The hockey ‘Summit Series’ at 50: Recalling where you were when you heard we’d won!

EDITOR’S  NOTE: Fifty years ago today, September 28, 1972, retired Expositor publisher Rick McCutcheon went to work as usual on the Thunder Bay Times-News, a morning paper. He was the wire editor and the city editor across from him said, ‘everyone will remember where they were when they heard Canada won this series.’ The Expositor asked Manitoulin hockey guru Larry Leblanc to test out this prediction.

by Larry Leblanc

Special to the Expositor

MANITOULIN—Us old timers remember being asked the question; “where were you in 1963 when US President Kennedy was shot?” Since it was a pivotal time in world history, it was a question that was on everyone’s mind and I bet 90 percent of us (who were old enough) could clearly remember the answer.

That question popped into my mind when last week I wrote an article on the 1972 Canada vs. Russia Summit Series of Hockey. I was requested to do a phone survey to see if the Kennedy “effect” applied to the Summit Series. For Islanders, the memories were mixed, which I will discuss.

First of all though let me elucidate some problems connected with the Summit question. Exactly 50 years ago today, September 28, 1972,  the first thing I realized was that I could only survey a group that was essentially over 60 years old. That is not a large population in 2022.

Another limiting factor, compared to the Kennedy question, is that in 1963 virtually everyone had a land line for phoning. In the Summit case, almost 50 percent of the people I tried to phone were no longer connected to a land line. After dialing, I frequently heard “this number is no longer in service.” Cell phones have obviously changed our lives.

I, therefore, resorted to contacting many people via Facebook. That did help some. Email was not of much help as I possess very few email addresses. Nonetheless, I did manage to get some extremely interesting responses.

The first indication I received that many people were well aware of the 50-year anniversary came from Providence Bay’s Shirley Cranston. The classic Hockey Mom, Shirley was excited to recall and discuss the hockey history- making event. Having had her late husband, her sons and grandson all play organized hockey, she was a familiar face in many, many arenas for a number of decades. She stated that “everyone everywhere” was interested in a type of event that had never taken place before. Up to that time, Russians claimed to be “amateurs” and refused to play against pros/capitalists who, in their minds, were taking “tainted money” to play a “game.”

Shirley remembered how, to the people of the day, the Russians were our “Communist Enemies.” Living in Hamilton at the time, she had heard all the western propaganda about the secretive Iron Curtain opponents.

She outlined how elated she and all her friends were when Henderson scored the winning goal with only 34 seconds remaining in the game. She says that feeling of a positive high still lingers today in her mind and in those of fellow Canadians.

In closing, she expressed that the win and the accompanying feeling is “something that you never forget about.” True story, Shirley!

Talking to long time super referee Bob Dumont, I received some of the same sentiments.

Gore Bay’s Mr. Dumont said that one of the things he remembers the most was the “hype” that accompanied the Series from the moment it was announced that the battle was actually going to take place.

As an eight-year-old young lad living in Thessalon, he was not concerned about the politics (nor was he even aware) surrounding the Series. It was all about hockey to the elementary school students of his home town. He indicated that, for the four games held in Russia, (as they were broadcast in Canada in the afternoons) the principal and teachers herded them all into the gym to watch each of the games. Having the entire school together for the same event was exciting in itself, a “happening,” so to speak. He was impressed, how in overtime, Canadians came to actually like the Russian players themselves as well as their skills and team play. Most of the individuals games are now a blur of excitement but Bob dearly remembers Henderson’s winning goal and the accompanying roar and cheers of excitement in that gym!

Former arena manager and recreation director of Little Current, Greg Wright, agreed that the Series was of “historical significance.” He was in University in Waterloo at the time and also remembers the anticipation prior to the start of the clash. He remembered exactly where he was for the final game. He and 125 students were crowded in a lecture hall in Dr. Salter’s Geology class. Mr. Salter (an Australian by birth) no doubt did not understand the excitement of his Canadian students on that day. No one was paying attention to him. There was no TV but almost every student had a transistor radio and they all had them turned full volume. You can imagine the bedlam in the assembly room with 34 seconds left!

