It was the greatest hockey series ever played. But from the start, the 1972 Summit Series was all about politics.
Mostly we remember the eight bitter battles between Team Canada and the former Soviet Union, fought with more grit, guts and glory than any Stanley Cup final. And as we prepare to celebrate its 40th anniversary, we revel in our last-minute triumph, our sense of vindication that Canadians were still supreme at playing a game we invented.
Four decades later, we acknowledge more gracefully the razor-thin margin of victory. We can also appreciate how profoundly the series changed the sport itself and – since hockey is central to our national identity – how political the changes were.
Before 1972, it galled us that Canada couldn’t send its best to the Olympics or world championships. A phony amateurism barred National Hockey League players from competing internationally, yet Russians playing full-time for the state were perennial champions of the world.
Canadians were sick of it. In 1971, prime minister Pierre Trudeau raised the issue with Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin. Soon afterward, a Canadian diplomat in Moscow picked up signals that the Russians were finally ready to test themselves against the NHL. Official talks ensued: a “best versus best” series of “friendly matches,” four in each country. No cup was at stake – just global hockey supremacy.
In the Canadian mind, the teams also represented their societies’ conflicting political systems. Our guys were rugged, free-enterprising individualists. Their guys were robots, cogs in the communist machine. Media experts picked Canada to win all eight games.
As the Soviets stepped onto the ice in the Montreal Forum wearing their red cosmonaut helmets, faces expressionless, names unpronounceable, they seemed like robots indeed. The bareheaded Canadians scored two quick goals. Moments later, we discovered how brilliantly, how creatively, the Soviets could play. We learned to pronounce Valeri Kharlamov and Vladislav Tretiak. When Game 1 ended, a heavy mist rising off the ice, it was Soviet Union 7, Team Canada 3.
Canadians experienced collective trauma. The dawning awareness that we could lose posed humiliating consequences. A national myth would perish. The communist system would triumph, however symbolically. Suddenly, a hockey series prefigured the long-feared climax of the Cold War.
The Canadian players took it all on themselves. Captain Phil Esposito said afterwards he’d “have killed to win.” Bobby Clarke clearly agreed, to judge by the two-handed slash he used to fracture Mr. Kharlamov’s ankle in Moscow. The Canadians were convinced that the KGB had bugged their hotel rooms, that Soviet apparatchiks had fixed the officiating.
Paul Henderson’s iconic series-winning goal with 34 seconds remaining averted disaster. Meanwhile, something else had happened.
The crowds on both sides had become an integral part of the drama. In Vancouver, fans booed Canada’s loss, triggering Mr. Esposito’s passionate, sweat-drenched defence of his team. In Moscow, fans observed the stoic decorum decreed by their rulers, yet were astonished by the raucous contingent of Canadian visitors who blew trumpets and shouted opinions.
Millions of Russians and North Americans watched on television, getting a glimpse into each other’s society. We beheld the enemy face to face, and what we saw weren’t nuclear missiles but other human beings devoted to hockey.
Afterward, the sport changed radically. Shaken by the Soviets’ excellence, we revolutionized our game. Our reliance on grinding physical play and sheer heart was no longer enough. We put new emphasis on skating, passing and teamwork, moving to the faster, more skilled, more sophisticated style now played everywhere.
The cross-fertilization process advanced with the opening up of the NHL to Europeans: Swedes, Finns and Czechs at first, eventually Russians. The Canada Cup series pitted professionals of several countries against each other: Canada won often, but not always. Finally, in 1998, NHL players were allowed to play for their country in the Olympics. The Canadians’ debut was a disaster on the ice, but we survived it.
We’ve learned to share our game with the world, just as we’ve learned to share our country with people from many cultures. The globalization of our national sport has become a key aspect of our multiculturalism.
That’s the real legacy of 1972. At first a proxy for war, the Summit Series evolved into a paradigm of coexistence. Today, Mr. Tretiak calls Canada his “second home.” The surviving Russian and Canadian warriors get together for reunions and ask after each other’s wives and grandchildren.
In 1972, neither side lost it all. The Cold War lost.
Roy MacSkimming is the author of Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972, just rereleased as an e-book along with his unauthorized Gordie Howe biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend.