Summit Series, 40 years later: Red Fisher begins his journey back to Moscow, 1972
Fisher's assignment was to quickly get 'over there and back' to profile the "amateur" Soviets about to face off against Team Canada. If only it had been that simple
Editor's note: Red Fisher’s feature series on the 40th anniversary of the Summit Series will continue through September as he looks back on each of the eight games, beginning with Game 1 on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012 in print and online. Look for his Game 2 feature on Tuesday. We are also looking to publish some of the memories readers have from the series. Email your memories to sports editor Stu Cowan at email@example.com.
MONTREAL - National Hockey League players will tell you the real season doesn’t start until after the regular one ends.
It was that way when the Original Six’s 50-game schedule grew to 60 in 1946-47. Four seasons later, the schedule had expanded to 70 games, and it remained that way for 18 seasons until four more games were added after the league doubled in size — and upward to today’s 82.
It’s one thing to make the playoffs, but you’re not a winner unless you’re holding the Stanley Cup aloft. There is nothing to match it, but you’ll get at least a small argument from many of the Team Canada players who competed in the classic 1972 eight-game Summit Series, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month and none among us shall ever forget.
Team Canada’s professionals versus the “amateur” Soviets. The first four games in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver on Sept. 2, 4, 6 and 8, the final four in Moscow on Sept. 22, 24, 26 and 28.
Montreal Star editor-in-chief Frank Walker had this question in mid-July: “What are we going to do about that series? Isn’t it coming up in September?”
“It is ... and I’ve got an idea I want to run past you,” he was told. “Nobody knows anything about the Soviet team. Why don’t we get our stringer in Moscow (a freelance writer who contributed occasional articles) to do a series on those people? We could carry them a few days before training camp opens.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Walker said. “Why don’t you go over there for a week or so? I’ll speak to somebody at the Soviet consulate in Ottawa. We’ll get you cleared for the trip. They’ll want to know who you want to see, where you want to go, so let me know as soon as possible. You can go over there … talk to the players, come back and do a series. We’ll get our people to sell it. We may even make a few dollars out of this.
“Let’s get going on this,” he added. “I want you over there and back before anybody knows we’re there.”
A few days later, Walker said arrangements had been made to procure a visa and a ticket on Aeroflot, the USSR’s principal airline.
“The people over there know you’re coming,” he said. “You’re leaving in two days ... Wednesday night.”
Walker added: “Aeroflot flies out of here only once a week and we don’t want to waste an extra week. Don’t tell anybody you’re going. I don’t want this to get around to other newspapers.”
Walker’s friend at the Soviet consulate was at the airport on Wednesday. He smiled a lot.
“Everything is in order, Mr. Fisher,” he said. “You will be met at the airport in Moscow by our hockey people. They are looking forward to an exchange of ideas. There are no problems.”
“I’ve got one,” I said. “I don’t have a hotel room in Moscow.”
“That is not a problem,” he said. “Our people will meet you. They will take care of you.
“You will enjoy Aeroflot,” he promised. “It will be very interesting. Goodbye.”
In July of 1972, Aeroflot flew overnight from Montreal to Paris. From there, it was a direct four-hour flight to Moscow, landing at 4.30 p.m. Unless, that is, the pilot had a surprise up his sleeve. Several minutes after the plane lifted off from Orly on Thursday for the Paris-to-Moscow flight, it was announced there would be a “short” stopover in Kiev.
“Did I hear the pilot mention Kiev?” I asked the man sitting beside me. “Isn’t this a direct flight to Moscow?”
“Eventually,” he said with a smile. “It seems we’ll be landing in Kiev first. There are 25 people on this flight whose destination is Kiev. The captain has decided he will fly to Kiev first.”
“I’m supposed to be met in Moscow this afternoon,” I told him. “How much of a delay will there be getting to Moscow?”
“Only six hours,” he said. “All in good time. No problem.”
When the flight from Kiev landed at 10.30 p.m. in Moscow, there was no welcoming committee of hockey people waiting at the airport. Rudy Hucl was there, though.
“I’m the Air Canada manager in Moscow,” he said. “I see you had a short stay in Kiev.”
