When Washington's Danny Belisle put his convictions ahead of his associations and became the only NHL coach to forecast a Soviet victory in the Challenge Cup, he commented, "At first I thought the good guys would win, but on thinking it over I have to pick the Soviets. They're better prepared and better organized."
In capturing Sunday's decisive third game, 6-0, the Soviets proved to be better prepared and better organized. But there was considerable doubt about which team was "the good guys."
By game's end, many of the 17,545 fans were cheering each save by 23-year-old Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin, who in his first major international appearance was recording a 24-save shutout. They were jeering Boston's Gerry Cheevers, who let four of seven third-period shots get by as the game degenerated into a rout.
The NHL stars had attempted to win through physical violence, confident that referee Andy Van Hellemond would call few penalties. He overlooked everthing short of attempted manslaughter, but he couldn't put the puck in the net for the NHL, which closed the series with 94 minutes 54 seconds of scoreless hockey.
The Soviets converted the only power play presented them, bounced up from the heavy hits to make perfect passes and showed they were both more skillful and better conditioned.
"We definitely tried to intimidate them and it didn't work," said the Islanders' Clark Gilles, voted the best NHL player of the series. "They took the checks."
The decisive result, in an NHL rink under NHL rules, left no doubt that the Soviets are the best team in hockey. The next question concerns the future of the NHL. Perhaps now the league will reduce its ticket prices -- and play some hockey instead of dump and bump.
"I hope they taught us something with their playmaking and their conditioning," said Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke. "They really kicked our butts. I think they proved that skating, passing and shooting are still the name of the game."
"We've told everyone that we're the best," said Montreal's Bob Gainey. "Now the Soviets have come back, improved and beat us. I'm sure people at home and hockey fans in general aren't going to let us forget it."
This series was considered virtually a national crusade in Canada and the NHL coach, Scotty Bowman, can expect some scathing reviews from disgruntled critics. Nevertheless, he offered no alibis.
"I suspected they were strong," Bowman said. "The way they played proved it. I have no excuses. We did everything we could. We prepared our team to the best of our ability. We'll have to take a long look at the game that they're playing. I was impressed by their speed, by the strength of their skaters and by the way they pass the puck while they're in motion."
"The endurance factor was critical, howeve they arrive at it," said Washington General Manager Max McNab. "They were going as fast in the third period as at the beginning. Maybe it's that summer sacrifice, they put up with it to reach their niche in life. They're all superior skaters. That seems to be their No. 1 priority."
It may be some time before the NHL gets a chance to repail its shattered image. A similar series next year is impossible, because the Soviet "amateurs" will be competing in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Soviets offered no hope of a sudden dip, as Coach Viktor Tikhonov said, "Next year this team has to be stronger, and in the forthcoming five years still stronger."
Besides its humiliation on the ice, the NHL received some off-ice setbacks to its prestige. The New York media buildup was minimal, the computerized all-star voting attracted an embarrassingly low amount of fan interest and the only U.S. network television interest resulted in a token showing of taped highlights on CBS Sports Spectactular. Even Sports Illustrated withdrew its cameras after a dispute over lighting.
During game two, fans carried a banner through Madison Square Gar den that read "Edmonton wants NHL." Perhaps Edmonton is having second thoughts now. Certainly a lot of fans figure to have second thoughts in April, when they are asked to pay $18.75 or thereabouts for tickets to the Stanley Cup. That's a high tariff even for a first-class event. And a lot of people will be reminding the NHL that it is now No. 2.