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Three astonishing game-winning goals by a mystery man gave the Canadians a narrow victory over Russia in their historic series, thus retrieving a measure of dignity for some anguished icemen

For days Russia's Alexander Gresko, No. 2 man in the sports hierarchy, and Team Canada's Alan Eagleson, the players' chief representative, had been waging the coldest war this side of N. Khrushchev and his desk-pounding shoe. Now there was one minute left to play in last week's eighth and final game of the series that had gripped the hockey world as none before. Team Canada had just stormed back to tie the Russians 5-5 and it seemed likely that their month of struggle would finish in deadlock at three victories and two ties apiece. "If the game ends in a tie," said Gresko, waggling a finger at Eagleson, "we automatically win the series on total goals scored." Eagleson yelled back at Gresko, and for once the Russian did not need his interpreter to get the drift.

Providentially for Eagleson and all the Canadians, Paul Henderson's stick spoke next. With 34 seconds to play this former wallflower of the Toronto Maple Leafs—a nine-year man who had given no previous intimations of immortality—scored his third successive game-winning goal, the one that gave Canada a desperate 4-3-1 series edge and spared the NHL all-stars a Siberian reception at home. "Henderson saved Canada and the NHL," said Harold Ballard, owner of the Maple Leafs and the only NHL official who had fully supported Team Canada's adventure from the start. "When we get back home I'm going to renegotiate his contract and give him at least another $25,000. That's a cheap price to pay for what Henderson did, believe me."

We believe. In the sixth game Henderson beat the Soviets with a hard 35-foot slap shot through Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak's legs after intercepting a pass at the blue line. In the seventh game, with barely two minutes remaining and the score tied 3-3, Henderson took a pass from Serge Savard, swung around Defenseman Gennadii Tsygankov, swept in on Tretiak and beat him cleanly over the right shoulder. "Tsygankov cost us the game," said Soviet Coach Vsevolod Bobrov, who never gave credit to an individual player in victory but was quick to finger Tsygankov in the defeat that allowed Canada to even the series.

Henderson almost did not get a chance to repeat his act in the deciding game on Thursday night. In fact, there very nearly was no deciding game because of an intense dispute over the selection of the game referees. What it boiled down to was this: Canada Coach Harry Sinden had been outraged by what he called "the most incompetent job of refereeing in history" by two West German officials in the sixth game. When they were appointed by the Russians to work the eighth game, Sinden blew his stack. Previously, in Canada, he had acceded to a Russian request not to repeat an American set of officials whom the Soviets had disliked. (Disliked so much that, after a 4-1 defeat in Toronto, Andrei Starovoitov, deputy head of the Soviet Hockey Federation, tried to kick down the door to their dressing room.) Now Sinden wanted tit for tat. And Eagleson, Team Canada's most powerful personage without an official role, said, "If they referee, there won't be an eighth game." After four hours of angry debate Wednesday night and another three Thursday morning, a compromise was reached: one West German and an official of Sinden's choice would be used. Sinden chose Sweden's Uve Dahlberg. The Russians picked Joseph Kompalla. When Dahlberg came down with flu, Sinden selected a Czech, Rudy Batja. "If Batja gets sick, too," said Sinden, "we'll insist on a Russian."

Not surprisingly, Batja and Kompalla seemed especially sensitive early in the game Thursday night and penalized players on both sides for the smallest infractions, particularly interference, something the Canadians claimed had been called too infrequently against the Russians. Batja and Kompalla each whistled two interference penalties in the first period, but after that they let the teams play hockey according to their particular styles. Undeniably, the game was a thriller. "It may have been the greatest ever played," said Sinden, not a man to mince superlatives, after it was over.

Skating smoothly and passing crisply, the Russians scored three power-play goals and moved into a 5-3 lead after two periods, and if Goaltender Ken Dryden had not been both lucky and good ("Luck," he points out, "is part of skill"), they might have led by 8-3. But the Canadians were not dead yet and as they skated out for the third period their 3,000 fans inside the Sports Palace made enough noise to be heard in Saskatoon.

"We need an early goal," Sinden had told his men. Phil Esposito scored it, batting down Peter Mahovlich's pass from behind the net, whiffing on his first shot and then sliding the puck deftly under Tretiak after only two minutes, 27 seconds. Suddenly the Canadians took charge for the first time. Brad Park, a bust in the earlier games but at his best now, intercepted a Russian pass, shot the puck in front and Yvan Cournoyer slapped it past Tretiak to tie the score with seven minutes still to play. For agonizing seconds, though, no one knew whether the goal was good. The red light did not go on.

Eagleson jumped out of his seat, broke through a cordon of policemen and ran for the goal judge's stand. The police stopped him; eight of them started to escort him from the premises. Across the ice Mahovlich noticed the commotion and when he saw Eagleson in the middle he led a charge of 20 stick-waving Canadians toward the police. Eagleson was promptly released. The players convoyed him back across the ice to their bench.

It was all over at 19:26 of the third period. There was Henderson alone in front of Tretiak. Esposito and Cournoyer were battling for the puck against the boards, almost at the blue line. Cournoyer got it and passed to Henderson. He shot once. Tretiak saved. He shot again. This time Tretiak was falling, and he had no chance to stop the puck as it slid beneath him. Still, the defective red light never flashed. "When I saw it go in," Henderson said, "I went completely bonkers." So, no doubt, did an entire country.

But after a night of celebration in Moscow's dollar bars and the spirited, spirituous rooms of the visitors' hotels there was some coming down to earth. It was Harry Sinden who had said before the series began, "Losing even one game will damage the NHL's prestige." Losing three times to the Russians damaged it trebly. Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL, said, "This should teach us that we don't know everything about hockey." Toronto's Ballard added, "If we're smart, we'll go home and begin to apply some of the lessons we learned from the Russians. The sad thing is that we may not be smart enough. Too many people will say, 'See, our guys are better,' instead of saying, 'O.K., let's make our guys better.' "

As they left Moscow for Prague, where they had to come from behind in the last minute to tie Czechoslovakia's world championship team 3-3 Saturday night, the Canadian players were saying much the same thing. "In less than 20 years the Russians have gone from nothing to a world hockey power," as Dryden put it. "In 20 years Canada has practically stayed still. Now it's time for us in Canada to make some real progress of our own."


Canada's savior, Paul Henderson, skates at the summit with Russian star Valeri Kharlamov.


Indomitable Phil Esposito, Canada's best player night in and night out, stakes out a position.