“Six hours at the airport in 100-degree heat is a short stay? Anyway, it’s a long story, Rudy,” he was told. “Right now, I’m too tired to tell it, but what are you doing here?”
“I saw your name on the Aeroflot passenger list,” said Hucl, a native of Winnipeg. “I figured you might need some help.”
I told Hucl that some Soviet hockey officials were supposed to meet me at the airport, then would take me to a hotel.
“I don’t see any of them around.”
“In this country, it happens a lot,” Hucl explained. “That’s why I’m here. I’ll drive you downtown to your hotel.”
“I hate to tell you this, Rudy, but I don’t have a hotel room.”
“And they let you fly into the country without a hotel room?”
“I’m here and I don’t have a room.”
“No problem,” Hucl said. “Our office is in the Metropol Hotel. I’ll get you a room there.”
The Metropol was an old hotel only a few blocks from Red Square. It had style, though, dating back to the time when many of Russia’s social lions stayed there. (A chap named Lee Harvey Oswald lived there for six months.)
It was midnight when we arrived. Moscow sweltered in the still of the night.
“Biggest heat wave in 30 years,” Rudy explained. “One hundred degrees every day for the last three weeks. No sweat.”
“How’s the air conditioning handling the heat wave?” he was asked.
“Are you kidding?” he laughed. “This is Moscow. The hotel doesn’t have air conditioning. We’ve got one in the Air Canada office, though. Drop in and visit if you’re uncomfortable. Drop in any time.”
Early on Friday, I was on the telephone to the Canadian embassy.
“I’ve got a problem,” I said. “Some Soviet hockey people were supposed to meet me at the airport last night. The plane was six hours late because we made an unscheduled stop in Kiev. Nobody was at the airport. How do I track these people down?”
“Leave it with me,” the embassy man replied. “It might take a day or so.”
Two days later, he was on the telephone with a message that a man named Gresko was awaiting my call. A few minutes later, Alexander Alexeevich Gresko was on the line.
“We have been expecting you,” said the Deputy Chief of the Department of International Sports Relations of the Committee for Physical Culture and Sport Under the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. “We are anxious to meet with you,” he said in flawless English.
“We” included roughly 20 stern-faced men sitting around a table in a conference room.
“We would like to ask you some questions about your Canadian team,” Gresko said.
“Before you do, where were you on Thursday night? I was promised by your embassy in Ottawa that I would be met at the airport.”
“You came a day late,” Gresko said.
“I did not arrive a day late,” I said. “You were informed that I would be arriving on Thursday. Unfortunately, I was six hours late, but that was only because the Aeroflot pilot decided to stop in Kiev before coming to Moscow.”
“You came a day late,” he insisted.
“Your Aeroflot flies from Montreal to Moscow only on Wednesday. It’s impossible to leave Montreal on a Wednesday night and arrive in your country the same day. That is why I arrived on Thursday.”
“You came a day late,” he repeated.
“All right, let’s say I arrived a day late. Now that I’m here, where is Valeri Kharlamov? Where is Alexander Yakushev and Boris Mikhailov? Where is Alexander Maltsev? When can I meet with coach (Vsevolod) Bobrov?”
“Ah, since you came a day late, Mr. Fisher, I regret to tell you that Kharlamov is in East Germany, Yakushev is at the Black Sea, Bobrov is at the Caspian Sea,” Gresko said. “Mikhailov and Maltsev are training outside the city.”
“You mean I’ve come all this way and I won’t be able to talk with your players and coach?”
“You came a day late,” Gresko said.
“Mr. Gresko,” I said, “I am certain you’re aware that the Canadian embassy has spent two days trying to find you. I have come a long way and my newspaper has spent a lot of money to get me here. I came here to write about your hockey team, but since, as you say, they are not in Moscow, I must tell you this: there is an Air Canada plane leaving for Montreal tomorrow. I will be on it. My newspaper will expect something in return for all the money it has spent, and right now all I will be able to write is how you screwed me up.”
“Do not be so impatient, Mr. Fisher,” Gresko replied. “We will talk for a little while, and then you will go back to your hotel. We will try and get these people back for you.”
