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A Will to Win

By DAVID McCONNACHIE

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Part III

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Canadians & Sport of (ice) Hockey

For many Canadians, we are drawn to the sport of (ice) hockey at an early age, gathered with our families on Saturday mornings at the local rinks and again on Saturday nights, around the TV, as we watch our jerseyed heroes do battle while perched upon blades of steel an eight of an inch thick. Hockey has always been an equalizer and a culture-setter, allowing Canadians of every vintage, new and old, to bond over beverages while cheering on the home team. Hockey is played on ice by hardy souls braving the freezing temperatures for a moment’s exhilaration – sort of like the chilling blast that we suffer as we move through our lives during the months of November through March. And for past generations of immigrants to this land, many of our (or our parents’) first winters were spent trying to understand this ‘silly game’ – and many a night afterward were spent cheering on the new ‘home’ team in accents and languages representative of the ‘old home’.

Core Elements of Successful Hockey Teams

 

Sports, and especially hockey for Canadians, is a powerful tool upon which to build lessons of leadership. Most of us – 20 million out of the 30+ million Canadians tuned in for some/part of the 2010 gold medal game – have watched a portion of some game, at some time, and have been caught up in the excitement that comes with professional sports and cheering on your team. We have an intrinsic understanding of the core elements of successful hockey teams: talent + dedication + training + leadership = WINNING TEAMS. And that leadership comes in many sizes, shapes and forms.

For teams on the ice, leadership is delivered shift by shift, shot by shot and save by save. The individual player takes a leadership role in fulfilling their own responsibilities while also keeping a watchful eye out for their teammates. The Captain and Assistant Captains, as active players AND as intermediaries to the higher-ups, provide ‘a voice in the room’, echoing the cheers and softening the jeers, while occasionally (and legendarily) grabbing the attention of teammates with motivational speeches to amplify the moment. And the coach, the General Manager and rest of the suits in the executive suites provide their own type of leadership, developing the game plans, drafting/training/retaining the best talent, and ensuring that the business end of the game is managed effectively.

The 1972 Summit Series between Canada Againts Former Soviet Union

 

The sport of hockey also gives us special moments to learn lessons on leadership, events and games that transcend the everyday to become something so impactful that it ends up on a stamp or a coin. The 1972 Summit Series between the best players from Canada against the best players from the former Soviet Union was a truly unforgettable moment and continues to resonate today.

For most Canadians under the age of 40, the 1972 Canada/Russia series (as we fans called it) was sport-as-political-theatre, an on-ice extension of the Fischer vs. Kasparov chess matches or the race to the moon (to extend the metaphor to another field of competition). Canada’s players weren’t just representing Canada on the biggest frozen stage of their careers, they were representing the ‘Free World’ on the Cold War’s coldest front: on the ice rink.

NHL and Canadian hockey fans expected a complete rout ensuing in this eight-game series, with Team Canada’s roster filled with game’s brightest all-stars. The Soviet Red Army team? Pretty good, for Europeans. But no perceived threat to Canada’s self-assumed hockey supremacy. The first four games were to be played in arenas across Canada; the final four games to be played in Moscow, capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or CCCP in Cyrillic).

The series was held in early September 1972, a time of year (and during these era of pro sports off-season realities) when most NHLers were still 10 pounds over their playing weight and hadn’t been on skates since the season had ended five months prior. This Team Canada had never played together as a team, and many of the superstars were being asked to take on less glamourous roles than they would have in the NHL. Oh, and the Soviets had been together for years, and practiced non-stop throughout the year, injecting innovative training methods that were at first mocked by their Canadian counterparts. Until the puck dropped, that is.

The first game was played at the Montreal Forum, home of the hockey’s most prestigious (and winning) franchise, the Montreal Canadiens. Many of the best Canadiens had traded in the ‘bleu, blanc et rouge’ for the ‘blanc et rouge’, and they were augmented by a whos-who of famous NHLers. And still, Team Canada shockingly lost the first game, 7 to 3, and would continue to stumble along during the rest of the Canadian leg of the series, escaping Canada with one victory, two losses and a tie. The unimaginable had come true. Team Canada was heading off the heart of the heated rival, down in the series and down in the mouth. They seemed frustrated, confused and ready to fall apart. And then the leaders stepped up.

First it was Phil Esposito, scoring star for the Boston Bruins and a future Hall of Famer. Phil was – and remains – a BIG man with a BIG voice and an oversized personality to match. His Italian-Canadian heritage infused his personality with a Mediterranean fieriness that he could barely contain. After Canada had lost the fourth game, in Vancouver, to the Soviets and were booed off the ice by the ‘home’ fans, Esposito was interviewed on national TV:

“To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, geez, I’m really, all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned, and we’re disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players, the fans … Russians boo their players … Some of the Canadian fans—I’m not saying all of them, some of them booed us, then I’ll come back and I’ll apologize to each one of the Canadians, but I don’t think they will. I’m really, really … I’m really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps, we know, we’re trying like hell. I mean, we’re doing the best we can, and they got a good team, and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150%, because we certainly are.

I mean, the more – everyone of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada. We did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason, no other reason. They can throw the money, uh, for the pension fund out the window. They can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States, and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home, and that’s the only reason we come. And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.”

