Back in my professing days, I once tried to explain the concept of the Cold War to a classroom full of college students, most born after 1980, who gleefully admitted, "Our idea of the Cold War is Rocky IV."
I could sympathize a bit, allowing that my own memories of Vietnam were those of hearing the morning news on the radio and asking my parents why we were off fighting "gorillas" in some jungle. What'd we have against them anyway?
But when I was eight, I witnessed an epic Cold War battle played out in my own hometown. It was January 11, 1976, and my dad gave up his ticket (I can still see it now, with crossed US and Soviet flags) so my mom and I could go down to the spiritual temple of my youth, the Philadelphia Spectrum, the day the Soviet Red Army hockey team came to town to take on the team for which I lived and breathed.
It was a politically turbulent time. There just had been two attempts on President Ford's life; Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman had been sentenced for their involvement in Watergate; the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh; and Saigon fell (so much for that domino).
In the world of hockey, it was four years after the epic '72 Summit Series, but that was an entirely Canadian thing, and though the players themselves may have known better, most fans in the US were oblivious to our silver hockey medal in Sapporo. And we were still four years removed from the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid, and all of the replayed sights and sounds associated with that game.
For me, life was pretty simple. I slept under a big National Geographic map of the US. Next to it was a map of the world, with each country's flag on it (so I knew the hammer and sickle well). I had a red, white, and blue bean bag chair on my floor. It was a bicentennial year and I lived in the city in which the Declaration of Independence had been signed. The Flyers had won the Stanley Cup the preceding two years, and were, we thought, on track to repeat a third time. Philly pride was at an all time high even before Rocky crystallized the feeling in celluloid later in the year.
Like all kids of the Cold War, I was taught fear at a young age. I knew there were good guys in the world (see States, the United), and there were bad (see Republics, Union of Soviet Socialist). I knew it was solely because of the bad guys that my school was a designated "fallout shelter" — and I knew what that meant and when I thought about it, it scared the crap out of me. I knew, too, that I was more free than my Russian counterparts, and I knew that (though my ancestors had a century earlier) I did not want to live in Russia.
On this day, the good guys wore orange and white, and the bad guys wore red. It's difficult in our now-global world to stress just how incredibly foreign the Soviets looked — so different from our guys: their facial features more severe; to a man, they were clean shaven, in contrast to our wild and woolly bunch; they did not smile; and they all wore matching Jofa helmets (odd, eastern bloc-y things in that era, and with the Cyrillic CCCP on them), at a time when few in the NHL wore helmets at all. They warmed up with different drills; they skated and played differently. As a kid, it was like going to the zoo for the first time, or witnessing aliens: new, fascinating, and a little frightening.
Their outstanding goalie, Vladislav Tretiak wore not a goalie mask, but a wire cage on a helmet — one of the first I'd really seen in action. It looked so ragged, after I'd become so accustomed to the smooth, clean contours of Bernie Parent's simple white logo mask. The difference seemed significant to me even then; the steel cage somehow speaking volumes about the lives of others in their country.
The Russians looked, and certainly played, like hockey automatons. They were extremely talented and machine-like, and at the height of their international dominance. This swing through North America was billed as a goodwill (though there wasn't any) tour, with two Soviet teams playing games against the best NHL teams, none of which had beaten the Soviets' vaunted Central Red Army team. The Flyers — "The Broad Street Bullies" whom nobody but Philly fans liked or respected — were to have the final chance at North American hockey salvation.
After Kate Smith's rendition of God Bless America, the Spectrum was as loud as I've ever heard it, and that place could get so loud it shook, and you felt the thunder in your gut. And somehow, we all understood — twenty-five years before the thought would be articulated in the trash-talking '90s — what "not in our house" meant. Today was our day.
I can't remember who scored for us, but I remember Ed Van Impe's un-penalized bodycheck on one of the Russians (the talented and targeted Valeri Kharlamov) stopped the game cold, as the Russian players and coaches literally walked off the ice to protest the rough play and unfavorable officiating. A few Flyers players skated around the open ice and took shots at the empty nets, and I remember no one moved, though no one knew quite what was happening or if and when it would be resolved. And it seemed like forever, but finally, the Russians came back out onto the ice.
After that, we pretty much owned them. The Flyers had an unorthodox style — we came at you like Joe Frazier, from odd angles, willing to get hit, and taking dozens of awkward, if not plain off-target, shots — as foreign to the more fluid skating Soviets as the Soviets were to me. We were tenacious on offense, trapped in the neutral zone, and were smothering on defense. We scored immediately after play resumed, and by the middle of the second period, it was all over but the shouting.
Mostly, that afternoon I remember, when my mom and I finally stepped out onto Pattison Avenue, feeling the sudden joy and awe that David must have felt when his stone struck Goliath, and the mighty giant crumbled. And for that one day, everything I knew in the world was right. The US was better than Russia. And Philadelphia was the best in the US. Life was brilliant.