News

1972 Hockey Summit: 50 years ago a single goal brought Canadians together in a moment of perfect joy


The hockey contest, to many, was a symbolic battle between rival political systems that had been vying for global dominance since the end of the Second World War

Article content

Sept. 2 will mark the 50th anniversary of the start of what is widely seen as the greatest event ever in Canadian sports: the 1972 Summit Series between this country’s finest hockey players and the Soviet Union’s national team.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Never before had Canada’s best professionals (minus an injured Bobby Orr) played against Team U.S.S.R. — perennial world champion in tournaments where the Soviets faced only Canada’s elite amateurs.

Article content

But the Summit Series was not just a showcase sporting event. It was also a transformative moment for the game of hockey itself, a landmark achievement in Cold War diplomacy, and a jarring but ultimately joyous experience for the Canadian psyche.

The country’s historic dominance on the ice — in a sport born in Canada and deeply woven into the fabric of its national identity — was boldly challenged by a surprisingly skilled Soviet squad playing in a dynamic, fluid, creative style that was destined to revolutionize North American hockey.

Advertisement 3

Article content

A half-century later, millions of Canadians who sweated through that stressful but ultimately sweet September still remember exactly where they were when they watched Paul Henderson score The Goal for the ages on grainy black-and-white TV sets.

Phil Esposito, No. 7, and Yvan Cournoyer hug Paul Henderson, centre, after he scored the series-winning goal.
Phil Esposito, No. 7, and Yvan Cournoyer hug Paul Henderson, centre, after he scored the series-winning goal. Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

For the two of us, the magic unfolded in a downtown Montreal yarn and fabric store and a small-town Ontario public school gym.

But time has marched on, and a Leger survey of more than 1,500 Canadians — conducted in August for the Association for Canadian Studies — found that only 42 per cent of respondents were familiar with the ’72 Summit Series.

Although a majority of those over 55 (58 per cent) said they knew about the Canada-Soviet showdown, fewer than one in four Canadians under 35 (23 per cent) had heard about it.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Among those familiar with the event, the most vivid memory — cited by 26 per cent of respondents — was Henderson’s decisive Game 8 goal, scored with just 34 seconds left out of 480 total minutes of play in the series. The moment was immortalized in Toronto Star photographer Frank Lennon’s iconic picture of Henderson getting hugged by teammate Yvan Cournoyer, and in play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt’s euphoric call: “Henderson has scored for Canada!!”

The Canada-Soviet series took place in a polarized world where only the prospect of mutual annihilation kept rival nuclear powers from unleashing the ultimate hellfire on each other. The hockey contest, to many, was a symbolic battle between rival political systems — the Communist East Bloc and the Democratic West — that had been vying for global dominance since the end of the Second World War.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Did the players who suited up for the games see it in such epic, existential terms?

“To me, it was war,” Team Canada’s co-captain and top scorer in the series, Phil Esposito, recalled in a 1989 interview. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I think I would have killed to win.”

Canada’s Phil Esposito (7) in action against the Soviet Union’s Yuri Blinov (9) and Boris Mikhailov (13) at Luzhniki Ice Palace for Game 5.
Canada’s Phil Esposito (7) in action against the Soviet Union’s Yuri Blinov (9) and Boris Mikhailov (13) at Luzhniki Ice Palace for Game 5. Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

For Canada, where a deepening French-English divide was threatening to split the country apart after the 1970 October Crisis, the series could be seen as a conciliatory coming together of top NHL stars on a bilingual, bicultural dream team — Esposito, Henderson, Bobby Clarke and Ken Dryden playing alongside Cournoyer, Jean Ratelle, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard.

There would be eight games played over 27 days — the first four in Canada (in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver), the final four at Moscow’s Luzhniki Palace of Sports.

