Forty years ago from Sunday, Canada suffered one of the greatest blows to its psyche it has ever endured. It lost a hockey game. Not just any game: a game that was supposed to re-establish Canada as the greatest hockey-playing country on the planet. The final score was 7-3, and the Soviet Union won. Four decades later, Canada, and the game of hockey itself, are still feeling the effects.
Of course, everyone knows that the game was the first in an eight-match series against the Soviet Union, and that Canada ultimately won the so-called Summit Series four games to three, with one tie. But as every second Hollywood screenplay informs us these days, it is through adversity that we truly get to know ourselves. The Canada-USSR series, played at the height of the Cold War, was seen by both sides as a chance to prove which country produced the best players. Canada had been the world’s undisputed international hockey powerhouse up until the 1960s, when the Soviet Union methodically went about assembling a national all-star team that was amateur in name only. International hockey was limited to amateur players, so the USSR had little trouble defeating Canadian teams whose best players were in the NHL.
Team Canada was beyond confident that it would crush all comers with a team consisting of the NHL’s best. Players, coaches and sportswriters alike predicted a sweep. So when the NHLers fell 7-3 in Game One to a fast, skilled and fit Soviet machine on Sept. 2, 1972, in the Montreal Forum, Canadians suddenly knew something about themselves, or at least their country, that had previously been inconceivable to them: They might not be the best. Four games later, when Team Canada was down 3-1-1 with three games to go, the inconceivable had become a harsh reality.
Canada’s players rallied and won the series thanks to their grit and skill. But 40 years later, the series outcome is so much more than the game tally. European players proved from that very first game they could compete with the best of the NHL, with the consequences that we all see today in the league’s multinational makeup. International competition, from the annual world junior championships to the Winter Olympic Games, has been revived and has become one of the most popular sporting events in the world.
And, perhaps above all, Canadian hockey has evolved to where the best players and prospects are the big boys and men with the soft hands; the love children, so to speak, of Wayne Cashman and Valeri Kharlamov. Paul Henderson’s famous series-winning goal in the final game repaired Canada’s psyche, but that first loss on a hot September evening in Montreal 40 years ago is an equally indelible moment from the Summit Series.