The highlight of Peking's social calendar unfolded yesterday in clear, cold morning air on a gritty, blood-specked stretch of ice that seemed very far form China.
It was the season's opening hockey game between the Soviet and Canadian embassies, played at the Russians' huge, beautiful and almost completely isolated estate. For two hours an unlikely collection of Soviet schoolboys, Canadian security men, Swedish journalists and Polish diplomats flung themselves madly about the ice until a lone American brought it all to a heroic and satisfying close.
"They're doing the same thing they did last year, cheating like crazy," said one canadian diplomat, hockey stick in hand, of his worthy opponents. The remark set the proper atmosphere for the first renewal of the annual series of matches since Canada kicked a batch of Soviet spies out of Ottawa last year.
Step inside the massive Soviet embassy gates at the north end of the cith and you no longer seem to be in Peking. The security-conscious Russians do not want even Chinese cooks and gardeners on their grounds. So nearly everyone on the estate is Russian, from the first secretaries to the janitors, a community of more than 400 people that is the largest diplomatic enclave in Peking and, because of continuing Sino-Soviet hostility, the most isolated.
The situation cries out for some vigorous activity to relieve tensions. The Russians were delighted when Canada, the only other nation with enough of a passion for hockey to field a team from ordinary embassy staff, finally recognized Peking and sent diplomats here in 1971.
With superior discipline, numbers and nervous energy, the Soviets have been wiping up the ice with the Canadians and a few third-country nationals who help the Canadians represent the non-Soviet world. The Soviet teams skate with precision: They wear gright red jerseys with "Embassy, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" stenciled on them. The Canadians are often disorganized. They hit the ice in bell-bottoms, gaudy ski jackets and moth-eaten warmup suits, with beards and long hair much in evidence.
But yesterday, heartened by their recent blow against Soviet espionage, the Canadians unleashed a secret weapon -- two hockey coaches living here temporarily to train the rapidly improving Chinese national teams.
"They may even win today," said Sergei Loktionov, a Soviet trade representative. He dispensed generous shots of light brown vodka to the Canadian bench, both to aid detente and perhaps slow reflexes near the goal.
After a few minutes of play, it looked as if an upset was in the making. The two Canadian coaches, big, burly, hard-checking Cecil Eaves of the University of Windsor and small, fast puck-handling Wayne Hunter of Stelly's High School in Victoria, caught the Russians unaware. One of the two Soviet lines was composed entirely of innocent-faced, pink-cheeked teen-agers, students at the Embassy High School. Although they moved well, Eaves bumped two or three of the slim youths completely off the rink with NHL-style body checks.
Canada scored an opening goal, and the leafless trees shook with the cheering from the Canadian spectators. But the North American team lacked depth and finesse. Michael Bonnier, a Swedish journalist, confessed it was only the second time he had played the game.
A loudspeaker on the grounds played a Russian ballad, more vodka flowed, and the Soviets suddenly scored two quick goals.
"Call the blankety blank offsides!" Eaves roared at the Russian referee as the game turned sour. "You want us to put our own official on the ice?"
A Canadian player was cut on the nose by a high-flying hockey stick. The Soviet schoolboy, whose Mongolian ancestry made him one of the few oriental faces in the compound, caught the puck on his forehead and left the game.
Only one American wore skates -- a tall, burly 22-year-old named Wingate Sung, who is studying Chinese here. He learned his hockey at Cranbrook, a private secondary school in Bloomfield, Mich. "We weren't quite this disorganized," Sung said.
Eaves' wife, Nora, dressed in an electric blue snowsuit, had taken over referee duties and the gamm began to settle down. A curious onlooker persuaded a Soviet official that it was imperative he visit the inside of the main embassy building briefly. The lobby had high ceilings and little else. A few television monitors could be seen. Embassy officials smiled, but watched the visitor carefully as he entered and exited.
Back on the ice, time was running out for the Canadians. Eaves and Hunter, who had played on different lines until now, stayed on the ice together and the team began to move. The young Russian goalie, playing in street shoes and no skates, blocked several long shots.
Then Hunter picked the puck up from behind his goal and streaked down the right side. Eaves blocked out a defender. Hunter deftly shot across the front of the goal. Sung, hunched over and waiting, rapped it in.
The Canadian crowd, sensing a moral victory, cheered themselves hoarse.
The Soviets conferred. A minute was left to play. Could they score again? But here was an opportunity to wipe out the bad taste of their repatriated spies. The Soviet Union would call it a draw. Sticks slapped the ice and everyone shook hands.
Loktionov poured out a glass of vodka for Sung, the hero of the hour. "Ah," he said, "you Americans have done it again."