) Neither did we. A fan today would not decide the Russians were winning because they were better players playing a better style.

A fan today would focus on why the home side was losing, with each player getting analyzed to within an inch of his life. That's what we did, too. Today's fan would decide we were losing because NHL stars were not burying their chances, because the NHL goaltenders could not make a save and (at the extreme) because the NHL stars were fat and lazy and taking stupid penalties.

Fans did not really give up after Vancouver. I was at University at the time. The classrooms were empty and the TV rooms at the dorms were jammed for all the Moscow games. The crowd might not have been optimistic but it was a long way from fatalistic. Maybe they would not win, we thought, but we were certainly confident that they could do it.

MattM said...

I think the critical distinction here is that it doesn't take long for fact to fall victim to narrative after the fact. While I am sure Tom is correct about the mood of the dedicated fan watching the series, the traditional narrative about the series that us young whippersnappers grew up on was probably in place fairly quickly after the fact.

I suspect that the conventional view of the series probably became the narrative we're all familiar with today in the mind of the casual fan less than a year out. Hell, in the Stanley Cup playoffs it only takes the time between the end of one series and the start of the next for this to occur. That the first game didn't feel like a blowout until the 3rd (because it wasn't) would be quickly tossed aside in favour of a nice storyline about hubris and conditioning and eventually coming together in a foreign land to win the big game. Truth rarely has a place in national myth and must be discarded.

However, I would hope that the people in charge of the development of hockey in Canada would not be so easily swayed from what they saw. I think the exposure to the style alone would be enough to see there were elements worth adopting. For that reason, I think that even without the story Canadian hockey eventually would have adopted elements of the Soviet style of play.

There would still be a story, of course. It would be a different one, maybe one a little closer to what you have seen for this project. But, as Tom pointed out, the Soviets showed they could play, and even if they couldn't quite hang with the best the NHL had to offer, and I think that would have been enough to see a lot of the changes that came out of that series anyway.

E said...

matt- i think it's an open question as to whether the powers-that-be in the nhl would have seen russian hockey as worth learning from if the results had been decisively in favor of the canadian squad from the outset. yes, the russians looked like they could play well, but the question is whether they played well enough to overcome a fairly strong ideological commitment to the canadian way of hockey. there are a fair number of nhl gms and coaches even today who make decisions based as much on ideology as strategy, and given the way the commentary from 72 reads, that impulse was even stronger in the context of the cold war.

one of the things i remember clearly from reading the game is dryden's wonky predictions about how the future would go. even given how much the russians had shown they could play through the 70s, and even given his comparative lack of moral/nationalistic commitment to canadian hockey practices, he still can't envision the integrated game we have now. he imagines it will always be them over there and us over here, irreparably different cultures. even from the foundation of 1972-as-it-was, it still took a lot of time and persuasion for people to come around (and some still haven't). i just figure it would have taken even longer, had the summit series results looked more like the underlying stats.

Tom Benjamin said...

i just figure it would have taken even longer, had the summit series results looked more like the underlying stats.

I think this is a different question than the one addressed in the post. That question - I thought - was "What if we had realized that the series was not as close as the result? Would that have delayed acceptance of good European ideas?" My answer was "No, because we did realize it at the time."

What if Canada had good goaltending? What if results had better reflected the play? If the series had finished 6-2, would it have changed anything? I don't know, but I doubt it. The mythology surrounding the series has probably blown the impact of it all out of proportion.

yes, the russians looked like they could play well, but the question is whether they played well enough to overcome a fairly strong ideological commitment to the canadian way of hockey.

I don't think they could play that well, even if they had won. Ideologies always die hard.

The fact that the Canadian way "won" reinforced the commitment particularly since it was close and we were able to convince ourselves the victory was the result of Canadian heart and will, rather than skill and talent. I don't think that was a good thing for hockey in the near term.

there are a fair number of nhl gms and coaches even today who make decisions based as much on ideology as strategy, and given the way the commentary from 72 reads, that impulse was even stronger in the context of the cold war.

I'm not sure that I agree. There are a fair number of coaches and GMs who seem to be making ideological decisions, but are really making marketing ones. It is hard to get more skilled; it is easy to get tougher. Violence sells and the ideology is necessary to justify the gratuitous violence the team has decided to sell.

I think the smartest minds in hockey immediately started to lift things from the Russian game. Everybody remembers the Broad Street Bullies part of the Flyers - the Canadian way at its worst - but the first time I heard the word "system" in hockey was from Fred Shero. Nobody talked like it was a European thing, but it was a new discipline and I don't think it was coincidence.

Over the decade, the Canadian game came to look more European, and the Russians almost immediately began to encourage more individualism - and intensity - in their play.

one of the things i remember clearly from reading the game is dryden's wonky predictions about how the future would go.

I don't think any of us do very well at predicting the future, but in this case Dryden has a pretty good excuse. None of us could envision the collapse of the Soviet Union. We didn't think any of the Eastern European stars would be free to come over and change the NHL. The systems were separate and we thought they would be separate forever.