Advertisement 6

Article content

Canada’s shocking 7-3 loss in Game 1 hit the country like a bomb. The home team jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, and pre-series predictions of a Canadian sweep seemed, at least momentarily, prescient. But the Soviets steadily took control of the action at the fabled Montreal Forum, evening the score and then moving ahead for good on a brilliant rush by the visitors’ dazzling young left-winger, Valeri Kharlamov.

Watching the game on YouTube five decades later, and knowing how badly Team Canada would wind up outmatched in the first half of the series, it’s clear that Kharlamov’s pretty goal — the explosive dash around sprawling, beaten defenceman Don Awrey, the quick shot past an off-balance Dryden — marks the moment when Canada collectively gasped at what was happening.

Advertisement 7

Article content

It was a serious blow to national pride. Perhaps we weren’t the best after all.

The series provided unrelenting drama from start to finish, with an increasingly desperate Team Canada forced to claw its way back from a stunning 3-1-1 deficit after the first five games. The Game 4 loss to the Soviets in Vancouver, which left frustrated fans booing the Canadian players as they left the ice, prompted a famously heartfelt, anguished response from Esposito in a nationally televised post-game interview.

“To the people across Canada — we tried. We gave it our best. And to the people that boo us … Geez, I’m really — all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned, and we’re disappointed …” Esposito said. “We know, we’re trying like hell. I mean, we’re doing the best we can, and they got a good team. Let’s face facts.”

Advertisement 8

Article content

Nonetheless, Canadian fans made important efforts to boost player morale. Some 3,000 Canadians travelled to Moscow to cheer on Team Canada. They occasionally put Canadian patriotism on display and in Game 5
offered a somewhat less than diplomatic outburst by collectively chanting “Da, da, Canada. Nyet, nyet, Soviet.”

The Team Canada bench celebrates after winning Game 5 of the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union on September 22, 1972 at the Luzhniki Ice Palace, Moscow, USSR. Players visible include. from left, Serge Savard #23, Bobby Clarke #28, Paul Henderson #19 (in helmet), as well as General Manager John Ferguson (in blue blazer) and Jean Ratelle #18.
The Team Canada bench celebrates after winning Game 5 of the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union on September 22, 1972 at the Luzhniki Ice Palace, Moscow, USSR. Players visible include. from left, Serge Savard #23, Bobby Clarke #28, Paul Henderson #19 (in helmet), as well as General Manager John Ferguson (in blue blazer) and Jean Ratelle #18. Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

The loss in that game set the stage for a string of heart-stopping Team Canada triumphs in Games 6, 7 and 8, capped by the most famous last-minute, come-from-behind winning goal in the annals of hockey history — Henderson’s flailing, double-clutch puck-whack past the U.S.S.R.’s magnificent goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak. It was Henderson’s third straight game winner in three must-win games for Canada.

Advertisement 9

Article content

No one had predicted how good the Soviets would be, and a generation of Canadian hockey fans came to know the names and talents of Russian stars Kharlamov, Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov — and, of course, Tretiak.
The series opened the NHL’s eyes to the speed and skill of European players, to their superior conditioning, strategizing and team play — even if Canada’s narrowest of victories at the 11th hour validated some fans’ belief that our guys had more grit, more courage and a greater will to win.

Clarke’s infamous two-handed slash across Kharlamov’s ankle in Game 6, which essentially knocked the Russian star out of the series, has been debated endlessly — a stroke of genius to neutralize a player who “was killing us,” in the words of Team Canada assistant coach John Ferguson, or an act of pure thuggery emblematic of the brutality at the heart of Canadian hockey?

Advertisement 10

Article content

Beyond debate was the fact that the Summit Series was the dawn of an exciting new era in international hockey, the precursor tournament of decades of thrilling battles to come for Olympic, Canada Cup, World Junior and Women’s World supremacy. Daryl Sittler’s overtime winner in the ’76 Canada Cup, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky’s unforgettable give-and-go gem in the ’87 Canada Cup, Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the 2010 Olympics, Marie-Philip Poulin’s astounding hat trick of Winter Games winners in 2010, 2014 and 2022 — all were echoes of Henderson’s heroics in ’72.

