Missed hockey rendezvous still smarts 40 years later

Wayne Young
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Dennis Hull's slap shot was just as wicked as his famous brother, Bobby's. I should know. I heard it .... at least I think I did.

It was August 1972 and I was at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto "listening" to Team Canada practise for its historic eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union.

That's the series, you'll recall, where the Canadians would teach the Russians a lesson in how to play ‘our' game. If they were lucky, the Soviets might take one game. More likely, though, we'd sweep all eight.

At 13, I was making my first visit to Toronto - my first time off P.E.I., actually. And when my uncle offered to take me to the Gardens where Team Canada had been holding open practices all week, I knew the hockey gods were smiling on me.

I'd been watching the Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada for five years - firmly hooked on the Leafs since 1967 when I watched them win the Stanley Cup. And now, not only would I enter the hallowed Gardens but I'd see two of my favourites, Leafs Paul Henderson and Ronnie Ellis who had been named to the Canadian squad.

In fact, I'd see them all - brother acts Tony and Phil Esposito and Frank and Peter Mahovlich, as well as Perreault, Clarke, Dryden and Ratalle - the greatest players on the planet. I knew them well, measuring them every Saturday night from our black and white TV back home in rural P.E.I. I dared to imagine there'd be such a small crowd at that practice I'd get some autographs, maybe even a few handshakes.

But alas, thanks to Harry Sinden, the only memory I have of that practice was the sound of pucks caroming off the boards. The head coach's last-minute decision to close practice that day left my uncle and I standing in the Gardens lobby. No amount of protesting or pleas would convince security to open the door. I was leaving the next day so there was no chance to try again.

Only with Henderson's dramatic game- and series-winning goal a month later did I start to put that deflating experience behind me. Unlike many young Canadians, I had to go to school that day so I didn't see all of the final game live. But hockey was all the buzz at school and everyone cheered when Henderson stuffed the puck behind the Soviet goalie, then jubilantly raised his arms in the air.

Weeks later, I got an unexpected package in the mail (the result of a complaint my uncle made to Gardens staff, I later found out). Inside was a photo of Bob Goldham and a note from the former NHLer, then a television analyst with Hockey Night in Canada. I don't recall exactly what the note said, but I took it as an apology for locking me out of practice. Best of all, there was an autographed photo of Brian ‘Spinner' Spencer, a Leaf favourite in the early ‘70s. Spinner was far from a league superstar but when I got that photo in the mail he might have been Howe, Orr and Beliveau all rolled into one - in my books, at least.

I couldn't have imagined in 1972 that four decades later, we'd still be talking about and re-living that series. It shouldn't be that surprising, though, as the final game was selected as Canada's Game of the Century, and Henderson's series-winner earned him Goal of the Century honours.

Maybe I didn't see him or the other stars, but I was happy that Dennis Hull's cannonading drive (to steal a phrase from the incomparable Danny Gallivan) was good enough for two goals in the only four games of the series he played. I knew he had a hard shot. I heard it live.

Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

Organizations: Holland College, Team Canada, Summit Series Maple Leafs on Hockey Night

Geographic location: Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Canada Charlottetown

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