Anniversary of 1972 Summit Series brings back a flood of memories
By Ronn Hartviksen
Any Canadian watching Team Canada playing hockey against the USSR 40 years ago this month will no doubt reflect on where they were when Paul Henderson scored that miraculous winning goal in Canada’s remarkable international odyssey.
Canada won the final game of the 1972 Summit Series, 6-5.
Henderson’s goal is possibly the most historic, most brilliant goal in international competitions for Canada — to that point — within a schedule of hockey games that gripped both nations from the start to its exhilarating (for Team Canada) finale.
Especially recalling the preliminary hype, and palaver in the press, about these unfortunate Russian amateurs being no contest for Team Canada: a very select squad of seasoned NHL pros. Plus, the outright ridicule the press wrote watching the Soviets practising. They seemed like a time capsule of hockey from another age. Old leather skates. Antique equipment. Archaic hockey sticks. Besides Vladislav Tretiak appeared as an easy goalie to score on. Why, the Soviets might not score enough goals to win a single match!
The eight-game format: first four games played on a tour of Canadian cities. The final four on Russian ice in Moscow.
Nonetheless, the series began. The Soviets upset any notions of a series sweep. They dominated Canada, almost coasting to a 7-3 victory.
Was it some kind of fluke? Surely these NHLers merely had a bad night. Tretiak foiled Canada over and over. Canadians came to know Valeri Kharlamov’s ballistic speed. He scored twice in the opener. Alexander Yakushev, one of their tallest players stationed near the goal crease, much like Canada’s Phil Esposito, with skillful hands scoring the most Soviet goals in the tourney, seven.
Then there was big Alexander Ragulin. A three-time Olympian. A rugged defenceman like Canada’s Guy Lapointe.
Canada’s Ivan Cournoyer observed, “You cannot believe their strength and conditioning.”
Though the Soviet coach Vsevolod Bobrov was always seriously stoic. He resembled the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in ways. Brezhnev would attend all the games in Moscow. Both he and Bobrov resembled already being immortalized in frozen time like bronze sculptures. Impervious.
Unemotional. Yet, very daunting in their gazes.
However, Canada rebounded winning the next game 4-1. Momentarily our national team seemed to be on the rebound.
Only to slump, and succumb, in two more matches without a victory. The third game ended in a 4-4 tie. The Soviets won the fourth game, in Vancouver, 5-3. There, the crowd rained down jeers and boos. CBC television interviewed Phil Esposito in the post-game rap. Espo was overwhelmed. How the fans turned on his teammates.
Made them feel like outcasts.
Coach Harry Sinden commented, “The Russians gave Canada a lesson our players and the whole country won’t forget.”
No one owns a sport that a nation might have invented, Sinden wanted to tell Canadians. Much as with England’s demise in international soccer — not capturing a single tournament other than their World Cup of 1966.
What surely became one of the most uphill roads to victory eventually emerged following Team Canada’s 5-4 defeat (Game 5) in the first match in the Soviet Union.
Somehow, the team rediscovered both defence and offence enough to accumulate three successive wins: 3-2, 4-3 and 6-5.
Then Henderson’s golden moment, scoring the winner with only 34 seconds left in the third period.
This series would change the way every player and coach would prepare for international hockey tourneys. Forever.
Yet this embattled series was not without a touch of humour. Where Canada was staying, within the intense scenario of that time, the buzz was being aware that the Soviets may have bugged rooms with hidden microphones.
Wayne Cashman thought he’d found something in a bulge of a carpet on his floor. He lifted the rug and began unthreading screws from a lump of metal. As he did so, something became totally unravelled. A tremendous crash sounded below in the hotel.
What Cashman had done was release the housing on a giant chandelier, smashing it to the lobby floor.
The hotel front staff must have thought the sky was falling.
Later that autumn, I was in Bloomington, Minn., watching the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars warming up. Canada’s J.P. Parise was stationary by a blueline location, passing pucks to his teammates.
We spoke while he kept a watchful eye on teammates working on drills. He began describing that incredible Soviet team. Then, in his French Canadian accent, said, “No one could ever know how much the Russians had improved in such short years in global hockey.”
Sometime afterwards, walking Toronto’s Yonge Street with Hockey Night in Canada’s Foster Hewitt, the broadcasting legend remarked, “The very quality of the Canadian team came through in the end. Winning three of four in Moscow. And coming from behind, so often, to win that decisive final game. They certainly redeemed themselves.
“They were simply fighting tigers on that stage. With a remarkable stamina, with no give-up, inside anyone of them. As I saw it.”
(Ronn Hartviksen is a Thunder Bay-area writer, whose most famous production may be an outdoor rink called the Bean Pot, where the Canadian Olympic team once skated.)