Former teacher/librarian Tom McQuay of Mindemoya remembers the battle for the kids to see the games at Manitoulin Secondary School. Since the “higher ups” didn’t allow the students to watch the games, there were numerous “washroom breaks” which in many cases became disappearances as students listened on transistors in the woods as well as in the “can.” Tom expressed his opinion that they might have just as well closed the school down as there were few students in the classrooms. Mr. McQuay agreed that it was an historical event. He was completely surprised (he wasn’t alone there) at how good the Russians were. Nonetheless, he was ecstatic when Canada prevailed.

Former pro Don McCulloch of Little Current actually lost out on seeing any of the series live. When the Summit began, Don was busy with his own training camps with Philadelphia of the W.H.A. Although he didn’t see the games, there was considerable talk among the players in Philly about the Series. They were as surprised as anyone about just how good the Russians were. They were especially impressed by the mid-season conditioning that the Soviets seemed to exhibit. While Don and his teammates were getting in shape, so was Canada, but unfortunately they were losing games due to their lack of the same.

I contacted former Manitowaning resident, the “colourful” Denzil Spence in Chapeau, Quebec. (Author’s note: A writer at this newspaper labelled Mr. Spence as “colourful” in an Expositor article in the 1980s). Denzil is a great and serious hockey fan and player. Spence was a teacher at Wiikwemkoong. He came to Manitoulin in 1973. At the time of the Series, he was stationed in James Bay where most people were aware of the Cold War implications of the series. “The Cold War was on everyone’s mind and Russia was hated.” He didn’t recall all the details of the Series but said he would never forget his excitement and that of the crowd in the James Bay Arena.

Ron Odjig, former Wiky Thunderbird stalwart, was employed at Pontiac School in 1972 as an audio/visual organizer for the teachers and classrooms. He dealt with film and slide projectors, record players, TVs, etc. He was quite happy to close the door to the AV room and watch the television, especially for the 8th game. He didn’t’ say if anyone found him when #19 patted the winning goal but he did say “Now we know how old I am!”

Linda Bowerman of Sheguiandah, another dyed-in-the-wool hockey mom and almost a permanent arena occupant for many years, gave me a little scolding. Little did I realize that in 1972, she was busy with three children under the age of four. Her son Brad, later on a  Panther forward, was only a few months old at the time. That crew certainly kept her too busy to take time out to watch hockey. That would come years later. In 1972, she and her late husband, the very personable Ron, were living in Wawa where with six other workers were building a bridge over the Montreal River. Linda also had to feed the work crew. So sorry Linda. You would make up for it a few years later. (Linda and Ron were stalwart supporters of the Manitoulin NOJHL Junior ‘A’ team, The Wild, later The Islanders.)

Murray Haner of Mindemoya, a retired OPP officer said, naturally, that when he heard about the Russian portion of the “tournament” the first thing that came to his mind was “SECURITY.” He was well aware of the presence of the Russian Red Army, especially in the Moscow Arena. They were stationed everywhere. And not one of them ever flashed a smile. Murray watched and enjoyed the series with his buddies. Like all of us, it was quite a mystery as virtually no Canadians knew or had heard of these Russians players. He was relieved when Canada got out of Russia with no overly serious happenings. He closed with the present Soviet/Putin situation saying that with Russia so close to Alaskans, it might well be smart to be a little afraid.

Tom Balfe of Tehkummah, a former high level football player (he played for Kent State, Ohio, Wilfred Laurier, Waterloo and came within an “inch “ of being a Canadian university champion losing out to the University of Manitoba Bisons) was both pleased with Canada’s victory and angry with Bobby Clarke. Tom was at Waterloo when the Summit was happening. He saw all the games. (By the way, his son Jon teaches at MSS.)

He was 26 years old at the time and was completely surprised by the skill-level and team-game of the USSR. Being happy with Canada’s victory didn’t prevent him from opining that he believed the Russians were playing a little bit better, game-wise. Their skating and agility were superb.

