Strange & Wonderful Time

As one of the 3,000 Canadians who went to Russia, I wrote extensively about it for my community newspaper when I returned. This is an introduction to a series of articles updated and digitized in 2002. The rest of them are on my web site . I’ve also started a Facebook site: 1972 Canada Russia Hockey Summit. I would especially appreciate hearing from folks who were part of the Fox 4 bus group.

I don’t have much to say about the hockey. You have better sources than me for that.
Suffice to say my favourite hockey team in history was Team Canada 1972. The one I’ll always remember second best is Team Russia 1972. They scared me half to death.


The package for the 3,000 Canadians attending the 1972 Canada Russia Hockey series cost $537. That included first class airfare over and back, hotel accommodation and meals, tickets to the four games, opera and circus and nightclub entertainments and daily tours. Going by the price of automobiles at the time and now, the price in today’s terms would be roughly the equivalent of $2,500. We were gone 11 days and spent 9 days in Moscow.


To keep track of the Canadians, each flight was assigned an animal name. Passengers from each flight were also assigned a number for the guide and bus they would have in Moscow. We were on the Fox flight and bus number four so we were Fox 4 everywhere we went.
Our guide would carry a penant so we could find her in crowds at attractions and events. Our guide, Tanya, was wonderful.


First class seating was supposed to be first come, first served. At the very last minute, all the first class seats on the Fox flight were appropriated by gold-jacketed media. Montreal Canadiens superstar Jean Belliveau and Toronto Maple Leaf veteran and hockey guru Howie Meeker ignored invitations to join the media and stayed in line, and economy class seating, with the rest of us. Belliveau and Meeker could not possibly have been classier before and during the flight and every day in Russia. They ate with us and brought us all the news of the players and behind the scenes politics every day.


We didn’t have any sources of news.
We heard rumours of fans being arrested and players leaving. We heard that fans at home were down on the team. We heard the Canadian media was saying both the players and fans were behaving like animals in Russia and bringing shame to the country.
We were gratified to find that the picture our media had given us of Russia seemed accurate. We were shocked to see that “Pravda” the Russian national newspaper of record was a mere six pages with, of course, no advertising. There was a first-ever ad in Pravda. Sponsored by Canadian fans at home, it wished the team success.
You don’t have any idea how much you appreciate our messy, unmannerly, sensationalist free press until there isn’t any. Knowing that the only news you do get is the officially sanctioned version, soon generates enough paranoia to threaten your sanity.


Centrally controlled production, no competition and no advertising, far from leading to economies of scale, lead to ugly, shoddy, scarce products.
Russians acted like starving people toward our magazines. My wife took a magazine to her hair appointment. All work stopped and the hair dressers all clustered around her chair looking over her shoulder until she finally gave up the magazine. A waiter traded me a 28-doll matrushka for a Playboy magazine. A matrushka is a series of carved wooden dolls that fit inside each other. I think Matrushka means mother. They were the hottest souvenir you could get.
We Canadians never felt so colourful or so well dressed. Everything Russian seemed gray or dark blue.


We had never seen security like we saw in Moscow. There were militia police on every corner and in the middle of every block. There were 1,500 soldiers at every game. It wasn’t just about controlling us although it sure seemed that way at first. At the summer Olympics in Munich, that same year, Palestinian terrorists had taken members of the Israeli team hostage. The hostages all died at the airport in a failed rescue attempt. The Russians were determined nothing would happen to us.


On the way in from the airport, the houses looked like shacks and the traffic looked mostly like old army trucks. In the city, the only new housing was shabby, concrete apartment buildings. They looked like huge low rental government projects with no maintenance budgets. I guess they were. None of the lawns appeared to have ever been mowed.


Our hotel was the largest in the world at the time. The Hotel Russia has 4,000 rooms. Our dining room sat 400 easily and a couple of hundred more in the mezzanine. Folding doors opened to more dining areas at either end. Our guide told us guests sometimes got lost in the hotel and were found wandering, weeping.
The furniture in the rooms was all built in and very amateurish. Radio was piped in. Some rooms had television and refrigerators. Bath tubs were huge and comfortable but the fixtures were hoses with spray attachments. Each bathroom had a bidet. The plumbing and grouting were very sloppy.
The toilet paper was much the texture of this newspaper. Towels were like large linen dish towels. There were no face cloths.
The beds were delightful. The pillows were feather and about a yard square. The bedding consisted of heavy woolen blankets stuffed into a sheet envelope. To change the bed, the maids pulled the blankets out of the envelope and tucked them into a clean one.
There was a key desk on each floor. We turned in our key when we left the hotel and picked it up again when we returned. The key desks were staffed by elderly women who mothered us and worried about us when we went off to games armed with bugles and flags. They were genuinely concerned the militia would get us.


