Revisiting the 1972 Summit Series
In the fall of 1972, the Soviet Union and Canada faced off in a series of eight games ostensibly to thaw the Cold War.
It did the opposite heating up tensions between the two hockey superpowers to a point that had never been seen before or since. In the end, all most Canadians today remember today is Paul Henderson's immortal goal in the dying minutes of game eight to win the series for our nation, however, there is more to the story.
On Sept. 28, the 45th anniversary of Canada's game eight victory in Moscow, Algonquin College's Speaker Series hosted Roy MacSkimming, the author of “Cold War,” one of the most profound accounts of the 1972 Summit Series ever written. Since the 1950s, the Soviets were dominating the Olympics and IIHF World Championships and felt they had nothing left to prove. There was a desire, however, to take on Canada's top hockey players, all of whom played professionally for the NHL. After a series of low-level diplomatic discussions, the Summit Series was devised with the Soviets sending their national squad against the all-pro “Team Canada.”
“There was a feeling that if we could beat the Soviets on the ice, we would prove our superiority,” said the Ottawa-based books editor and literary columnist who has also penned an unauthorized biography of Gordie Howe. “Not only would it be a hockey victory, but a political victory as well.”
The legendary radio broadcaster Foster Hewitt came out of retirement to call the series, while Team Canada had recruited a 35-member squad of elite NHL players with the exception of Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr. The reigning Stanley-Cup winner Harry Sinden was named head coach and John Ferguson was named his assistant. As MacSkimming put it, the series represented the fantasies of every Canadian hockey fan.
Moderated by Jamie Bramburger, manager of student and community affairs, the audience learned that the general consensus was that Team Canada would win the series in a cake walk. During the discussion, key moments from the games' televised broadcasts were shown on two large screens. Among those in the audience were members of the Pembroke Lumber Kings, who had just finished practice but wished to learn more about the heritage of their game.
The first four games would be in Canada before the series shifted to Moscow. When the opening game was played at the Montreal Forum, Canada took a two-goal lead early, however, the players were not in the same physical shape as their Russian opponents. The Soviets ended up taking game one 7-3.
“Canada was stunned,” explained MacSkimming. “It was seen as an embarrassment, a national tragedy. People couldn't believe it. The Soviets had outplayed the best of the NHL. “The Soviet team was so much better than anyone realized.”
Canada secured a 4-1 win in the second game at Maple Leaf Gardens to tie the series but it was to be their only victory on Canadian soil. In game three, Canada blew a 4-2 lead to allow the Soviets to end the match in a 4-4 tie. The Soviets then took game four in Vancouver 5-2. Team Canada was literally booed off the ice.
Before going to Moscow, where the last four games would be played, the Canadians played some exhibition games in Sweden. That is where they bonded together as a team. In Moscow, things heated up on and off the ice. Montreal Canadiens winger Frank Mahovlich, himself the son of Croatian immigrants, was convinced the KGB, the Soviet espionage agency, had bugged his hotel room.
In that first game on Russian soil, the Soviets won 5-4. Canada had a 4-1 lead by the early third period but their opponents launched a counter offensive that resulted in four unanswered goals in six minutes. After the loss, four Canadian players left the team. But Team Canada wasn't about to give up, nor were their fans. Some 3,000 flew to Moscow and bought tickets. In the arena, they sat together waving Canada flags, cheering loudly and ringing bells.
“It was the Russian custom to watch quietly,” added MacSkimming. “The Soviets couldn't believe the way these Canadians behaved. The Canadians were such fanatical fans.”
The Canadians fought back to tie the series with victories in game six (3-2) and game seven (4-3). In both instances, Henderson, a winger with the Maple Leafs, scored the game winner but MacSkimming revealled he wasn't even suppose to be on the ice. In the previous game, he suffered a concussion when he was tripped into the boards and knocked unconscious. Doctors told a heartbroken Henderson he shouldn't play anymore but Sinden allowed him to continue.
“He was tremendously optimistic,” said MacSkimming. “He had this spirit.”
On Sept. 28, 1972, the last game was watched intently by the largest Canadian television audience on record. It began with two quick Soviet goals and the ejection of a Canadian player. The Soviets led 5-3 at the end of the second period, however, team captain Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer tied the game.
“There was no panic or hysteria in the locker room,” MacSkimming recounted as Canada faced that 5-3 deficit. “Henderson was convinced and so was Esposito that they could still do it.”
Then Henderson scored the most famous goal in hockey history, with only 34 seconds remaining, to win the series for Canada. Bramburger called the goal “one for the ages.” MacSkimming said the series stands as a significant event in our history.
“This series really changed hockey,” he added. “It opened up the NHL to international players.”