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As Canada celebrates the demolition of Team Russia last night, Vintage Leaf remembers the 1979 Super Series versus Russia that we choose to forget

In one episode of “Seinfeld” back in the ‘90s, Jerry refuses to be lured into a re-match of a race he won back in his freshman year of high school. According to the storyline, he won that race because he got a head start—and no one noticed. The classmate who felt he should have won instead of Jerry carried a grudge for twenty some years.

Whenever the issue would come up in later high school years, Jerry would refuse to run another race to “prove” he was the fastest runner. The line he always trotted out was, “I choose not to run”.

Well, we Canadian hockey fans sometimes choose not to remember, or at least not to focus on the major hockey events that didn’t go our way.

We certainly wax nostalgic about the wonderful 1972 series (though we were amazingly fortunate to win) and of course, the 1976 Canada Cup, which we also won as a late-summer event on Canadian soil.

But younger hockey fans may not know about a seminal moment in our international hockey history that took place early in 1979, right around this time of year. For the first time ever, the best NHL’ers (Canadians mostly, with a couple of Swedish players, as I recall) were in mid-season form, and hosted the Soviets in a best-of-three “Challenge Cup” series to decide who truly was the best hockey nation.

It was billed as “no excuses”—both countries had access to their best players, and it was in the middle of the hockey season. Of course, we had the enormous advantage of playing on the smaller NHL ice surface at Madison Square Garden in New York, but that said, it was considered a series that would show the world who was really number one.

We split the first two games of that series, and for Game 3, Team NHL/Canada coach Scotty Bowman went with Gerry Cheevers instead of his own goalie, Ken Dryden. Dryden was usually awful against the Russians, and if memory serves, his second game against the Soviets wasn’t great in that series, either.

Cheevers was considered a big “money goalie” in those days, the guy who would seemingly always win the big one.

So come Game 3, everything seemed loaded in our favour. We were healthy. Ready. We had Cheevers in goal. We were at home. Amazingly, the Soviets actually started their second-string goalie.

Once and for all we would prove beyond doubt who was best.

The Soviets blitzed us by a score of 6-0.

Cheevers didn’t win the big one. We weren’t competitive, though we fielded an absolute All-Star line-up that included Savard and Robinson from Montreal on the backline along with Barry Beck, Dennis Potvin and Borje Salming. Up front there were superstars in their prime like Shutt, Gainey, Lafleur and Sittler up front, with Gilbert Perreault and the Islanders trio of Trottier, Bossy and Gillies, among others.

The Soviets were so superior, there was nothing for NHL or Canadian hockey fans to say afterwards, except pretend as best everyone could that it didn’t actually happen.

I remember interviewing Larry Robinson at length in Montreal shortly after that series. He was injured at the time, but he hobbled up the back stairs of the radio studio I was working at in suburban Montreal just to do a live interview with me. And he didn’t ask for a cent. (Things were sure different back then.)

During a commercial break, he shared with me how out-of-shape the NHL team actually was. He was stunned that the guys couldn’t handle Bowman’s practice regimen (something that was nothing out of the ordinary for Robinson and his Montreal teammates). In short, our guys were not in shape, and at the time, the Soviets were the best-conditioned hockey players in the world.

It all added up to them hammering us in Game 3.

Some Canadian hockey proponents used to say outlandish (to me at least) things—the Soviets were machines, like robots, that they had talent but no hockey soul; they didn’t have heart and passion like the Canadians, etc. etc. (Former Maple Leaf player and coach turned TV analyst Howie Meeker was the first I heard say this type of thing in the early 1970s—notably during the ’72 Summit Series.)

I thought that notion was garbage.

Yes, the Soviet players came from a militaristic background. They looked stoic on the ice and didn’t celebrate like we did. And while they didn’t fight, they were admittedly chippy, dirtier than most North-American players. But not passionate? No heart? C’mon.

One of the best hockey players I’ve ever seen was # 15, Alexander Yakushev (pictured). Though I don’t think he was around for the ’79 showdown, in the early to-mid ‘70s I felt he was a better all-around player than Valeri Kharlamov (#17), who everyone always talked about. Boris Mikhailov (#7?) was the team captain and leader, but Yakushev to me was simply an extraordinary and exemplary player.

In any event, the ’79 series, much ballyhooed beforehand, has become little more than an afterthought- though it was probably way more meaningful than the ’72 series in some ways because both sides knew each other, were prepared and played under “fair” conditions.

And the Soviets won, hands-down.

But not last night!

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