Esposito was considered a dressing room leader with Team Canada (his brother Tony, a goaltender, also made the team) and he knew that his teammates sense of pride and motivation was sorely diminished by their own performances, and that the booing from their own fans had only made the situation worse. Some of the players openly talked of abandoning the team (a couple did, once the series re-located to Moscow). Esposito knew that he needed to say something, to the people of Canada watching at home and the people of Canada that he shared the dressing room with. He accepted responsibility. He offered up an explanation. He recommitted to the overarching goal. And he protected his teammates while inspiring confidence with the constituents watching at home.

Esposito’s leadership moment was sorely needed as the drama of the Summit Series switched into high gear as the venue changed. There were allegations of spying, of food poisoning, of shenanigans outside the hotel meant to keep the players awake late into the night. There was a moment, captured live for all to see, as uniformed Red Army soldiers tried to arrest a Team Canada official, and the players banded together to pull him over the boards and on to the players’ bench for sanctuary from the KGB. Oh, and there were games, too, exciting games, that lead us to Game 8, with the series tied up at three wins apiece and one tie (although, by international rules, the Soviets held the edge in ‘goal differential’ by a margin of two goals over the previous seven games). Everything, all the excitement, the drama, the pressure, the shenanigans and the national angst would hinge on 60 minutes of play, doled out twenty minutes at a time.

The game began at 1PM EST, and was effectively a national holiday for most schoolchildren (this writer included) who either were sent home early to watch this momentous occasion or watched in our classrooms surrounded by an incredible amount of ad-hoc Team Canada memorabilia. Until the 2010 gold medal game, Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series was the most-watched sports program in Canadian TV history. The teams went back and forth in the first period but the Soviets grabbed a two goal lead entering the third and final period (there were no overtime provisions in the series plans). 

Esposito, fittingly, scored early in the third to bring the Canadians to within one goal of the Soviets. It was turning into a madhouse at the arena, with coaches throwing chairs and KGB officers grabbing at Canadian hockey executives. The pressure was mounting by the second, and security was rushed into place to control the crowd (and the Canadians). Legendary Canadian hockey broadcaster, Foster Hewitt, calling the game for the CBC, noticed the rising emotions and exclaimed: “You can feel the tension almost everywhere!”.

Now, before we finish, take a moment to imagine yourself as one of the players on Team Canada. You expected and easy victory in the series – and you were humbled and embarrassed. You had no experience with the Russians’ team-first style of play, or their intricate passing that bedevilled the Canadian defenders. You were at a loss as to how to proceed, but you had no other choice but to lace up and skate through the distractions, real and imagined. And you had an entire nation watching your every stride (and readying to hang you in effigy if you returned defeated).

Yvan Cournoyer, a Montreal Canadiens stalwart and grizzled veteran of many Stanley Cup championship parades, scored a goal with less than 10 minutes to play to tie the game. And then came ‘the goal’.

With less than a minute left, and with Team Canada desperate to avoid the tie (which would have allowed the Soviets to claim victory through goal-differential), the coach sent out his best players….and Paul Henderson, a borderline all-star who made the team primarily to appease the Toronto fans (and media experts). Don’t get me wrong; Paul Henderson was a very good hockey player who usually competed for a not-very-good team. He just wasn’t quite so illustrious as some of his teammates, never having one a championship or a scoring title. He was a speedy grinder with a bit of offensive flair. And he would soon become a national hero.

As the puck was shot into the Soviet zone, Henderson was set up but lost balance and crashed into the end board, his shift seemingly over and a golden chance squandered. He could have stayed down, given that a crashing smash into the boards is never a pleasant experience, and could have caused serious injury. But somehow, Henderson summoned the strength to get up and summoned the presence of mind to skate towards the net. A shot rebounded directly to him as he shovelled the puck towards the net. Foster Hewitt took it from there with his iconic call that harkened back to the non-visual days of radio play-by-play announcers: 

HENDERSON HAS SCORED FOR CANADA!

 

After an agonizing 39 seconds ticked off the clock, Team Canada stormed the ice and celebrated a victory for the ages, a victory over an unpredictable foe and achieved by enduring a harsh journey. A victory that was achieved by 35 players working together, and leveraging the latent leadership talents to overcome adversity and deliver incredible performances when things mattered most.

For Canadians today, living in this time of global pandemic and existential dread and fear, we need leaders to step up and lead us through the tough times and into the better times that are sure to follow. We need the leaders who understand that they need to talk less but listen more. We need leaders who understand that there’s never a good time for a crisis so stop dithering and get on with attacking the problem with all your gusto. And we need leaders who’ll pick us up when we’re down and lead us through the valley of the shadow of doubts to achieve surprising successes. 

For Canadian small business owners, the search for the hero starts in the mirror. You are facing enormous pressures to keep your business alive as the lockdowns continue. You are being counted on by your team and your staff to lead them through this crisis, to keep-calm-and-carry-on. And you are being counted on by your loved ones to stay safe in the process. 

These all sound like big challenges. Big challenges call for big ideas from a new generation of difference-makers ready to assume the mantle of leadership as the economy shifts back from surviving to thriving. You, the Canadian small business owner, demonstrated the courage of leadership when you decided to start your entrepreneurial journey. You demonstrate that leadership every day when you keep the wheels of our national economy lubricated (with the morning coffee) and vibrant (with the salsa dancing lessons). And you are demonstrating that today as you navigate this crisis while managing to maintain composure and sanity along with your operations.

The ship of state – and the state of the ship – is a bit battered at the moment. But with leaders like you at the helm, we’re sure to master the situation and soon be setting sail for calmer and balmier seas.

Lead on.

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