Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

September 22, 2012

HOPKINS: A super series offered a super opportunity

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — “Bill, when are you going to write the damn book?”

That question, posed by our city editor Scott Leffler, was aimed at veteran US&J reporter Bill Wolcott. He had just concluded one of his stories about his trip behind the Iron Curtain — the communist one, not the Pittsburgh one — and we were floored.

Floored, because some of Bill’s experiences were simply incredible. He could write a book, and not about the series itself; plenty has already been written. However, what he witnessed in 1972 Moscow is probably the equivalent of what on wold see in 2012 North Korea.

Bill had asked me a couple of months ago if he could write something about the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Canada Cup. He was one of a very limited number of reporters who covered the event from start to finish.

Although there were star Canadian players on every U.S. team, none of the dailies sent reporters. Not from New York City. Not from Philadelphia. No one from Detroit or Chicago. But Bill Wolcott, from the Niagara Falls Gazette, was there from start to finish.

What you’ll see starting today and continuing through Thursday are little snippets of Bill’s memories. Some are fascinating, others humorous. Others are simply recollections of the international hockey tournament that pitted the National Hockey League’s best against the “amateur” Soviet Red Army.

Amateur is in quotes for a reason: the only job these athletes had with the army was to play hockey.

And they were good at it. Very good.

So good, that they began beating the hockey pants off every team that challenged them. They became a threat to Canada’s heritage.

Canadians probably began to have feelings toward the Soviets that had been harbored by Americans since the early 1950s. Apprehension. Fear. Probably a little hatred.

They might have been considering Jimmy Jones-like suicides after the Soviets won three of the first five games, plus one tie, in the eight-game series. But the Canadian NHLers battled back. Trailing by two goals in the eighth and deciding game, they rallied and with 34 seconds to play, a magical goal.

“Henderson has scored for Canada!” The excited and yet somewhat understated words uttered by Foster Hewitt on Sept. 28, 1972 are famously cemented in Canadian broadcasting lore. The only other sports line of nationalistic pride I can think of is also rooted in hockey: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

However, I’m willing to bet that almost anyone in Canada knows that Paul Henderson scored the series winning goal with 34 seconds to play. Ask an American about Team USA’s 4-3 victory over the Soviets at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, and they might be able to tell you that the winning goal was scored in the third period, and that it was scored by Mike Eruzione. But the Americans had to hang on for 10 more minutes of playing time before they could celebrate.

I was a wide-eyed 9-year-old during the 1980 Winter Olympics, but I was well aware that the Soviet Union was the big-bad-bear. I knew communism was evil, even if I wasn’t sure what it was. By sixth grade, I had a better understanding.

I also learned a little about life behind the Iron Curtain in sixth grade. My teacher, Mrs. Otis, had traveled there with a group a few years earlier. Some of the stories were fascinating.

She was in line at the Kremlin (or was it to see Lenin’s tomb?) and had to go through a metal detector. Everyone was required to hand over their purses. She refused. The stern-looking woman insisted and tried to take it from Mrs. Otis.

“NO!”

At that moment, with visions of the gulag dancing in her head, she thought to herself, “What have I just done?”

She was brought to a room where they indeed took her purse and looked through it, top to bottom. One little electronic item caught their attention and they asked her many questions about it. They had never seen a calculator before. Eventually, they let her go.

I don’t know what Mrs. Otis is up to these days, but it would be great to get her together with Bill for a couple of hours. I’m sure the conversation would have most people mesmerized.

Incidentally, the story Bill told us that knocked us to the floor of the newsroom wraps up Wolcott’s five-day series.

I hope you enjoy it.

John J. Hopkins is managing editor of the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. His columns appear on Sundays. Contact Mr. Hopkins at john.hopkins@lockportjournal.com.