I never understood why WWE worked so hard to not hire wrestling announcers and now I do. WWE announcers are storytellers and professional announcers need to be taught storytelling. - Joey Styles
When sports are at their best, at their most dramatic, they can achieve the level of modern myth: the curse of the Bambino; Lou Gehrig’s retirement ceremony; Willie Mays’ catch; Joe Namath predicts victory; Larry Bird steals victory; Ted Williams hits a home-run in his last at-bat; Carlton Fisk waves his home run fair; Bill Mazerowski’s home run; Joe Carter’s home run; Curt Schilling’s bloody sock; Bobby Baun wins a Stanley Cup with a broken leg; the Olympic Loonie; Bill Barilko wins a Stanley Cup, disappears on a fishing trip and the Leafs don’t win a Cup again until his body is found
The difference between wrestling and other sports is that where other sports are content to wait for these great stories; these great myths to simply happen, wrestling goes out in search of them, harnessing the narrative power of story-telling to the dramatic potential of sport.
Living in Montreal, a sports fan has an abundance of myths to choose from. The career of Maurice “Rocket” Richard alone has more myths associated with it than most sports franchises can boast. For sports fans of my generation, however, there are two games, two myths that loom above all others. Two games which influence not just how we react to sport; but how we react to wrestlers - who we cheer for and why.
(Or I may just be speaking for myself here.)
The first game is referred to by many as “The Greatest Hockey Game Ever Played.” Ironically it was a “meaningless” exhibition game, and while it may be the most important game ever played by the Montreal Canadians - the first step towards four straight Stanley Cups - the game itself finished in a tie. Montreal Canadians fans refer to it simply as the “New Year’s Eve Game.”
The second game is the most heart-breaking moment in the history of the Montreal Expos franchise. (Now hiding out under a witness protection program in Washington, D.C.) Again, ironically, it is also in a way the moment of greatest triumph for the team; the high water mark for the franchise; the closest that the Expos ever got to the World Series. Montreal fans refer to this game and this day simply as “Blue Monday.”
The New Year’s Eve Game Wednesday, December 31, 1975
In 1972, a team of Soviet All-Stars took on a team of Canadian All-Stars in the famous Summit Series, playing first four games in North America and then four games in the Soviet Union. The Soviets shocked Canadians and professional hockey by winning the first game handily and leaving North America with a 2-1-1 series lead. The Soviets won the fifth game back... back in the U.S.S.R. which left Team Canada with the unenviable task of having to win the last three games of the series in the Soviet Union to win the series. Years before Rocky felled Ivan Drago, Phil Esposito and an unlikely hero named Paul Henderson rallied the Canadian team and accomplished the impossible.
Before the Summit Series, Canadians smugly assumed that they had the best hockey players in the world. The Soviets strangle hold on Olympic hockey was the result of the exclusion of professional hockey players from the Olympic tournament. Even as Canadians celebrated their victory in the Summit Series, our confidence in our hockey abilities as a nation took a dramatic hit. The victory took too much effort for us to ever underestimate the Soviets again.
In 1975, the Soviets came back to North America, this time bringing not an all-star team, but two clubs roughly the equivalent of a NHL team: Krilya Sovetov aka the Wings of the Soviet (with five players added from Moscow Spartak) and the Moscow Central Red Army team (with two players added from Moscow Dynamo.) The Wings of the Soviet were a good team. The Central Red Army team, on the other hand, were monsters.
The key to understanding the Red Army team was that in the Soviet Union, what the Red Army wanted, the Red Army got. As a result, the core of the Soviet national team was the Central Red Army team. The team included the best goaltender in the world in Vladislav Tretiak, possibly its best player in Valeri Kharlamov and the intense genius of its coach Anatoly Tarasov.
They were scheduled to face the most successful team in NHL history, the Montreal Canadians, on New Year’s Eve. The game was the very first hockey game that I ever saw on television and is commonly referred to by people who saw it as the best hockey game ever played. It was a total clash of styles with the Canadians using clean but rugged fore-checking to slow the Soviets down, while trying to score on Tretiak by peppering him with shots and pouncing on rebounds. The Soviets, in turn, relied on their speed and played a puck control game trying to pull Ken Dryden out of position to more easily score. As a result, Dryden only faced 13 shots, but all of them were great scoring opportunities, while Tretiak faced 38 shots but most of them were harmless.
