Friday, September 28, 2012

Hockey history: that booing in Vancouver in 1972

Vancouver, Phil's not pleased
Amid all the fortieth anniversary coverage of the Canada-Soviet Union summit series of 1972, there have been references to the events in Vancouver on September 8, 1972, when the Canadian team was beaten 5-3.  Preparing to head to Moscow, down 2 to 1 (one tie) in the series, the team was loudly booed by the Vancouver fans.

There is a famous video of Phil Exposito declaring his "disappointment" in the fans. That judgment seems to have been picked up by most of the commentators in the fortieth-anniversary commemorations.  I heard the terrific writer Dave Bidini on TVO's "The Agenda" the other night, declaring it was unacceptable for Canadian fans to have booed the Canadian team in adversity.

There's a Toronto-Montreal basis to those comments. (Even the video link above, from the Vancouver Sun, accompanies a story by Red Fisher, a central Canadian sports reporter who to my mind misses the essential context.)

In Vancouver in 1972, fans had a complicated history with the National Hockey League. The league had kept Vancouver out of the first expansion in 1967. Young west coast players were almost never scouted or recruited for the NHL, whatever their potential. (John Ferguson of Team Canada was a notable exception.) When the Canucks joined the league in 1970, local ownership groups had been shafted in favour of a dubious American entrepreneur -- who later went to jail for financial improprieties involving the club. And like most expansion teams, the Vancouver team was hopelessly weak for most of its early years.

So in 1972 the league that had cheated, condescended to, and manipulated Vancouver's love of hockey for years and years came to town to play the Soviet Union. And the NHL's best players and coaches were being exposed as ill-prepared, unfit, out-coached, and outplayed, just another hockey league in a much more competitive world than any NHLer had ever admitted. Vancouver fans had good reason to say, "You treated us this way all the years -- and now it turns out your league is a fraud, and your product is crap."

Fans and media in Toronto and Montreal, the Canadian homes of the NHL, never quite had that feeling, in 1972 or since. But the Vancouver reaction would have been better understood in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Quebec City.  Still is, probably.

Gary Bettman was not the first NHL leader to bring his league into disrepute among Canadians. Loathing of the league was strong out there in 1972, too.

Where might the NHL -- and Canadian hockey --be today if the Canadian team had lost three or four games in the Soviet Union that fall. I loved Paul Henderson's final goal as much as anyone.  But I had understood those boos too.
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