The Canada-Russia hockey Summit Series was 50 years ago this month

EDITOR’S NOTE—A half-century ago at this time, Canadians were glued to their television sets and radios, following the live broadcasts of the much-anticipated “Summit Series” of hockey between the best the NHL had to offer and an equally hand-picked Soviet team. Manitoulin sports enthusiast and Silver Stick winning coach Larry Leblanc was tasked by The Expositor to flesh out the temperature and emotions 50 years ago of this Cold War event that most Canadians saw as matching not only hockey skills between the nations but also our quite different political traditions. Next week, the September 28 issue of The Expositor (precisely a half-century after the final thrilling game), a follow-up story will examine Island people’s emotions at the time they learned WE’D WON the series.

by Larry Leblanc

Special to The Expositor

CANADA/USSR—More than 3,000 Canadian fans took in the Russian portion of the classic 1972 Summit Series in Moscow. The words above “Da Da Canada, Nyet Nyet Soviet” were an attempt to counter the eerie sounds of the Soviet fans protesting Canadian and referee actions by a high-pitched deafening whistling sound in the Luzhniki Palace of Sports.

Imagine this clash of not only hockey teams, but counter-cultures.

I was born in the middle of World War II. From the day of my birth, I was surrounded by uneasy adults who had no idea of their future. Much of the negative thoughts and feelings were heard and felt around the kitchen table.

In addition, it almost entered our heads and DNA by something akin to osmosis. To further enhance the negatives, our school and church scared the bejeesus out of us. When the war ended, it took some time to lessen the ill-feelings. The world was in turmoil and the USSR, buoyed by its impressive victories over the Nazis, began strutting about their power. They believed that they could defeat anyone and said so. Eventually, they would stop communicating with all countries. They politically strung up what came to be called the ‘Iron Curtain’ around their country and anything Russian. As it got worse, it was dubbed the ‘Cold War.’

To illustrate the fear in North America, there were bomb shelters in numerous places, students were drilled into hiding under desks, barricading and hiding in supply closets. Radio broadcasts and news films in movie theatres were contently broadcasting the events of the USSR Empire. And after the news we would watch Bugs Bunny, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The media made bit bucks selling fear.

The political and cultural differences between East and West were chasms apart. The Russians and the USA had a constant contest to top each other. Russian Yuri Gagarin was the first ever in space. American Neil Armstrong was the first on the moon. Both countries claimed to have invented the same new devices. There was no love lost between the two antagonists.

It was into this maelstrom that the Summit Series would be scheduled.

The Russians had won nine consecutive World Championships and four Olympic gold victories. Canada was not allowed to use NHL players as they were not ‘amateurs.’ The Russians, on the other hand, were all registered as members of the Soviet Army and were paid as such, and therefore they were supposedly ‘amateurs.’

Soon both Canada and the USSR were bragging that they had the best teams in the world. The Soviets had taken a well-organized strategy to improve their hockey skills, starting with playing Canadian Intermediate Teams (e.g. East York Lyndhurst), Senior ‘A’ teams (North Bay Trappers, Whitby Dunlops, Trail Smoke Eaters) and minor pro squads.

By the 1970s, the Soviets wanted to test their skills against the teams that laughed at them. They yearned for a best-on-best tournament. Finally, in 1972, the NHL agreed to an eight-game tournament to begin in Montreal on September 2, 1972. There would be four games in Canada and four games in Russia (Moscow). This announcement created anxiety, tension and raw fear, mostly on the Russian side.

Canadians were somewhat blasé about this at the beginning, thinking that it would be easy-peasy for our much better stars. I am sure then-Soviet Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev bristled when a Canadian sports writer casually predicted an 8 to 0 series victory for Canada. Even the famed and excellent writer Red Fisher said “8 straight.” A more cautious Milt Dunnell called it 7 to 1. Our stars were fat, relaxed vacationers, out of shape from sitting around swimming pools or casually playing golf. In fact, Jeff Klein, writing in the New York Times, later quoted Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak as saying, “I realized the rudeness and impudence of the Canadian players” and added for good measure that they were “hooligans,’ which was also Russia’s unofficial opinion. Klein also made mention of the Canadians’ ‘questionable behaviour.’ The reader, I am sure, remembers actions of the people such as Alan Eagleson, J.P. Parise, Bobby Clarke and Phil Esposito publicly saying ‘I would kill to win.’

