On a rainy autumn evening nearly 40 years ago, 30,000 jubilant, flag-waving hockey fans stood outside Toronto’s city hall for hours in the downpour, hailing the men who had beaten the Soviet Union in the game’s ultimate series.
And on Friday, most of the alumni of Team Canada, 1972, returned to Nathan Phillips Square, where they filed out as they had all those years ago. Greeting them was a crowd perhaps 1,000 strong, some die-hard fans, many lunch-time passersby attracted by the commotion. A much smaller reception, but one no less appreciative.
“Whoa! Is that Paul Henderson?” exclaimed a construction worker, pulling out his mobile phone to snap a picture of the man engrained in the national psyche for scoring the clutch goal that secured Canada’s hockey supremacy.
Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Councilor Doug Ford, proclaimed the team’s addition to Canada’s Walk of Fame. There was a touch of awkwardness when the controversial was greeted with muted applause and a few boos.
But the moment was quickly forgotten as the brothers, sports fans both, reminisced about childhood street hockey games, where they would pretend to be Wayne Cashman and Bobby Clarke. Then, one by one, they called each team member forward.
The lives of the 28 Canadians who played the series have taken varying paths in the decades since -- from Stanley Cup victories to further international tournaments to political careers. Some saw their best days in the wake of the series, others faded. But across the spectrum of the team, players cited those eight games as their proudest achievement.
“There’s no way [such an event] could happen again,” Henderson said of battling the Soviet Union. “There was such a mystique -- and they were trying to take over the world with their ideology.”
Forward Peter Mahovlich didn’t hesitate in naming the series the most important of his life, ahead of his Canada and Stanley Cup victories. But it took time for the significance of the duel with the Soviets -- that they had opened the door to cross-Atlantic exchange in the hockey world -- to really sink in. Within a decade, European players were becoming stars in the NHL and Soviet teams played further games in North America.
“You started to see all the stuff that was coming our way. You look back, and the catalyst was 1972,” he said.
Even Marcel Dionne, who didn’t play a minute in the series -- “I was picking up towels and dirty laundry,” as he puts it -- still regularly gets together with his old teammates, so strong is the bond.
“This had to be the greatest event in sports history,” he said simply.
And that camaraderie was visible in unguarded moments Friday: Mahovlich rumpling Dionne’s hair; goalie Ken Dryden sharing a laugh with forward Rod Gilbert.
The image of this team was just as indelible for the fans that turned out.
“Those guys still look good,” commented Ron Girouard who, as an 11-year-old, was among the crowd that greeted them in 1972. “They look like they could still play in the NHL.”
Teddy Ing was too young to remember the games, but grew up hearing their lore. On Friday, he sported a Team Canada jersey and collected autographs from defenceman Rod Seiling, Dryden and Cashman.
“These were the people that motivated other hockey players,” he said. “They are the models.”