I knock on the door of an elegant apartment in a building on Benlamond, and a tall, casually dressed man opens it. I introduce myself, and he shakes my hand and says, “Hi, I’m Bill White.”
I have skated on the ice of Maple Leaf Gardens with Bobby Orr, albeit along with several hundred other people as part of his Easter Seal skates. I was sitting just a few sections away from Phil Esposito in Maple Leaf Gardens during one of the Ontario Hockey League showcase games that Don Cherry and Bobby Orr stage. And I have had to mention to Senator Frank Mahavolich that he was sitting in my seat at a charity event in Leaside Arena. But this is the first time I have been invited into the home of a true Canadian hockey legend.
Bill White was a member of the 1972 Team Canada, and played in seven of the eight games of the historic ‘72 Summit Series against the then-Soviet Union All Star hockey team.
For any Canadian born before 1960 – and for any Canadian who has ever visited the Hockey Hall of Fame – the ‘72 Summit Series is perhaps the greatest hockey tournament ever held. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the series, and White will be joining his former teammates – the Espositos (both Phil and Tony), Ken Dryden, the Mahavolich brothers (Peter and Frank), and of course the Series’ big hero, Paul Henderson – for the many celebrations being held here in Canada and in Russia. When I spoke to White he had just returned from Moscow.
“We couldn’t have been treated any better,” he said of his Russian hosts. The hotel where Team Canada stayed in 1972 (“the hotel was very primitive”), White said, is now a world class Ritz-Carlton, and the one department store family and fans visited in 1972 (“You could buy a black suit…or a brown suit, and one brand of electric shaver”) is now a high-end luxury store. Russia, White said, is a lot different now than it was when Team Canada landed 40 years ago. At the time they felt alone behind the Iron Curtain, waging a proxy war against the evil Communist empire.
Bill White was 33 years old when he made the roster of Team Canada. He had already played two seasons with the expansion Los Angeles Kings (then owned by another former Beacher, Jack Kent Cooke) and was the team’s leading scorer. In 1970 he was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks, where he averaged nearly 30 assists a year over the five seasons he spent there. He also played in the NHL All-Star Game each year between 1969 and 1974.
Being invited to the Team Canada training camp spoke to his standing in the league. Most Canadians, as the tournament neared, assumed that it was going to be a classic example of Canada teaching the upstart ‘Ruskies’ a lesson in the game that we invented, and excelled at. By the end of game one, most Canadians were in utter shock. White knew better.
“We knew they were good,” he said. “They were World Champs, and had won the Olympics. And you have to remember that the training camp was in August. We were all just coming down from the cottage after a summer of waterskiing and barbecuing.
“It took awhile for the guys to get to know one another. You have to remember that by the end of the last season we were mostly playing against each other.”
White said the two exhibition games that Team Canada played in Sweden helped with team chemistry. The Soviet players proved to have an uncanny ability to handle the puck and pass it amongst their players. Valeri Kharlamov has since been compared to Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux in his ability to dominate a game.
After the crushing 3-7 loss for Team Canada in game one, many were rethinking the decision to leave Bobby Hull off the roster (it was an NHL series, and Hull had just signed with the new WHA), and were sorry that Bobby Orr was on the disabled list following knee surgery.
“Sure, they would have made a difference,” said White. “But we stuck to our game plan, and we played with heart.”
It was that legendary Canadian ‘heart’ that won Team Canada the support it needed from fans across the country. But that support almost collapsed after a loss in Vancouver that saw fans in the stands boo the Canadian players. Team Captain Phil Esposito lashed out at fans during a live television interview and in a stinging retort said that the team was “trying like hell,” that the players “came out to play for Team Canada because we love our country.”
It was a turning point in the series. After that, Team Canada travelled to the Soviet Union, and the series got really interesting from then on. White said that telegrams of support lined the dressing room and hallway of the Soviet rink.
Game six saw the infamous Bobby Clarke slash on the ankle of Valeri Kharlamov, effectively ending the Russian’s series, and his threat to Team Canada.
“I didn’t know that Bobby was going to go to that extent,” said White of the slash. “But you have to remember that the Soviets liked to kick. They actually punctured one of the guys’ shin pads! They had their ways.”
The Soviets were accused of selecting referees who favoured the Russians. “The referees were looking forward to being selected for the Olympics, but by game eight we started to think the fix was in.”
Game eight was also notorious for an incident involving J.P. Parise, who swung his stick back as if to smite the referee after a particularly bad call. Luckily for Canadian hockey he held it in check, and took a game misconduct, or Team Canada might have been forced to forfeit the game…and the tournament. White recalled that the guys on the team were really grateful for the Canadian fans who made the trip over.
“Our biggest support was from the 2,500-3,000 fans,” he said. “It was pretty chilling to hear them. One guy had one of those long plastic horns [remember the vuvuzelas from the World Cup?] and he kept blowing it at the nearest Soviet Army soldier. The guy (the soldier] was getting pretty angry with him.”
At one point Alan Eagleson was nearly taken away by the military guards after loudly chastising the goal judge for not turning on the light for a Team Canada goal. He had to be rescued by big Peter Mahavolich who actually leapt over the boards and poked at the guards with his hockey stick.
Game eight was tied well into the third period. White had scored his only goal of the series in this game to tie the game at three goals each, but in the third it was tied again at 5-5. The Soviets could claim a victory in the series with a better goal differential if they held onto the tie. The series – and bragging rights – were on the line when, with just 34 seconds to go, Paul Henderson banged in his own rebound to put the Canadians ahead. With the remaining 34 seconds to kill off, coach Hary Sinden put White, along with his partner Pat Stapelton, out to hold off the ever-dangerous Soviets, and hold them off he did. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bill White retired from professional hockey in 1977 following a neck injury. He went into the plumbing wholesale business (remember this was before hockey players made multi-million dollar salaries), making quotes on large-scale apartment and condo buildings. He has five children and 12 grandchildren.