To the common hockey fans, the Russian team were still ‘Red Ruskies, Soviets, war mongers, atheists and communists.’ Most had never even seen a Russian in person before and knew little or nothing about them, their culture nor their hockey.

The excitement across Canada and especially in and around the famed Forum in Montreal was palpable. People were hyped to see Canada beat the tar out of those Red Communist Ruskies.

The Forum was like a circus on opening night. Everyone was hyper, even though 90 percent of the fans couldn’t name your three Russian players: Kharlamov, Yakushev, Mikhailov. Who was this 20-year-old Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak, the boy who long-time Toronto scout Bob Davidson had dubbed a certain ‘sieve’?

The game opened with pomp and ceremony which had long been a tradition in the stately old forum. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was there with his eight-year-old son Justin, as was everyone who was anyone in Canada at the time.

Canada started quickly and expectedly were up 2-0 at the seven-minute mark. A packed Forum and 12 million Canadians watching on TV propped up their peacock feathers and collectively whispered: “this is going to be a complete wipeout,” even without Bobby Orr, the injured Bruin and Bobby Hull, the WHA defector.

Shortly this self-assured fandom would receive a bombastic blow as the hard fast-skating Russians and their puck possession game took over in the second. Canadians were surprised and in disbelief to see their swift, accurate pinpoint passing all at top speed. Canadians now knew who Petrov and Lyapkin were. They wondered where our stars were.

Richard Bendell in his land-mark bible of the series correctly caught the Canadian reaction: “The North American hockey world was in shock. The loss would make headlines across Canada.” The Globe and Mail would proclaim, “Canada mourns hockey myth.” Even in Moscow, the Russian victory came as a surprise. The Soviet news agency TASS reported that the game had destroyed the Canadian professionals’ myth of invincibility,  stating that “the defeat showed that Canadians, accustomed to competing in ‘self-isolation’ play was an ‘archaic’ brand of hockey.”

Oh, by the way, did I mention that the final score was 7 to 3? Tretiak was just fine, not so much Ken Dryden. Brad Park was superb.

Author Bendell describes the large and little details in articulate passion in his soon-to-be-published 2nd Edition of “1972, The Summit Series.” And he has a local connection as his father is M’Chigeeng’s Lyman Corbiere. 

Also Ken Dryden, an excellent author also will be releasing his new 50th anniversary penning of his version of the series shortly. Both books will be available on Amazon. Mr. Dryden, former Member of Parliament, has a good way with words as he describes “the most important moment in hockey history.” He even concludes that the Series might well have been “one of the most significant events in all of Canada’s history” and contributed to the world-wide reshaping of hockey.

Canada was called, prior to September 1972, the greatest team ever assembled but Team Canada found themselves outperformed by a disciplined, skilled, and ‘together’ Soviet team. Soon the series became more than just hockey. They had to disprove the simplest Toronto newspaper headline ever, ‘WE LOST.’

Game 2 was in the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The excitement was no less but the fear was dramatically increased.

Tony Esposito would be in goal. Other lineup changes would be more ‘businesslike.’ Ironically, for Esposito, an influx of six skaters would aggressively change the way the game was played.

Added were Stan Mikita, Serge Savard, Pat Stapleton, J.P. Parise and Bill White. They were not only anxious but, more importantly, enthusiastic and wiser. With Tony Esposito being a spectacular first star and Peter Mahovlich’s spectacular short-handed end to end breakaway goal, all was right with the world AGAIN! Canada would win a 4-1 victory which this time was well-earned.

Could things have turned to what we Canadians believed be normal?