He was very impressed with the Goalie Tretiak who he felt “stood on his head’ and felt that Henderson was a bit lucky as the winning goal came  off the backboards and Paul had to take a couple of wild swings at it to get into the mesh.

He believed that Bobby Clarke’s wood-chopping slash to Russian star Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle was a disgrace to Canadian hockey. I agree with him, as does Canada’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which voted Valeri into supreme hockey recognition.

Long-time hockey star Shane Laidley of Little Current was in high school at Manitoulin Secondary in 1972. He was well aware of the Island’s love for hockey and found the entire Series “pretty exciting,” as did his fellow students. For some reason, he believed that he saw the final game in school. Must’ve been a brave teacher! Shane loved the team play, skating and passing of the Soviets. He was happy, of course, that Canada prevailed. He passed that love of hockey and some of the skills he saw the Russians exhibit to his own son Michael who was good enough to play five years at St. Lawrence University on a scholarship. Michael also played a few years of minor pro hockey. Last year, his Peoria Rivermen won the league championships beating the Pensacola Ice pilots (who had let Mike go the previous year.) Revenge is “SWEET.” Mike had a good year, scoring 18 goals and adding 15 assists.

Mindemoya’s Dale Scott, vet and goalie, had a somewhat similar experience as Greg Wright. He too was in University in 1972 but at Guelph. He was able to see every game. He was excited and most happy with the final game. He lived in residence at the time on the 3rd floor which accommodated up to 160 students. Virtually no one from his floor went to class. Instead the vast majority packed into the large common room to watch the game on an old black and white television. He described the information around the Series as quite “muddled” as few knew much about what might transpire. Of the university students, he said: “We knew it was political. We were aware of the East-West tension.” He also was surprised by the play of Tretiak who had been described as a “sieve” by a pro scout. He also liked Esposito’s speech in Vancouver that seemed to help rally the Canadians. He did not speak highly of Allan Eagleson with which most everyone agrees.

The noise level in that common room at 19:66 of the third period nearly took the roof off. He states that the moment would be “remembered forever”. He was also impressed that 16 million Canadians watched that goal, including many non-hockey folks who were intrigued by the intrigue surrounding the clash of hockey powers.

I leave the final comments to Manitoulin’s (Wiky’s) Memorial Cup Champion, Gerard Peltier. Gerard played with the likes of Hall of Famers, Dale Hawerchuk, Gilmour and Marc Crawford on that cup-winning team so he knows of what he speaks.

His first impression was that, since that Series, he has always had a good feeling about the toughness and “never-say-die” attitude of Canada’s hockey players and recalls the “cool, iconic Series” that defined Canada as a hockey country. He then repeats “Canada never quits”, a very important observation.

As a young boy around 10-12 he indicates that “I was flabbergasted” at the Soviet players’ skill to the point that, in road or pond hockey, after the Series the Wiky boys always identified themselves as Russian players Kharlamov, Mikhailov, Petrov, Tretiak, etc.

Gerard recalls watching that last game with his father, Hardy baa, and both being amazed with the skill and speed. (That may have been a replay as he recalls also watching it in school.)

That Series and the possibilities he saw motivated him to work longer and harder so that he might have a chance of playing at a high level. He admired the good Edmonton team as they built their Stanley Cup winning teams around toughness (Semenko, Huddy); skill (Gretzky, Anderson) and Europeans such as Jari Kurri and Tikkanen.

I used the Series as “fuel when I played” (North Bay Trappers, Cornwall Royals, Swedish Pro and All-Canadian College All-Star).

Gerard finishes with the statement: “Anyway, the ’72 Series is always a favourite. In hindsight, it was great to happen. It shows Canadian hockey is different and revered. As a 10-year-old, it had an impact on what I wanted to do. I was disappointed that Orr was not playing. He was who I wanted to be. He would have make a difference, I felt. But as we know now…we were cocky and out of shape.