Originally published on Torontoist on September 9, 2008.
Scene, September 20-26, 1970.
If Baikal was “the Bobby Orr of the bruin hockey world,” we hope that the bear’s knees were sturdier than the hall-of-famer’s. The results of two years of hockey drills for Baikal and nearly a dozen other bears were on display for Canadian audiences in the fall of 1970, when a Moscow Circus tour provided a slight thaw in Cold War relations.
The tour got off to a rocky start in Montreal after two trapeze artists hung helplessly for more than 10 minutes when a rope ladder became entangled around a swing and caused the acrobats to lose their footing. When the troupe arrived in Toronto, a photo call with three bears roped in Maple Leafs defenseman Jim Dorey and goalie Jacques Plante. Besides their prowess with the puck, the bears showed off their soccer, ballet, and tango skills.
The circus engagement forced the Leafs to go on an extended road trip to wind down their exhibition schedule. The team’s regular season started in Vancouver, where the Canucks earned their first NHL victory in a 5-3 match.
Reviewing opening night for the Star, Jim Proudfoot observed a less-than-enthusiastic crowd of 5,000, whose frosty reaction was attributed to the attempt to cross traditional circus acts and the Ice Capades.
As long as the Muscovites are doing their own thing they’re just marvelous. Their acrobats, their unicyclists, their trampoline athletes, their jugglers, all are magnificent. But they would be just as magnificent without skates. It is when the Russians attempt such things as production numbers and pairs and singles, just like they must have seem in some mediocre touring revue, that they fall absolutely flat. The comedy numbers are an example. Perhaps the audiences would be convulsed in Omsk or Minsk but in Toronto they were bored, or what is even worse, annoyed. One reservation must be made: the girls are gorgeous and sparkling and admirably energetic, and when they return the customers’ applause in the finale, beaming with genuine pleasure, they succeed where so many diplomats have failed. They make us love Russia.
Proudfoot was also impressed by the bears, who looked “no more disorganized than the Leafs on a bad night. They scored three goals, which doesn’t always happen on hockey night at the Gardens.”
Moscow-based circus acts returned to Toronto later in the decade. A planned appearance in October 1983 was cancelled by Gardens owner Harold Ballard after a Korean airliner that carried several Canadian passengers was shot down by the Soviets. Other cities followed Pal Hal’s lead and the circus tour was quickly scrapped, though the performers had an extended layover in Halifax when Aeroflot flights to Canada were suspended.
Besides joining the international condemnation of the Soviets after the airliner incident, Ballard may not have wanted to have been shown up by hockey-playing bears who may have exhibited stronger stickhandling than the Leafs of the early 1980s.
Additional material from the October 7, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star.