It was September 6, 1972 and things had switched to the prairies and the city of Winnipeg. Esposito returned to goal and Coach Harry Sinden added Jean Ratille and Bill Goldsworthy. Some players chattered about going home as they weren’t in the lineup but Canada started like hellfire, Parise potting the puck in less than two minutes. It looked like Game 2 all over. However the audacity of Canada kicked in when the Soviets scored two shorthanded goals to make the final score a tie 4 to 4.

They say “tying a game is like kissing your sister” but there certainly was nothing familial about this game. The animosity only increased.

As Bendell reports, the Soviets bragged about their accomplishments to date. “The series is lost for Canada; we have reached our objective, which was a win and a tie in the four games here. We’ll wrap it up in Moscow no matter what happens in Vancouver.” Who was arrogant now, I ask?

In Vancouver (September 8, 1972) Sinden decided to revamp the lineups to make it look more like the roster iced in game 1. Dryden was back in even though he had previously lost to Russia in Vancouver. In fact, he was blasted 9 to 3 while playing for Canada’s National Team.

“Despite Tony Esposito’s excellent playing in the past two games, Sinden and Ferguson decided to go back to Dryden on a hunch as both of them felt that he was such a competitor…that he would want to get back at the Russians.” (Bendell)

Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield were in, Cashman was out. Young star Gilbert Perreault was given a chance. Unfortunately, the Soviets struck first and fast, Mikhailov finding the mesh at 2:01 and repeating the same at 7:29 of the opening frame.

From there, the Soviets would score two goals in each remaining period to Canada’s one resulting in a Soviet 5-3 triumph. Despair was everywhere throughout the land.

The legendary broadcaster Dick Irvin said at the banquet later, “you guys weren’t the most popular team when we left Canada to go over to play the four games in Russia.” Colossal understatement, eh?

Perhaps this is the proper time to say “you had to be there” and you had to experience the Cold War (East vs West). Common people and various governments (Canada included) feared Russia, especially after WWII when they were our allies vs the Nazis but were nasty in how they won their victories.

Parts of Russia were still primitive, which struck a darkness in spoiled North Americans. The hero, the man, Paul Henderson spoke of arriving in Moscow by train. “There were no houses, just apartment villages. You could see into them. There was just a bare bulb hanging from wires from the ceiling.” So much of it was drab and dark, not to discount that there were lovely places also. We must understand the times and communication voids of the times. There was no internet, no widely-distributed foreign newspapers, no cell phones, no ZOOM, and the Soviets were mysterious by design.

People in general know very little about the Cold War and kids couldn’t understand it. Today, generations under 50 years old and more have little or no idea of what transpired in that era. Today, it is ancient history to them.

Over time, older people have come to realize that their own 30- 40- 50-year-old children know little of the event, let alone those 10 to 20.  Steve Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun opined that “a lot of people including my own kids, had no idea about the Summit Series (nor do my grand-children). It was like a black empty hole.”

Thus on this 50th anniversary there is a virtual flood of articles, books, tapes and movies since it was so important to our national identity. Hall of Famer, Serge Savard marked the level of importance to North American hockey by saying “It brought the whole world in the NHL.” Journalist, Sam Fitz-Gerald of the sport magazine “The Athletic” suggested that “it was Canada’s Woodstock”!

And now to the USSR. Russian customs clearance was a real nightmare for all Canadians, including the players. Every delay possible was invoked. It took hours for them to clear all the hurdles.

Next, they had to face distractions that they had never before experienced. The players’ phones at the hotel were bugged. Unknown people called them at all hour of the night to interrupt their sleep. Cars circled their living quarters endlessly, honking their horns, their towels and personal items were stolen and practice schedules kept changing.  Obviously, the Russians wanted to win at all costs!

My first impression seeing the game from Luzhniki Ice Palace was the very visible presence of the Red Army everywhere throughout the building. This actually scared the Canadian fans who had never witnessed a Government Controlled State. The word ‘Communists’ readily came to mind. 

Game 5: The game itself was very entertaining, but also confusing. Canada came out roaring to a 3-0 lead by the half-way point of the game and then should have left the arena. In the 3rd period, Russia scored early at 3:34 while Canada got that one back only a minute later. Then the elevator fell down the shaft as the Soviets sank four consecutive goals in the same five minutes. Despite the goals, Esposito (Tony) was the MVP for Canada.

