by Edith Cody-Rice
He had a distinguished diplomatic career full of dramatic events: he was in Israel during the 1982 war in Lebanon, in Bonn, West Germany, when the Berlin wall came down in 1989, ambassador to Indonesia during the Bre X scandal and the chaotic collapse of the Suharto government in 1998, but the assignment that has captured the imagination of Canadians occurred early in his career when Gary Smith, then a twenty-eight year old junior Canadian diplomat in Moscow, was charged with handling the fabled 1972 USSR / Canadian hockey summit in the midst of the cold war. Canadians alive at the time remember where they were when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in Moscow after a hard fought eight game series which surprised North American hockey pundits. They had predicted that Canada with its NHL players would skate easily over the Russian team. But the Russians came out ahead in the four games played in Canada and were within one game of winning the series in Moscow when Canada pulled out all the stops and narrowly won the last three of the four games in Russia. On the date of the eighth game, September 28, 1972, Canadians downed tools and life stopped as everyone, at work, play, school or home, tuned their televisions to this final game. Exuberant celebrations greeted Henderson’s winning goal.
Over the 50 years since these games, their legend has grown and Gary Smith has been consulted on the numerous books and films made about this series. Finally he decided to write his own account. His goal: to show to Canadians and the world what diplomats really do. As he said in an interview with the Millstone, most Canadians have no idea what our diplomats do for a living. Alan Gottlieb, Canada’s illustrious ambassador to the United States famously said that an ambassador is one third journalist, one third lawyer and one third inn keeper.
Canada had been trying to play against the USSR with its best players, i.e. professionals, for more than twenty years and recently elected Pierre Trudeau recognized the power of sport and the love of hockey shared by these two northern neighbours. The USSR wanted to improve relations with the west and particularly Canada. Trudeau kicked off negotiations by bringing Premier Kosygin to Canada after Trudeau had made his own controversial visit to the USSR. Kosygin was greeted by boos and jeers across Canada until he attended a hockey game in Vancouver where he was very warmly received. That was the start. From there, fraught negotiations resulted in an agreement to play an eight game series, four in Canada and a further four in Russia, with Canada’s best players facing off against the Russian teams which, although tagged as amateurs, were in fact full time hocky professionals. The job of keeping this train on the rails fell to Gary Smith. Amid mercurial outbursts (particularly by Alan Eagleson), rough on ice behaviour, threats of walk outs, fights over the referees and rowdy fans, Gary Smith stood his ground, smoothed ruffled feathers, and took on the care and feeding of the Soviet team in Canada and the Canadian team in Russia. He was also responsible for some 3,000 Canadian fans who descended on Moscow requiring accommodation, feeding, tickets and orientation to the very different Russian culture. It was a wild ride, full of antics, outbursts and tension.
Asked why he was chosen at such a young age, Mr. Smith said that he had been praised for his work with Pierre Trudeau when he visited Moscow in May of 1971. But he was also fluent in Russian and an amateur hockey player which must have been a boon.
This is a fascinating story of behind the scenes, as well as front of stage activity to make the games a success. It is also very well told. Gary Smith is an accomplished writer and story teller and when he writes about the plays in each of the eight games, it has the flavour of Foster Hewitt’s exciting game calling. Foster Hewitt actually called these games for Canadian TV. And you do get a glimpse of the enormous amount of diplomatic work involved in shepherding such an event to a successful conclusion.
As Mr. Smith says, now when people meet him they want to talk hockey, hockey, hockey. But diplomatic careers are about much more than hockey. He related some events that were cut from the book, presumably because they did not focus on the main event, HOCKEY.
While in Moscow, he rescued Karen Kain’s tutu, which was stuck in Russian customs, with gifts of vodka and cigarettes to the customs officers, thus allowing her to compete in the 1973 Moscow International Ballet Competition. She and Frank Augustyn, a fellow principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada, were honoured with a special prize for best pas de deux (the Bluebird from Sleeping Beauty), and Kain herself won a silver medal, launching their international stardom.
He rescued the Russian tour of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde when their director threatened to cancel because the sets which had been cut down in transit to fit into Polish trucks fell into the street when delivered. Mr. Smith assured the director that the Russians were very good at theatre. They were, the sets were repaired and the show went on.
Mr. Smith told the Millstone that he has been humbled by the reception of the book. He has been interviewed by the Globe and Mail, the National Post, CTV, CBC, Canada’s History Magazine and a number of other media outlets, impressive for a first time author.
If you are looking for a Father’s Day gift, this is a good choice for hockey lovers.
The documentary film “Icebreaker”, which is based in part on the book, is planned to premiere in September at festivals and in theatres across Canada and subsequently on television and digital streaming.