Sunday, September 05, 2004

A trip from the past, set for the future

With a fellow named Tretiak on the Russian bench, standing behind it as an assistant coach; one couldn’t help but think the Good Ole days of Canadian hockey were back. The last time a Toronto crowd saw a Canada/Russia game was in 1976, when the Russians and Canadians did battle in the Canada Cup. But for many Canadians the epicentre of International Hockey, was September 1972, when the stars of that era faced off against the Soviet Union’s best in the 8 game Summit Series. Toronto was hosting game number two in that epic struggle of hockey superiority.

Quite a few of the Canadian players in the line up Saturday night, probably barely remember, if they remember at all those memorable games. They may have read about it, or heard about it, but the likes of Jay Bouwmeester, Jarome Iginla and Ryan Smyth no doubt remember the names steeped in Canadian Hockey lore. Henderson, Phil and Tony Esposito , Cournoyer, Clarke and Dryden, it seems like only yesterday they were in Russia trying desperately to get the go ahead goal that would salvage our battered Hockey Pride.

Saturday nights game came 32 years to the night that Canada played Game Two of the memorable Eight game series, recovering from a surprising Game One loss in Montreal to defeat the Russians 4-1 at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens. Our national angst would get a work out a few more times that September, as Canada needed three consecutive victories on Russian ice to finally squeak by with a series win.

32 years later we have brand new rinks, an entire new generation of players, but the same love of the game and the expectation of a great match that we have ever had. When both teams took to the Ice the atmosphere in Toronto was electric, which the players from both teams seemed to feed off of. The first ten minutes of action seemed almost non stop, as both teams rushed the puck from end to end, stopping only when crushed into the boards at a blue line, or unceremoniously dumped at centre ice. Both teams had chances to score in the first period but couldn’t beat the two competing goaltenders.

Again, goaltending would play a big role in a Canada/Russia series, as the legendary Tretiak would watch on from his bench. Martin Brodeur showcased his talents for the third straight game, backstopping his Canadian team mates to a 3-1 victory over a very fast and surprisingly physical Russian squad. Brodeur faced 28 shots saving all but one of them in an entertaining throwback to the good ole days. His goaltending left the Russian forwards frustrated time and time again as he came up with big save at just the right time.

Team Canada opened up the scoring in the second period as Brad Richards and Kris Draper took advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy play by the Russian Defence. Russian defensemen had trouble clearing the pucks and were guilty of giveaways at key times leaving goaltender Maxim Sokolov at the mercy of the Canadian snipers who took no mercy. Joe Sakic picked up the final Canadian goal in the third, while the Russians got one back in the third frame on a goal by Sergei Gonchar. The physical play though is what stands out in Saturday's game, the Russians and Canadians exchanged hits at will and showed no hesitation to go into the corners and pay the price if necessary.

Canada passes through the preliminary round with a perfect three and zero record while the Russians who are 1 and 1, play again Sunday in Toronto against the Slovaks. It’s a game that will determine who matches up against whom in the next round.

Canada awaits the result of that game so they can prepare for their next opposition, a phase that will have a bit more for the nerves. Round two is an elimination round, win and you move on, lose and it’s over for you. A situation that Canada would like to put on the backburner until the very last game on September 14. A date that they hope will become as memorable as September 28, 1972.

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