“The first man I want to speak with is your coach,” Gresko was told.
“That would be the elusive Vesovolod Bobrov,” Gresko said. “You will telephone me tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock and we will arrange to talk with Bobrov.”
The next morning, at 10, Gresko was on the line.
“I have not yet heard from Mr. Bobrov, but I will have more information for you in half an hour.”
Thirty minutes later, I called Gresko.
“You will rest a little while longer,” he said, “and then we will have the information we need.”
I continued to sit in my hotel room in the midst of the worst heat wave in Moscow in three decades. No air conditioning. And no telephone calls from the Deputy Chief of the Department of International Sports Relations of the Committee for Physical Culture and Sport Under the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. For the next eight hours, I telephoned his office every hour. Nobody picked up at the other end.
It wasn’t all monotony, however. A journalist who worked for Sovietsky Sport paid me a visit.
“As a Soviet,” he said cheerfully, “I can understand that it is not always easy to discover Bobrov. As a journalist, I have sympathy for you. It is not Bobrov you are trying to reach, it is James Bond.”
Eventually, some hockey people were produced, including coach Bobrov. A few players, but not all. Very little of it was fun.
Every once in a while I think of Alexander Gresko, if only because he was a lot more than the weighty title he carried. Long after the series ended, the international media reported that well before the Summit Series was conceived, Gresko had been one of 10 Soviet spies tossed out of Great Britain in the mid-1960s.
Indeed, this was the same Alexander Gresko who, when the eight-game series was about to begin in Montreal, was among a group of Soviet officials greeted in Ottawa by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Alex even posed cheerfully with the Prime Minister in the latter’s office. I suspect there were some red faces at RCMP headquarters over this major oversight, but Gresko had a talent for turning up at a lot of unexpected places … at the 1975 Pan-American Games in Mexico City, for example. Small world.
”What brings you here, Alex?” I asked.
”I have been appointed secretary general of the 1980 Moscow Olympics,” he said. “My superiors felt it would be a good idea to see how these Games are organized. It is a learning experience.”
We spent several hours together in his hotel room talking about the ’72 series and other things.
“The Canadians played with a lot of emotion,” he admitted. “It was a learning experience for our players. It is always good to learn. There were some very good players on the Canadian team: (Phil) Esposito, (Paul) Henderson, a few others.”
We talked about the spy business in Great Britain.
“A mistake,” he said. “There were no spies.”
We talked about many things that afternoon. He almost seemed sorry when I rose to leave.
“It’s too bad I couldn’t get to know you better in 1972,” I said. “Maybe we’ll meet again.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Who knows?”
I was still waiting for the hotel elevator when he rushed out of his room.
“Red! Red! Do me a favour,” he said.
“What’s that, Alex?”
“If you write something, don’t mention the spy crap!”
I haven’t seen Alex since those few hours in Mexico City so many years ago. He wasn’t seen at the Moscow Olympics, either. Strangely, even a few people who were at his side throughout the ‘72 series denied they ever knew him.
”Where is Alex?” I asked a Russian sportswriter several years later.
“Alexander Gresko. You were always with him in ‘72.”
“I don’t know that name,” he said.
I met the same sportswriter several times during the ’80s. Every time Gresko’s name was mentioned, I received the same response: “I don’t know that name.”
We met once more in September, 1990, when the Canadiens trained for several days in Moscow. By then, there were signs everywhere that the breakup of the Soviet Union was imminent. The people were more outgoing. They talked more. They had opinions. The iron curtain of secrecy was rising.
“Gresko, what’s happened to him? Nobody seems to know where he is,” the Russian writer was told.
“These days,” he said with a tight, little smile, “who knows where a full colonel in the KGB would be.”
Share your Summit Series memories: Red Fisher’s feature series on the 40th anniversary of the Summit Series will continue through September as he looks back on each of the eight games, beginning with Game 1 on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012. Look for his Game 2 feature in Tuesday’s paper. We are also looking to publish some of the memories readers have from the series.
* Email your memories to sports editor Stu Cowan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* For more on the Summit Series, go to montrealgazette.com/summitseries
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