Breakfast in the hotel was cheese, boiled eggs, dill pickles, delicious sweet rolls and thick coffee or delicate tea.
Lunch began with a salad usually incorporating cabbage and pickle. There were usually a couple of hard boiled eggs with a cream sauce. There was always a meat and vegetable soup in colours reminiscent of blood and gore and topped with a dollop of cream. We had some kind of tastless steak almost every day. Dessert was ice cream just like ours or excellent pastries.
Supper started with appetizers unrecognizable to Canadian eyes. We thought they were smoked chicken and some kind of fish.
The main course was always something, often unidentifiable, breaded.
Dessert was fruit or pastries.
Beverages included carbonated fruit juices (plum, apple, strawberry and pear) at breakfast and lunch and beer with supper. We didn’t like the beer.
There were no ice cubes except in the bars. There was vodka everywhere.


Shopping seemed designed to keep people out of mischief more than to satisfy any needs they might have.
At the Soviet version of a supermarket, all the departments were like separate stores. Dairy, meat, produce and baked goods were all separate and incredibly inconvenient.
To buy something, shoppers lined up. When they got to the head of the line, they placed their order and a clerk wrote out an invoice. The shopper proceeded to another line and paid the invoice and received a receipt. She then proceeded to a third line where she traded her receipt for the actual goods.
Sunday was the main grocery shopping day. Women shopped in teams. Each woman would take a huge, shabby suitcase and go to a different department. They’d sit on the suitcase with a book and read. When the line moved, they’d rise a little, kick their suitcase ahead a few inches, and sit down again without stopping reading.
Food and clothing in Russia were very expensive. Liquor, cigarettes, the circus, ballet and opera were very cheap.
An ordinary woolen sweater cost $60 then. Think $300 in 2002 dollars. A very ordinary woman’s dress cost $150 then. Think $750 now.
A Lada that looked a bit like the current Volkswagen Jetta but junk, sold for $12,000 then. Convert that to $60,000 now.
A quart of the very best vodka was $1.50.
Rent, subway fares and restaurant dining were dirt cheap. You could ride for miles on the subway for five cents. A nice meal for four with wine was $12.
Good quality Russian chocolate and jewelry and crafts were available in special stores only open to foreigners to bring in foreign currency.
Customer service was horrendous. We concluded that the national motto was “I’m sorry but that would be impossible.”
It seemed the first response to any request.


The language looks extremely difficult especially since the alphabet is different and some of the familiar letters have different sounds.
C is S. P is R. H is N. Most Canadians are familiar with CCCP, pronounced SSSR and meaning Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
So, could you decipher the common sign “Pectopah?” How about “Metpo?” You have all the clues you need.
B is C. Mocba is Moscow.
We were also given a few Russian words to work with. I remember Dasdavanya, hello; spahsiba, thank you; spajolsta, you’re welcome; skolka, how much? and of course, mir, peace. We got a lot done with those few words.
Pectopah is restaurant. Metpo is metro – subway.


A few scenes I remember from 1972.
Phil Esposito was the heart and soul and leader of the team. His speech in Vancouver and his pratfall during the introductions before game five are well known. His drive, passion and will to win during the games is legend.
Another little act won Canadian and even Russian hearts at the opening of game six. When Espo was introduced, instead of skating forward, he made a desperate clutch for the boards.
After Henderson’s goal to put the Canadians in the lead with 34 seconds left, the Canadians celebrated in a big messy pile on the ice for quite some time.
The Russians, of course, took their positions at center ice and waited grimly for play to resume.
The huge Russian on right defence, suddenly raised his stick high over his head, roared and shattered the stick on the ice in front of him. He picked up the pieces, skated to the bench and got another stick. Resuming his position, he again stood like stone for perhaps another minute. Then again he exploded, raising his stick to the rafters and smashing it to the ice and into a dozen pieces.
Again he picked up the pieces, skated to the bench, took another stick and resumed his statue like position. I didn’t note his number at the time but I’ve wondered if it was Liapkin, the player whose error put the puck on Henderson’s stick in front of the net.
I don’t have space for the wonderful story of how four of us wound up at a party with a Russian city mayor and his bodyguard. However, I’ll never forget him lying on his bed talking about how his 15 year old son kept changing his mind about what he wanted to be and couldn’t seem to buckle down to anything.
I remember his comment that Russia lost more than the 1972 population of Canada in WW II.
I remember his fireplug-shaped bodyguard showing where he had had his tattooed prison camp number cut out of his arm.
I remember our guide, the gorgeous Vanya, drunk from the party, telling us that young Russians were tired of the revolution and wanted a society like Sweden’s. She said change would come when her generation took charge. I realize now that it did.
I remember 3,000 Canadians leaping to their feet to sing Oh Canada at the top of our lungs at the beginning of game five and every game.
I remember tears running down Howie Meeker’s cheeks as he sang.
I remember how the Canadian contingent set out to crack the grim faced Russians. We just kept acting more and more outrageous until they cracked up laughing.
For more articles from a fan’s perspective, go to . If the administrators of this site would like me to post them all here, I would be happy to do so.

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