In spite of the crushing loss, Phil Esposito (who rose like a rocket in my opinion in this series) spoke from the heart when he said: “A lot of us have found out that we feel a lot more strongly about being Canadian than we had ever expected” (Quoted by Jim Proudfoot of the Toronto Star September 23, 1972, page 55)

From that point on, Phil was like a man on a heartfelt mission as he literally lifted the team by the seat of its pants and illustrated the effort required to win against a very motivated opposition.

Prior to game six, the famous sportscaster Foster Hewitt reminded us all that “It’s do or die tonight”… and for all three remaining games.

Ironically,  the shoe would be on the other foot for the Soviets in Game 6. Figuring that they had the series in hand, they arrogantly sat five regulars.

Game 6: This game was decided in the second period when all goals were scored. Thankfully Canada got three of them while the Soviets could only manage two. Ken Dryden redeemed himself in net and was named MVP. By the way, Canada’s goals were a barrage in only 1:23 minutes of playing time. With the win, hope sprung eternal, though Canada had to win, not tie.

Game 7: Toni Esposito regained the cage for this absolutely ‘must win’ contest. In this game, brother Phil was the heart and star (MVP). In one of the most entertaining games of the series,  the contest was a see-saw affair with teams usually trading goals until now legendary Paul Henderson took a crisp pass from Savard to score the winner with only 2 minutes and 6 seconds left in the third period. Canada was elated. Russia was deflated.

The anxiety level for Game 8 was sky-high on both sides of the Atlantic for hockey fans everywhere, more so for all of the players.

On September 28, 1972 both teams would lay it all on the line to determine the best. It was crunch time!

The Russian Army was out and visible in full force. The arena was cranked up to a deafening roar.

Unfortunately, with only 3:34 gone in the first period, Hall of Famer Yakushev opened the scoring for the USSR. Only three minutes later, the man who had become Canada’s ‘spiritual’ leader, Phil Esposito gallantly made it even. The team traded goals till the 11:43 mark when Yakushev scored again followed by a rare Valislav goal five minutes later. Canada went into the second intermission down a depressing 5-3 count.

Five years after the Series, Paul Henderson said at a Hall of Fame event: “He (Phil Esposito) was the undisputed leader on the team, on and off the ice. And I would say to you today, the finest period of hockey ever played by a hockey player was the 3rd period of the last game in Moscow.  This man scored the first goal and he set up the other two. I think it was the finest period of hockey ever played and you see that’s what leadership is all about.  Leadership goes out, yah you can talk about it, but you make it happen.  He made it happen.” Esposito willed his team to win.

What did the epic victory mean to Canada and Canadians: Work stopped when the game was on TV, school stopped (classrooms were filled with TV sets); and across the country, differences of culture, language, religion, and politics were set aside as Canadians gathered to share a moment of pure emotion and elation. The Globe and Mail’s Marty Klinkenberg wrote: “More than any other event in Canadian hockey history, Paul Henderson’s winning goal a half-century ago against the Soviet Union remains frozen in time.” Paul is 79 now and is still signing autographs!

He went on to say: “What transpired between them was so much more than an International Hockey Series. It took place during the Cold War and was seen as a battle between democracy and communism and western values and the Eastern Bloc. The Summit may not have changed the world but it changed what it meant to be a Canadian.

Post Script: The Canadian Government, via the CBC, has considered this month-long event to be so important that they have commissioned a series of three TV programs since so many have never seen the action. They believe that this historic seminal moment in our history is very vague for a lot of people or not even on their radar screen.

In addition, the Ottawa Sun recommends the 90-minute film called “Cold Breaker” by Hart and Raymond for the fan who wants a profound detailed look at the series.

PPS: Ironically enough, the eight-year-old Justin Trudeau of 1972 (now prime minister) must contend, like his father, with the recent brutal invasion of Ukraine which has raised those old Cold War tensions from the last century.