When a manager of a team is its story, there’s something wrong with the team.
The 1972 Summit Series was the first of its kind. Finally in hockey being a (corporate) professional player or an amateur (state professional) player didn’t matter. It was Canada’s best versus the Soviet Union’s best.
Because it was the first, a lot had to be done before the series began that hadn’t been done before. Canada’s players would be from the NHL, but the series wouldn’t be a creation of the NHL. The NHL didn’t want it to happen. Nor could it be a creation of the country’s leading hockey organizations, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) or Hockey Canada. Their mandate was amateur hockey. But if the NHL was going to supply the players, it needed to have some say, if only to dictate who couldn’t play (players from the upstart rival World Hockey Association, namely Bobby Hull), and the CAHA and Hockey Canada because they represented Canada with other international ice hockey organizations in matters of international hockey.
But who would organize the series? Who would choose the team? What even would the team be called? What would its jerseys look like? Who would referee the games? Where would they be played? Who would broadcast them? And because money would be generated, who’d get it?
These questions and hundreds more needed to be answered. At the time, to Canadians the challenge of the series seemed more in putting it on than in playing it. Canada had the best team, easily; even the Soviets knew that.
So Alan Eagleson, head of the National Hockey League Players’ Association and agent to many players at the time, a front and centre person, took on a front and centre role. The best managers in hockey – once Frank Selke, Sam Pollock, Bill Torrey; more recently Lou Lamoriello and Ken Holland – make themselves largely invisible. Eagleson did not. His part in the 1972 series didn’t end when the series began because there were always new questions to answer, and because he was Eagleson.
To some Canadians, when things went wrong in the early games, loud and profane Eagleson represented the ugly face of what Canadian hockey had become. To others, he represented an important defiant spirit. In the final games in Moscow when Paul Henderson began to score and Team Canada began to win, there was Eagleson still fighting – Soviet officials over the use of different referees, Soviet soldiers that constricted and “protected” Team Canada’s bench, Soviet fans as they whistled in derision, hatred and wonder at his team, and him.
Then 40 years passed.
You can never know what will be remembered and what forgotten. Henderson’s goal, obviously. Less obviously, Phil Esposito and his role. No statistic, no grainy, history-laden images a few seconds long can be put on our screens again and again to capture unrelenting spirit. His emotional postgame interview/speech to the nation after Team Canada’s disastrous fourth-game loss in Vancouver is too long to be often replayed. Conveying spirit is the task of the storyteller. Henderson’s achievement, captured in images and numbers, are stuck forever as what they are. Esposito’s have grown into legend.
The surprise and emerging promise of then 20-year-old Tretiak also remains in memory. That, and most centrally, two experiences of the time that have made the Summit Series a cherished memory for hockey fans of both Canada and today’s Russia. Soviet players showed they could play hockey differently and at the highest level. Canadian players showed they could hang in at the worst moments, and come back and win. Both countries wanted more. Both won what they most needed to win.
There were also the “incidents” – the throat-slitting gestures, J.P. Parisé’s baseball backswing at a referee, Eagleson’s cross-ice flight from the Soviet military, Bobby Clarke’s ankle-breaking two-hander to Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov. Until 35 seconds to go in the eighth and final game, until one second before Henderson scored, Team Canada was more reviled than celebrated. These incidents are remembered by some because they happened. They are part of the full story of the Summit Series. But they have receded over time. Not so much because they have been purposely forgotten but that to our collective memories, Canadian and Russian, to history, the essence of the Summit Series was something else. It was about performances for the ages and breakthrough achievements at breakthrough moments.
As for Eagleson, it has come to matter less every year who was manager and organizer of Team Canada 1972. To most now, the Summit Series was something that was going to happen, if not then, a year later, or three, or five. To most, to history, the Summit Series had little to do with Eagleson.
The story on Eagleson in The Globe and Mail last week drew strong reaction. It centred on how, in spite of the support of many Team Canada players to include Eagleson in 40 th anniversary celebrations this month, the vehement opposition of some had led to Eagleson’s exclusion. In spite of his criminal conviction and public disgrace, Eagleson showed himself in the article to be proud and defiant. Yet this debate among the players generated a confrontation Eagleson might have avoided. After the players’ vote and subsequent turmoil, Eagleson might have said publicly how grateful he was that the players had voted to allow him to attend the events. He might have said that knowing how strongly some opposed him, however, he couldn’t allow himself to divide the team, a team that matters so much to him. He might have said that though he was able to attend the team’s events, he would not.
But Eagleson, a front and centre guy to the end, did not say that.