The Fall of the USSR, the Fall of a Rivalry

By Jason Menard

For one day, on an ice rink outside Red Square, the embers of a faded rivalry will be stoked again, and memories of that passionate time will be rekindled.

As a hockey-loving Canadian youth, few things were more intense and more passionate than the Cold War-era U.S.S.R.-Canada hockey rivalry. One could argue that while the world in general may be a better and safer place since the fall of the Soviet Union, hockey itself is poorer for the loss of that rivalry.

So that’s why it is with fond appreciation that I look forward to the Dec. 9 th showdown between Russian hockey greats and retired NHLers. It will be a contest that features the reunification of the KLM line, Vladislav Tretiak in net, and Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov patrolling the blueline once again.

In general, I avoid old timer’s games like the plague, preferring to remember these greats as they were in their prime, not the lumbering, diminished versions that lace up the skates now. This event may be different. Of course, the memories of that time are different.

Growing up in the latter part of the Cold War, when nuclear proliferation was at its peak, the Soviet Union was an enigmatic country arousing both fear and interest. I was born a few months late for the Canada-Russia Summit Series in 1972, but its ramifications resonated in our family. In fact, to this day I possess an audio cassette recording of that final game, made for me by an uncle (and featuring a great-grandfather – unfamiliar with the concept of replays – getting extremely excited at the 7-0 blowout to start the game, instead of realizing it was just highlights from previous game action.)

I grew up knowing about names like Tretiak and learning about the greatness of Valery Kharlamov. When I was old enough to have memories of my own, the next wave of Soviet greats was dominating international competition: Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov.

It was a different time. Now, the NHL is a veritable melting pot featuring the best from around the world. For my own children, the existence of Russians, Czechs, and Slovaks in the league is the norm. And, as such, international competitions, while exciting, aren’t infused with the same level of passion that those earlier series were.

In the 80s, it was different. We didn’t know the Russians. We weren’t allowed to see them as real people. To us – especially the youth – they were cold, calculating, perfect hockey-playing machines. We knew our own Canadian boys, faults and all. And we bought into the mystique that Canadian grit, heart, determination, and passion could conquer precision, deft passing, and discipline.

Often it did. And when it did, it wasn’t just a victory for a team. It was a victory for a way of life.

As youth, we were convinced that nuclear warheads were pointed at our cities. We engaged in now-bizarre drills that involved us sitting under our tables with our heads between our legs. We read about people who had created fallout shelters. We watched The Day After and Red Dawn (did I just voluntarily admit watching a Patrick Swayze film???). For us, “the button” was very real, and we grew up knowing that the end of the world was an event with the potential of happening in our lifetimes.

Our ignorance and fear of another group of people – fuelled by the fact that we were kids and didn’t take the time to learn any better – added to the mystique of our Soviet counterparts. We suspected them of conducting nefarious scientific experiments to improve performance in their athletes (à la Ivan Drago in Rocky IV). We watched in anger as Soviet Bloc referees showed blatant preferential treatment to the other guys. And we bought into the whole us versus them concept of sporting competitions (also fuelled by various Olympic boycotts.)

In the end, the games were far better simply because of the passion surrounding the game. When was the last time we were truly invested in the outcome of a hockey game like that? Sure, the recent Olympic and World Junior Championship victories have been fun, but they’re hardly memorable. Instead of a celebration of a defeat of an ideological opposite, it’s just a victory of our jocks against their jocks – who we now realize aren’t all that different.

Now 33 years old with a little more worldly knowledge, I know that people are people – and they always have been. I know that, in general, people everywhere want the same things out of life and that they shouldn’t be tainted by the colour of their political system. But back then – back when I was a gullible youth willing to believe what the world around me was telling me – I believed that the Soviets were different, mysterious, and dangerous.

That’s why watching this game will be so enjoyable. It’s a different time. The players will probably laugh and joke, embracing each other and the game they share. And it will be all the more poignant considering how different things were just two decades ago when many of these players were in their prime.

The on-ice camaraderie will show how much better and more tolerant the world is – at least as it relates to Canadian-former Soviet relations. And while we will celebrate a better world, I’ll also pause to remember how much greater the rivalry used to be.

After all, in the case of world relations as they relate to on-ice conflict, ignorance truly was bliss.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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