By CATHAL KELLY
Monday, February 12, 2018
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- After the Summit Series, Phil Esposito famously described Canada v. Russia as "war - our society against their society."
He and his teammates proved it, beating the then-Soviets senseless. We used to love that idea. In the concussion era, we're getting a little skeevy about it. The truth of it probably lies somewhere in the middle - they asked for it, we gave it to them.
If we considered it war - a word that the veterans of '72 love pulling out - the Russians didn't think of it in quite the same terms. At the time, they thought of hockey at the highest level as two distinct things - the Olympics and the NHL.
The Games were theirs; the professional tier was ours.
That allowed them to be sanguine about blowing it.
"[The Summit Series] proved finally that we were as good as they were," Soviet defenceman Vladimir Lutchenko said afterward. I suppose that's one way of looking at losing.
Even though the two things eventually merged - Olympics and NHL - this tournament has never defined the game's greatest rivalry. In fact, it's an odd blank space in that regard.
Though they have 21 hockey gold medals between them, Canada and Russia (in its various incarnations) have only played each other once in an Olympic final.
That was a forgettable contest in Albertville a few weeks after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, featuring the "Unified Team." It was forgettable because we lost, they weren't a country in any recognizable way and everyone was feeling a little sorry for them (that seems like a long time ago now).
Having been born in violence, many of the classic Russia/Canada encounters were grimy affairs in grimy places. A standout is the Punch-Up in Piestany (there are no good synonyms for war that start with a "p"). That game ended in a vicious 20-minute line brawl, and turned the world junior championships into a thing.
For Canada versus Russia to have real meaning on our end of things, they must be dastardly in some way and we must forever be the unlikely heroes putting them in their place. Only half of the storyline works predictably any more.
Which brings us to the Canadian women's opener of this tournament - Russia versus Canada for ... nothing, really.
This wasn't war. It wasn't even a fight. It was Canada putting Russia across its lap and giving it a few smacks on the bottom.
It was close in the first. It got silly in the second.
As the teams readied to come out for the third period, the Canadians were yukking it up in the tunnel. The Russians trudged in as though they were headed to a logging camp. Which they might eventually be.
It ended 5-0 and could have been 10 or 15. Afterward, Canadian forward Meghan Agosta couldn't get the score straight. In the time it had taken her to get off the ice, she'd already forgotten the game.
As for the grand tradition of animus in this rivalry, it was nowhere to be found.
"They're a great country," Ms. Agosta said. "The Olympic athletes from Russia, they gave us a great game."
"We respect them a lot," said captain Marie-Philip Poulin. "Good for them that they have a team here."
This wasn't respect. It was a pat on the head. I imagine that probably hurts the Russians more.
The only hint of animus was the Canadians' robotic insistence on not calling them by their proper name.
For instance, coach Laura Schuler: "We thought the Olympic athletes from Russia were getting tired there ..." That's a mouthful, and no one would say it unless they'd been told to do so.
The Canadian women's team has two jobs during an Olympics - win gold; and sell the discredited idea that this sport is about something more than two countries.
"[Russia's] getting better every single time we've played them, so I think it's great for women's hockey," Ms. Agosta said.
If that's "getting better," what were they like before? Did they head the wrong way out of the locker room and end up forfeiting after getting lost in the parking lot?
Russia is supposed to be one of the sport's up-and-comers.
But all you could say of them on the evidence is what is said of every team that is not Canada or the United States - surprisingly skilled, surprisingly athletic, surprisingly improved.
It always translates to its opposite - unsurprisingly quite hopeless.
So the pull-line from Sunday night was "How long until the U.S.?" Once again, this tournament promises to be a two-game affair - that matchup in the round robin, and then the replay in the final.
If we want a Russia versus Canada we can care about, that's up to the men's team.
Happily, the crowd at Kwandong Hockey Centre didn't seem to understand that, or care.
The South Korean audience is very big on enthusiasm, and less so on hockey savvy.
(A little like the Russian women's national hockey team ... ba doom boom.)
An instructional video played before the contest had this insight: "Ice hockey is a game where two teams use sticks to shoot a rubber puck into nets."
The longer you think about it, the truer it seems.
There was a rink PA instruction for spectators to remain seated during play "if you are in the sightline of the players." As if hockey was tennis.
Other parts of festivities were odd and wonderful - singalongs, an intensely complicated dance choreography that even the grandmothers in the stands seemed to pick up straight off and an arena-wide game of charades.
Essentially, locals seem to view hockey as karaoke by other means.
Given the shocking disparity between these old rivals, that was a far better way for a neutral to enjoy a night out at the hockey game.
Members of the Canadian women's hockey team gather at their goal before overwhelming the team of "Olympic athletes from Russia" (as the Canadian players repeatedly called them) 5-0 in their preliminary game at the Winter Olympics in South Korea on Sunday.
FRANK FRANKLIN II/AP
Above: One of the roughest of many confrontations between hockey players from Canada and Russia (then the Soviet Union) was a bench-clearing brawl at the world junior hockey championships in Piestany, then part of Czechoslovakia, in 1987. Both teams were ejected from the tournament.
Right: Soviet player Boris Mikhailov has the upper hand on Team Canada's Gary Bergman in a tussle during Game 2 of the 1972 Summit Series at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
ABOVE, ASSOCIATED PRESS; RIGHT, JOHN MAIOLA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Left: As a dejected Russian player skates away, Canadian players celebrate one of Team Canada's five goals in a shutout in Gangneung, South Korea, on Sunday.
Below left: Russian goalie Nadezhda Morozova sprawls in the net as another Canadian goal is scored at the Kwandong Hockey Centre on Sunday.
LEFT, BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS; BELOW LEFT: GRIGORY DUKOR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES