Most of us have heard of the devious acts committed by Russian officials while Team Canada was in Moscow. Canada's steak and beer brought from home was "lost", late-night phone calls were made to disrupt sleep and there were mystery "illnesses" to preferred referees. I however was unaware that for one player at least, the suspicions of off-ice foul play by the Soviets began even before they left Canada. According to Ted Blackman, Sports Editor of The Montreal Gazette, The Big 'M' Frank Mahovlich was chock-full of conspiracy theories.
Frank Mahovlich checked into Room 1012 of the Bayshore Hotel (in Vancouver) and immediately began tapping the walls and peeking behind the drapes as the bellhop gaped incredulously. "Shhhsh," he whispered to Serge Savard, his bunkmate. "Don't say a word - this joint has gotta be bugged by their agents."
Serge nodded gravely. Two days ago he was laughing at the Big M and his growing paranoia. Now Serge isn't so sure Big Frank isn't right. "I wouldn't be surprised at anything the Russians would do," Mahovlich says, speaking seriously as his eyes scan the twilight zone. "No sir, I wouldn't be surprised if they were training a football team at a secret army base. They'll beat the Dallas Cowboys next year."
Phil Esposito guffawed. "They might win the U.S. Open, too," Espo said. "Can you see Jack Nicklaus booming one of his 350-yard tee shots and then a Russian guy...Vladimir Palmerski or somethin'... steps onto the tee and cracks one. 'You're away, Comrade Nicklaus'."
Six or seven of Esposito's teammates laughed, Mahovlich didn't. Later, when the Big M had left the circle (darting down the hallway to elude the secret agents), Savard said: "Have you ever seen Big Frank act this way? He's going crazy over this series."
He isn't alone. So profound has been the shock of the Russians' arrival as peers that the slick Canadian professionals have had their senses scrambled. One week ago they watched the Russians practice and mocked them. Yesterday they leaned over the boards and studied each move intently.
Bobby Orr adds, "Hardly an hour passes without the Russians knocking on Harry Sinden's door with another complaint. Practice is too early; practice is too late; the opening ceremonies are too long; they're not long enough."
"Watch it, Harry," Frank Mahovlich keeps telling his coach. "Watch it. Be prepared for anything. This is a cold war, you know. A cold war. I've had hay fever for a week now. In Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. How can the pollen count be so high everywhere I go?"
"Maybe," Eddie Johnston suggests in jest, "they're following you around with a powder in a spray can, just to upset you." "Ha, ha," Sinden chuckles. "Don't laugh," Frank says. "They'd do anything."
They've got to Frank, or he's got to himself. In the second game, the Big M was far removed from character. He dumped a Russian after the first-period buzzer, banged a few guys on the helmet with his stick, patted the veteran Vyacheslav Starshinov on the back after he'd scored for Canada.
"Ever seen anything like it?" John Ferguson asks. Mention the Moscow end of the series and the Big M's imagination begins to parallel Ian Fleming's.
"What we should do in Russia is camp outside the city, all of us in tents or something," Frank was telling Savard the other day. "Hell, what for?" Savard wondered.
"Don't you think they might just start a construction project outside our hotel room at four o'clock in the morning? Just to ruin our sleep?"
"Most of the guys aren't in by that time," Savard said, trying a joke.
"Don't laugh. You don't realize what this series means to them for propaganda purposes. They'll do anything. We should buy some tents."
Frank strolled off for a coffee, leaving Savard in a perplexed slump on the lobby couch. Mahovlich is a great put-on artist. Serge wonders if he's being taken. Then he remembers that strange, faraway look that is in Frank's eyes every day.
Savard turns to Eddie Johnston, asking: "Do you suppose he may be right and we should..."