The game finished in a 3-3 tie.
Eleven days later, the Central Red Army team faced the two-time and defending Stanley Cup champions, the Philadelphia Flyers. The “Broad Street Bullies” pulled out all the stops, bringing in their good luck charm Kate Smith to sing “God Bless America”. Then to hedge their bets, Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe tried to take Valeri Kharlamov’s head off with a vicious elbow. The Soviets left the ice and when they were coaxed to return, sulked their way through the game... losing 4-1.
The Flyers won their game; the Canadians merely tied. One would think that the Flyers had proved that they were the best team in the NHL and by extension the best team in the world. The Flyers, whose team concept was built on a team of fighters who happened to play hockey - led by the grinning, toothless assassin Bobby Clarke - beat the Red Army the same way that they won two Stanley Cups: by pummeling their opponents down until they couldn’t get back up any more.
And yet, the team that swaggered out of the exhibition series convinced of its own greatness was the Montreal Canadians. The Habs knew that they could fight the Flyers on their own terms, no team with Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey and Serge Savard on it was going to knuckle under and go quietly. But now they also knew that they could play the best hockey team in the world on its own terms - without cheating - and battle them to a draw. The key to the Montreal Canadians dynasty that was just starting to roll was the arrogance of the team.
One of the striking elements of the NHL of the time was that teams had personalities. The Islanders were the hard-working blue collar team; the Bruins were the hard luck team; the Flyers were brawlers; the Canadians were the arrogant aristocrats. In wrestling terms, it might be easy to refer to the Flyers as heels. The truth was though that while they cheerfully referred to themselves as Bullies, the Flyers had too much fun beating people up to be villains. The top heels of the NHL were the Canadians.
The entire Montreal Canadians team practiced a form of psychologial warfare on the league - from Pierre Mondou (when he joined the team in 1977) referring to himself as the fourth best center of the league which meant on the Canadians that he played on the third line; from Steve Shutt joking that he preferred it when Guy Lafleur was having an off day because that way Shutt could score more goals on Lafleur’s rebounds; from Ken Dryden complaining that he found it difficult to concentrate on his goal-tending because his defence was so good that he didn’t get enough shots on him to stay sharp. In fact, Dryden’s famous pose was to rest his chin on his goalie stick in a posture that screamed: “I’M BORED!”
But nowhere was the Montreal Canadians power of creating their own myths so evident than the myth of Larry Robinson. Called “Big Bird” because of his size and his bushy hair, Robinson was known as a ferocious fighter, but he was rarely challenged partly because he scared the crap out of other players and partly because Robinson could knock you out with a clean check and as a result didn’t need to play dirty. The NHL myth of Larry Robinson was that you didn’t dare piss Robinson off, because a calm Robinson could bury you, but a pissed off Robinson could destroy an entire team. This lead to perhaps the funniest and most triumphant moment in Robinson’s career when in 1986, during the playoffs Boston Bruin Louis Sleigher elbowed Robinson in the head and the entire Bruins bench visibly froze. Robinson picked himself up, single-handedly decimated the demoralized Bruins and then led the Canadians to a Stanley Cup victory.
The truth of the Robinson myth was that when other teams refrained from playing Robinson physically, he roamed unchecked on the point, anchoring one of the most dangerous scoring units in hockey. When they did play the body on them, he used the contact to motivate himself. But, like with the Bruins, the myth of Robinson was so powerful that most teams were beaten before Big Bird even had to throw the first check.
In much the same way that Ric Flair won most of his matches before he ever set foot in the ring, so too did the Montreal Canadians. They taught me the virtue of excellence; they taught me the value of arrogance; they taught me to cheer for technical heels.
