When Sherwood “Sherry” Bassin found out he would be leading the Canadian national junior hockey team into the Soviet Union for the 1983 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships as the team’s general manager, he saw a chance to do something for the Soviet Jewish community.
While religious practice was tolerated in the U.S.S.R. at the time, a combination of travel restrictions and state crackdowns on Jewish schools and printing houses had made life difficult for Soviet Jews.
“I knew the restraints that had been put on the U.S.S.R. then, around religion and specifically for Jews,” Bassin recalled. He had heard from a Jewish advocacy group in Toronto that synagogues in the Soviet Union were in desperate need of prayer books and tallitot.
The summer before the tournament, he approached the head coach and a few players on the team with a brazen plan. Would they help him bring prayer books and shawls into Russia? “I started talking to a few guys and they said, ‘let’s have a talk about it,’” Bassin said. Ultimately, the team elected to bring the items with them.
Bassin, a descendant of Ukrainian Jews, bought a few dozen siddurim and tallitot from a Judaica store on Bathurst Street in Toronto and distributed them to his players. “We had them in their hockey bags,” Bassin said.
Future NHL all-stars Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, and Dave Andreychuk went to Russia with a tallit and a siddur in their bags. “They understood what was going on there for Jews,” Bassin said of his players, “but they did it more as a favour to me.”
Bassin had been instrumental in building Canada’s national junior team. The previous year, as head coach, he’d led them to gold, ending a 10-year medal drought. Bassin thinks he got the go-ahead from the Canadian Hockey Association for his smuggling plan thanks to that winning record. “I talked to the vice-president of the CHA,” he said, “and they just shrugged their shoulders.”
It was only on the train into Leningrad, the host city, that Bassin started to feel a little nervous. At the border checkpoint, two soldiers and an officer boarded the train demanding to know what the team was carrying. Bassin’s copies of Time and Newsweek were confiscated immediately. “I was sure this was going to cause an international incident,” he said. Nobody looked in the hockey bags.
But then the team learned that all their luggage, including those hockey bags, was going to be held by the authorities. Bassin and his players were trundled off to their hotel. When a tournament organizer approached Bassin later that day asking for a team lineup for the program, he took it as a chance to get the stuff back – “it’s with our equipment,” he replied. (One of Bassin’s assistants almost ruined the ruse, interjecting with “I’ve got a lineup.” Bassin shut him up, fast.)
On orders from the deputy mayor of Leningrad, the bags were released. “The building had this gravel floor,” he said, “with one light bulb and all our stuff was in there. It was cold, late at night, but, we got our stuff.”
Back at the hotel, Bassin collected the shawls and prayer books into a big cardboard box. He ordered a cab to the Great Choral Synagogue, Leningrad’s only shul, but the driver refused to drop him off at the door. Bassin had to shlep the big box of Jewish contraband down the narrow sidewalk of Lermontovskiy Prospekt to the synagogue.
“I walked up the steps and everyone was alarmed when they saw me,” Bassin says. “They didn’t know if I was a KGB agent or what.”
“I saw there were three or four people sharing a siddur,” he recalls. Bassin explained that he was a Canadian Jew in town with Team Canada. The men had no idea what he had in the box. “I opened it and they saw,” he said. “I still, to this day, remember their eyes.”
Bassin stayed in the synagogue for the afternoon service, “when I left they all followed me to the door, they couldn’t thank me enough,” he said. “Then I walked a block and hailed a cab.
“It was an easier walk because I didn’t have the box to carry.”
As for the tournament, Team Canada ended up finishing in third place behind their hosts and Czechoslovakia.