Go to the Net: Eight Goals That Changed the Game

by Al Strachan

Published by Doubleday Canada

304 pages, 2005



 

 

Strachan Snipes and Scores

Reviewed by Lucas Aykroyd

 

For those who don't read the Toronto Sun, Al Strachan has probably been best-known in recent years for his on-air feuding with ex-Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke on Hockey Night in Canada's Satellite Hot Stove panel. Burke accused Strachan of making up stories, and the veteran hockey journalist countered by mocking Burke's weak playoff record. Strachan has never been reticent about stirring up controversy or supporting the NHL Players Association versus the league's New York head office.

But with some 30 years of writing about NHL and international hockey, the man has also built up a wealth of connections in the sport, and that's what makes his new book, Go to the Net, both intriguing and worthwhile. Hockey is Strachan's life. He concedes as much in his introduction, where he describes himself as a card-carrying member of the "hockey village" of about 2,000 insiders worldwide. Last year, with no actual hockey to cover during the NHL lockout, the natural alternative was for the tart-tongued scribe to delve into history and explore not just the mechanics of how eight noteworthy goals were scored, but also the impact they had in terms of the game we have today.

Five of the selected goals occurred in international competition and three in the NHL post-season. Seven were scored by Canadian-born players and one by a Russian. Superficially, that might seem to reflect some nationalistic bias, but Strachan has only chosen goals that he witnessed in person. In keeping with that insider's approach, it wouldn't make much sense for him to, say, revisit Jaroslav Holik's winning tally for Czechoslovakia at the 1972 IIHF World Championship in Prague, which ended the Soviet Union's streak of nine consecutive gold medals.

For North American readers, the least familiar of these eight goals will be a Boris Mikhailov tally in the 1979 Challenge Cup, which featured a three-game series between the USSR and an all-Canadian squad bolstered by three Swedes (Borje Salming, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson) in place of the usual NHL All-Star Game. Mikhailov opened the scoring in Game Three with a wicked wrister that eluded goalie Gerry Cheevers, and the Soviets went on to a 6-0 series-deciding victory.

Strachan argues quite convincingly that this marked the apogee of Russian hockey, and that at this point in history, Russian elite talent had surpassed its Canadian opposition. But it's the details he selects to bring alive the confrontation that make this chapter memorable. Few would recall today that the Soviets geared up for the opening game at Madison Square Garden by attending a screening of Superman in Manhattan, with an interpreter loudly translating the dialogue into Russian to the dismay of other patrons. Strachan doesn't merely point out that the Soviets were more fit than the NHLers: he quotes legendary coach Scotty Bowman about how in those days the hammer-and-sickle lads routinely hit the mid-to-high 1970s in terms of VO2 (oxygen processing) testing, while hitting 59 was considered great in the NHL. And to some degree, the Challenge Cup did provide motivation for North Americans to start improving their skills and conditioning.

In a chapter dedicated to Guy Lafleur's dramatic tying goal versus the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the 1979 NHL semi-finals, Strachan reveals that "The Flower," despite his love of practicing and playing, was equally prone to abusing his body with cigarettes and booze, and this could have caused a double calamity: "On [one] occasion in 1981, an instance that has never before been made public, he rolled his car when he strayed off the highway. He had a passenger with him, and the hockey world was very lucky not to have lost two of its greatest stars that night. The passenger was Wayne Gretzky."

The Great One figures prominently in other chapters as well, and how can you argue with focusing on the best player in hockey history? His role in setting up Mario Lemieux for the winner in Game Three of the 1987 Canada Cup final versus the Soviets is exhaustively documented, as is his over-the-shoulder overtime tally for Edmonton against Calgary's Mike Vernon in the 1988 playoffs. There are lots of exclusive quotes from Gretzky, who was seen greeting Strachan effusively after holding his first regular season post-game press conference as the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Strachan's prose in Go to the Net has the same snappy flavor as his newspaper columns. That keeps things entertaining, although he sometimes oversimplifies matters. For instance, describing the German national team as "amateurs and part-timers" would have held true in 1972, but not in passages about the 2002 Olympics, where a squad with two NHLers plus well-paid pros from the German and Russian Elite Leagues dropped a 3-2 decision to Canada. Overall, Strachan seems to feel that a calm, almost corporate mindset on the part of the eventual gold medalists made victory virtually inevitable, but others will recall that numerous missed Canadian chances at key stages of the final game versus the USA, including a Mario Lemieux miscue during a 5-on-3 power play, could easily have resulted in a different outcome.

Still, whether you differ with some of Strachan's interpretations or wholeheartedly embrace his version of events, this is an excellent read for anyone who revels in hockey minutiae as well as the sport's rich history. | February 2006

 

Lucas Aykroyd has written about the NHL since 1999 and covered every IIHF World Championship since 2000, plus the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, for the International Ice Hockey Federation's official Web site. His work has been published in The Hockey News, The Sporting News and the NHL Yearbook.