But the 50th anniversary of the Summit Series has arrived at a deeply troubling time for Canadian hockey, with its national governing body embroiled in scandal over historical sexual assault cases and millions of dollars in previously undisclosed payouts. The fledgling Hockey Canada, only founded in 1968, had been a key player in organizing the ’72 series.

Advertisement 11

Article content

Meanwhile, Russia’s reprehensible invasion of Ukraine this year — including undeniable war crimes and nuclear threats recalling the darkest days of the Cold War — has left it in diplomatic deep-freeze with Canada and a virtual pariah state in the international arena.

The thawing of relations that the Summit Series represented in 1972 — which took place the year after historic visits to each other’s countries by then-Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin and Canada’s then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau — seems like a distant memory today.

Russia’s indefensible war has set bilateral relations back decades, with Ottawa blacklisting hundreds of senior Russian officials this year and, in turn, Moscow blacklisting hundreds of Canadian citizens — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A recent Leger survey for ACS revealed that nine in 10 Canadians now hold a negative opinion of Russia. The attack on Ukraine has scuttled proposed 50th anniversary commemorations of the ’72 series, including a planned “Hockey Friendship Tour” across Canada, and has left the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation — Vladislav Tretiak, as it happens — fighting to overturn bans on his country’s national teams from international competition.

Among the few ways the milestone anniversary will be marked is with the publication of a new book from Tretiak’s rival goaltender in 1972: Dryden’s The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now.

Advertisement 12

Article content

Billed as a day-by-day account of not only “the most important moment in hockey history,” but also “one of the most significant events in all of Canada’s history,” the book by the legendary Montreal Canadiens’ goalie — a six-time Stanley Cup winner, lawyer, former Member of Parliament and eight-time author — goes on sale next week, its contents under wraps until then.

But in a 2003 essay, published in the 20th anniversary edition of his 1983 bestseller The Game, Dryden reflected on how the Soviet-Canada series kick-started a worldwide reshaping of hockey, a process that accelerated dramatically in the late 1970s when Wayne Gretzky, “the kid from Brantford with the Belarusian name,” adopted much of the Soviet style of play.

Advertisement 13

Article content

“In the 1972 series, we dominated those parts of the game to which our style had moved — the corners, the boards, the fronts of both nets, body play, stick play, faceoffs, intimidation, distance shooting, emotion,” Dryden wrote. “In the end, it was enough. But disturbingly, the Soviets had been better in the traditional skills — passing, open ice play, team play, quickness, finishing around the net.”

Fifty years on, the Leger poll shows that many Canadians remain convinced their country’s players are better than the Russians. While 41 per cent of respondents had no opinion and 29 per cent said players from the two countries are equally skilled, just three per cent said the Russians were better compared with 26 per cent who saw Canadian players as best.

Advertisement 14

Article content

Henderson, interviewed on the 40th anniversary of the series in 2012, wasn’t so sure. “I must admit that I hated the way the Russians played,” he said in a Q & A published by the ACS, but “no other team had such an effective transition game, and their passing was flawless.”

Doubts have endured since 1972 about the superiority of Canadian hockey players and the Canadian way of playing. But the Summit Series left no doubt about the capacity of the national winter sport to bring Canadians together. More than 16 million citizens out of a population of 22 million Canadians at the time are believed to have been watching (with the two of us) when Henderson poked the puck over the goal-line and secured his future fame on posters, postage stamps and coins.

Advertisement 15

Article content

Work stopped. School stopped. And across the country, differences of culture, language, region and politics were set aside as Canadians gathered to share a moment of pure elation.

Jack Jedwab is the president and CEO of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies.

Randy Boswell is an Ottawa writer and professor of journalism at Carleton University.

Advertisement

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.