50 years after the Summit Series, this former N.L. broadcaster recounts being youngest reporter in Moscow
Alex J. Walling spent 50 years in broadcasting, which brought him to Corner Brook and Moscow
Even though it has been 50 years since Paul Henderson's iconic series-winning goal helped lift Team Canada over the Soviet Union in the historic Summit Series in September 1972, Alex J. Walling — now 76 years old — remembers every detail from his time spent covering the games in Russia.
Originally from Quebec City, Walling's career in broadcasting spanned 50 years, including a nine-year stint in Corner Brook, N.L., working for the now defunct Humber Valley Broadcasting Co. and Western Broadcasting.
"I've been around the block," Walling said, laughing, from his current home in Dartmouth, N.S.
In August 1972, Walling, then 25 years old, took a job in Halifax at CHNS-FM running a full-time sports talk show that ran on Sunday nights.
Preparations for the highly anticipated Canadian hockey all-star team to take on the powerhouse Soviets were already underway.
During Game 1, Walling was in Edmonton covering a national softball tournament. The tournament was winding down as Canada and Russia squared off in the hot and foggy Montreal Forum on Sept. 2, a Saturday.
"I came back the next day to Halifax and on that Monday I'm bugging my boss, 'I want to go to the next game,'" Walling remembered.
"Wednesday I think it was, around 11 a.m, he calls me into his office and says, 'OK, Walling, you're going.'"
Game 2 was that night at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Walling said he assumed he was getting on the next flight out.
"He said, deadpan, 'You're not going tonight,'" said Walling.
Game 3 was also just a few days later, in Winnipeg, and was an opportunity for Walling to make the journey to cover the Canadian Football League on top of the Summit Series. But that still wasn't the plan.
Game 4 in Vancouver? Also no.
"I said, 'Lord almighty, where the hell am I going?' and [my boss said], 'Pack your bags, kid, you're going to Moscow."
'3,000 people were trying to call back home'
Walling's flight out of Montreal set the bar for what he was to expect in Russia: a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity.
The late Jean Béliveau — a Montreal Canadiens legend who had retired just the year before — stepped on the plane behind Walling and asked to sit next to him, briefly.
"We talked a while and he was a great guy. He went somewhere else after that and probably sat in 10 places. That was my start," said Walling.
Landing in Russia was a scene in itself. A Canadian contingent of 3,000 fans made the trip and were herded into a single hotel, Walling remembers.
The building was a perfect square shape, he said, with each wing looking exactly the same. But there wasn't much time for sightseeing and fraternizing. Walling did buy one Russian hat as a souvenir, he said, something he still has today.
"Practice was at 10 a.m., [I'd] come back at 12 p.m. then … I'd wait for three or four hours to get a phone line to send all my stuff because there were only around five outside lines and 3,000 people were trying to call back home," said Walling.
"Most of my time was spent at the rink and in my hotel room."
Games 5, 6 and 7 went by in a blur, said Walling, with few memories of each as he focused on the job at hand.
'Here we go'
Game 8, however, was a different story.
"There was one little makeshift press box for Foster Hewitt and the media folks. Around 40 of us were crammed down at the opposite end," Walling said.
"Ken Dryden was right in front of us. Our faces were right on the glass."
Canada was trailing in the third period 5-3 of the deciding game of the series. A tie would mean Russia was victorious because of having more goals scored through the series. Canada needed an outright win.
A two-on-one broke out for Russia as they tried to put the game out of reach.
Walling remembers the smooth skating of Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov as the duo crashed the Canadian zone, pulling Dryden from his crease.
"One of them … shoots the puck and instead of it going in the net, which was three-quarters open because of their crisp passing, the guy shoots over the net," he said.
"I said, 'Oh my God, here we go.'"
The Canadian team held on. Goals from Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins and Yvan Cournoyer of the Montreal Canadiens evened the score.
The shot heard around the world
For many Canadian hockey fans, Foster Hewitt's call of Henderson's go-ahead goal is one of the most iconic moments in hockey history.
Walling, unfortunately, didn't see it despite being in the building. The view from the press box on the far end of the ice didn't give the best vantage point, he said.
"We couldn't tell [if the puck went in] because the Russians in the third period did not turn on the red light," he said.
"All of a sudden I see Team Canada clear the bench to go mob Henderson.… I didn't see it but I've heard it a thousand times since."
Only 34 seconds remained on the clock at the time of Henderson's now-iconic goal.
Walling, in what he calls one of the luckiest moments of his life, left the press box with his tape recorder with time remaining to get closer to the ice.
As time ran out, Walling and fellow broadcaster Brian Williams were in position — well ahead of the rest of the press gallery, who were caught between the ice and the 17,000 fans trying to exit the arena.
"Williams knows Henderson because he's from Toronto, and Williams had covered a few Leafs games. So Williams yells out, 'Henny, over here,'" said Walling. "We had him to ourselves for five or six minutes."
Coming home, Walling remembers, was humbling for Canadians. The narrative heading into the series was that the Canadian team of NHL all-stars would sweep the Russians 8-0. The series played out differently.
But as the years passed, that moment in Game 8, and the series as a whole, have cemented themselves in history and stood the test of time for generations.
"The goal lived on almost from the day [it was scored], and Henderson lived on," said Walling.
"It was a seminal series in which, in a way, it showed we were a great team but so were the Russians."