By Stu Hackel
Friday, Sept. 28 marks the 40th Anniversary of Game 8, the final contest of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet National team, the culmination of a monumental event of historic proportions not just for one sport, or all sports, but the world.
In the midst of the Cold War, it was hockey, among the team sports, that first broke down the barriers between the world’s two dominant socioeconomic systems and allowed the very best professional athletes on either side to compete against each other. The Summit Series was seen by many people as something much larger than a test of supremacy between two contrasting styles of play — the Russians’ fluid skating and intricate, weaving, puck possession vs. Canada’s basic, hard-charging up-and-down-the ice approach. The tournament was expected to help reveal which way of life was better. In retrospect, this may seem like a screwy perspective, but that’s how almost everyone thought 40 years ago. Many certainly felt that way eight years later when a bunch of American college students defeated an even stronger Soviet team at the Lake Placid Olympics.
But unlike that Miracle on Ice, the ’72 Summit Series gets little recognition in the United States. Friday will pass without much notice as sports fans focus on the referees returning to the NFL, the wind-down of baseball’s regular season and the weekend’s college football schedule. Not so in Canada, where people who lived through the series often draw parallels to Americans who still recall exactly where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Those Canadians remember where they were when Paul Henderson scored in Game 8, his third consecutive game-winner.
The ’72 Summit Series is easily the most famous international sporting event in Canada’s history and, because of the way it united the country — if only in front of TV sets while providing a common memory — a major cultural touchstone.
This is where the legend of Canadian “character” was born as the team assembled by NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson and coach Harry Sinden battled back from a 1-3-1 deficit to win the last three games at Moscow’s Luzhniki Ice Palace. The opening 7-2 Soviet triumph in Montreal was a national disaster. All the pre-series talk wondered if the Soviets would even win one of the eight, but the myth blew up quickly, especially when the Soviets’ team speed made the NHLers appear to be standing still. No one typified that more than star winger Valeri Kharlamov, who made Don Awrey look awful early in Game 1.
After the first leg of the series — four games played in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver – Sports Illustrated’s Mark Mulvoy wrote, “All right, Comrades, who’s next? The Dallas Cowboys? The Los Angeles Lakers? The Pittsburgh Pirates? Before some Russian out-drives Jack Nicklaus using a nine-iron, maybe Gary Powers and his U-2 ought to come back and find out just what the Soviets really are plotting behind all those 18-foot fences in Siberia. ‘I’m ready to believe anything,’ Montreal’s Frank Mahovlich said last week. ‘After seeing what the Russian hockey players did to us at our game, I’m afraid nothing in sport is sacred anymore.’
“It is Russia’s game now,” Mulvoy continued, “after the most sobering week in Canadian sports history. In just seven days the Russians destroyed the 100-year myth of Canadian hockey superiority and the 50-year legend of National Hockey League invincibility.”
With some fans booing Team Canada as it lost Game 4 in Vancouver, Phil Esposito’s postgame interview by Johnny Esaw reflected some dashed Canadian hubris, but hinted at the resiliency to follow.
Espo’s belief that this was not a simple hockey series but “a war” imbued Team Canada’s thinking. It helped the Canadians elevate their game, in some instances perhaps too far as Bobby Clarke, unprovoked, broke Kharlamov’s ankle in Game 6, the single act that changed the course of the series.
After effectively eliminating the Soviets’ best forward from the series (Kharlamov missed only Game 7, but he was no longer effective when he played), Canada didn’t lose another game. There were many reasons for that beside Clarke’s two-hander: Canada’s goaltending led by Ken Dryden, physical play, penalty killing, clutch scoring and just plain determination.
But, minus an effective Kharlamov, the Soviets were not the same after the slash. The had not encountered anything like it while playing domestically or internationally in Europe or against North American amateurs in the Olympics. But not everyone in Canada was pleased with what Clarke did, including Henderson who, interviewed on the 30th anniversary, told a reporter it was “the low point of the series.”
The criticism stung Clarke, who wondered why his teammate didn’t object three decades earlier. Henderson apologized. In his new book, The Goal Of My Life, Henderson explains that the reporter blindsided him with the question and took the answer out of context. He writes now, in retrospect, what Clarke did isn’t how he’d hope players would behave today, but “it was a different era and there was a different philosophy. We all supported Bobby; we all wanted to win that much.”
Win they did, but it can’t truly be said the Soviets lost. Prior to the start of the series, few gave them a chance to win any games at all and by the end, they were regarded as a world hockey power that Canada had to take very seriously. Some believe the outcome might have been less close if Team Canada had the services of Bobby Orr, who was injured, and Bobby Hull, who was not allowed to play since he had jumped to the WHA. Of course, Canada might not have won at all had Kharlamov been 100 percent for the final three games.
Two years later, when a team of World Hockey Association All-Stars led by Hull and Henderson (plus ’72 Team Canada vets Pat Stapleton and Frank Mahovlich) met the Soviets, the result was far different. The Soviets won four and tied three of the eight games and confirmed their mastery of the sport.
The Summit Series changed the sport forever. It opened eyes on both sides of the Atlantic about different ways to play the game. North American coaches –from Scotty Bowman to Fred Shero to Herb Brooks and beyond — began to study the Soviets style and adopt its tactics. The Soviets and other European hockey nations began to adjust their games as well, becoming more physical over time. Differences between European and North American hockey still exist, but much of that is a function of the size of ice surfaces, which make the European game more about puck possession. Still, when the best European players come to North America, adjusting to the game on the smaller sheet isn’t much of a problem.
For weeks, the eight games in 1972 have been discussed, rehashed, replayed and celebrated in hockey circles, mostly in Canada, of course. On Wednesday night, TSN showed Game 8 in its entirety and sister channel, ESPN classic, will show it again on Friday evening. The Globe and Mail has this terrific archive of stories from the series.
In The Montreal Gazette, Red Fisher (who covered the series) has regularly been sharing his memories game-by-game and reflecting on the events of those 28 days.
On NHL.com, John Kreiser has been recounting the events as well.
In the SI Vault, besides the Mark Mulvoy story above on the first four games of the series, there’s also his piece on Games 5 and 6 and another covering Games 7 and 8 in which he quoted the Maple Leafs’ blustery but supportive owner, Harold Ballard, as saying, “Henderson saved Canada and the NHL. When we get back home I’m going to renegotiate his contract and give him at least another $25,000. That’s a cheap price to pay for what Henderson did, believe me.”
In March 1973, Ken Dryden collaborated with Mulvoy on a diary-style SI piece about the events of the series.
The two also collaborated on a book, Faceoff At The Summit, that not only reflected on the series and Canada’s team, it was the first book to examine Soviet hockey and its training methods. It was also among the first of many written on the Summit Series. Sinden wrote one, too, Hockey Showdown.
Books continue to be published on the series, with this year’s crop tied to the 40th Anniversary. There’s Henderson’s book, which is about much more than his most famous achievement.
There’s a great oral history told by the players themselves to hockey historian Andrew Podneiks called Team Canada 1972.
And my friend Dave Bidini, the writer and musician (and recreational hockey player) who wrote one of the best hockey books ever in The Tropic of Hockey, has a wonderful little collection of reminiscences about Game 8 by an interesting cross-section of Canadians — fans, artists, athletes, politicians — called A Wild Stab For It that’s worth seeking out. We hear much about how significant Game 8 became to so many people and this book provides that perspective, one that has never, to my knowledge, been in print before.
There have been documentaries and dramatizations of the series, but you can’t do better than watching the games themselves. All eight are on this DVD collection. You can read about it all you want, but nothing beats seeing the real thing.
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