Blue Monday Monday, Oct. 19, 1981
One of the ironies that doomed the Expos is that they had their best success during seasons cut short by strikes. In 1994, they had the best record in baseball when the season was cancelled. In 1981, the Expos after years of coming close finally won the National League East, beating the Philadelphia Phillies.
Because in 1981 the strike came in the middle of the season, the season was divided in half with the best team from the first half squaring off against the best team from the second half. The Phillies won the first half, the Expos the second. The team that won the most games in the National League East that year was actually the St. Louis Cardinals, but they had to watch from the sidelines.
After beating the Phillies in a five game series, the Expos moved on to face the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were old; the Expos young - a dynamic only emphasized by the fact that before the Expos were added to the league in 1969, the Montreal Triple AAA franchise, the Montreal Royals, was the Dodgers’ farm team. It was partly as a result of that connection that Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner, threw his support behind the Montreal bid for a team in 1969. In many ways, the relationship, the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Expos was that between a parent and a teenage child: fractious but affectionate.
(In fact, what could be described as the proudest moment in the Dodgers franchise - the breaking of the colour barrier - is a piece of history shared with Montreal. It was on the Royals where Jackie Robinson first played professional baseball. To this day, Jackie’s widow considers Montreal her second home. It was famously said of Montreal and Jackie Robinson after he helped the Royals win the pennant that it was the first time in the history of race relations that a crowd of white people chased a black man intent on lifting him on their shoulders rather than stretching his neck.)
The Dodgers and the Expos traded leads in the five game series. It came down to game five, postponed from Sunday to Monday after Montreal Expos manager Jim Fanning used a fake weather report to postpone the game a day and give his veteran starter Ray Burris an extra day of rest to give him the best chance of beating uber-rookie Fernando Valenzuela.
Fanning, the long-time head of the Expos extremely successful farm system, was brought in to replace Dick Williams late in the 1981 season. His big strength as a manager was that he knew all the players and they knew him; the affection and the trust was mutual. But where Fanning could motivate his players to perform to what he knew was their best, he was not necessarily the best baseball tactician.
Fanning made two fateful decisions that doomed the Expos trip to the World Series. With the game tied at 1-1 and one out, and no one on in the bottom of the eighth, Fanning yanked Burris to unsuccessfully pinch hit with the young Tim Wallach. This forced Fanning to go to his shaky and exhausted bullpen. Burris had pitched a strong game and showed no signs of tiring. With Jeff Reardon available, Fanning called for the Expos ace starter Steve Rogers.
This was not as bone-headed a decision as it might appear at first blush. Rogers had a small but successful history as a reliever. And Jeff Reardon, while he was the Expos closer was not yet a super-star fireman. Not to mention that Reardon was suffering from a bad back.
Rogers got two quick outs, before Dodgers bench player Rick Monday came to the plate and lifted a harmless looking outfield fly that just kept carrying and carrying and carrying... over the head of a helpless Andre Dawson and into the right field bleachers...
And in Montreal, across Canada, but especially for me in East Dover, Nova Scotia, the anguished wailing of a thousand, a million Canadian baseball fans howled into the sky. The heartbreak continued as “Le Kid” Gary Carter blasted two monstrous foul balls, but unlike Fisk, Carter couldn’t convince the ball to curl fair. The Dodgers walked the baby face Carter and closed out the game to go on to the World Series.
The Expos are the only sports team ever to break my heart. That was neither the first nor the last time that the Expos did so. In 1979, they came within two games of winning the pennant. In 1980, they lost the pennant on the last day. In wrestling terms, the Expos were always chasing the title, but never could quite win it.
Hearts and Minds
Because of the Montreal Canadians and the New Year’s Eve Game, I believe in psychology and I cheer for technical heels. In my mind, there can be no doubt that at WrestleMania XXII, the greatest technical heel of his generation, Kurt Angle, will successfully defend his World title beating Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio Jr.
Because of the Montreal Expos and Blue Monday, I believe in the fiery baby face hero chasing the title. In my heart, I know that only one man can possibly win the World title at WrestleMania XXII: Rey Mysterio Jr.
Wait a minute...
I think my heart has just decided to take my brain out to the woodshed and beat it silly.