Skip to main content

The 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series of Hockey changed the game forever.CBC Gem

In Canada there is never a bad time to talk about the Canada-USSR Hockey Summit Series of 1972. But talking and reminiscing is one thing. We’ll natter and chunter about hockey until kingdom come.

On the 50th anniversary, what’s needed is a fresh perspective and reflection. That’s different from nattering about it all. A new four-part documentary series starts this week and, well, there’s nervous anticipation from many involved. Series producer Nicholas de Pencier was asked by The Athletic, “How do you approach a story as big as 1972?” and his short answer was, “”With no small amount of trepidation.”

Little wonder. A new look at iconography lathered in nostalgia for defining national moments isn’t an easy task. As the story goes, for a long time nobody in Canadian TV wanted to attempt a TV movie or dramatic miniseries about the series of 1972. It was too daunting a prospect – a sprawling story, expensive to make and, really, would the public want to see mere actors pretending to be those iconic figures in a TV drama? It was done in a distinctly good and groovy style in 2006, with the miniseries Canada Russia ‘72, featuring a remarkable performances from Judah Katz as Alan Eagleson.

Catch up on the best streaming TV of 2021 with our holiday guide

Summit 72 (starts Wednesday, CBC, 8 p.m., streams CBC gem) is a finely nuanced series that looks back, goes deep into the mood of the time and the games, step by step. Some of the familiar narrative frays as new voices are added and rueful glances are cast back at days and events that half a century of thought must, by necessity, reinterpret.

At first, it’s Ken Dryden’s voice that dominates. There’s a plaintive tone to the near-poetry of his reflections. You start to get the picture – this is about Canada growing up, coming of age and recognizing hubris, no matter the ecstatic triumph at the end of the arc of the story. Canada was cocky, the players were lazy, unfit and frankly, in today’s terms, unprofessional.

The country was so cocky it believed the media narrative that Canada would win all eight games with ease. This was where the NHL was king. There, in Russia, they played well and were high achievers in international hockey. But, us, the sum of us, in hockey was innately superior. This narrative isn’t new in sports. In soccer, England isolated itself from the European game, mostly out of sheer, perverse disdain. Then, one day in 1953, England played Hungary at Wembley Stadium in London. Hungary won 6-3 and the result led to a painful revolution in tactics and training methods.

Here the story is similar and painful. Our team partied hard. The Russians practised hard. Their training was a marvel to behold. To Canadians, anyway. We see TV footage, drenched in wide-eyed skepticism, of the Russians playing every sort of game off the ice that would help them on it. At the end of the first period of the opening game in Montreal, the Canadians were exhausted, huffing and puffing, outclassed in tactical manoeuvres. “The Canadians started out like hungry animals who hadn’t eaten in weeks,” says Vladislav Tretiak, the nimble Soviet goalie. He would, of course, teach them what goalkeeping meant.

The series has a light but forceful touch in giving the context of Canada at the time. We see beer commercials from 1972 and get a music soundtrack that is superb, more thoughtful and subtle than the zealous nostalgia-pounding you’d expect. Thankfully too there are contemporary voices heard, including Harnarayan Singh, best known for announcing the Punjabi-language broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. There are women hockey players speaking too, and as the first episode leads in to the others – the series continues on consecutive Wednesdays – the arc of the story becomes something to think about, not merely wallow in.

The familiar narrative is that grit and determination gripped the Canadian team, leading to a defining sense of underdogs who pull through. and yet, as the story evolves, we are asked to rethink and revise. Not diminish, mind you, but asked to wonder about nationalist assumptions that become embedded in sport. Coming at a time when hockey culture itself is being recontextualized with a vague sense of shame and regret, it’s important to think about reimagining hockey’s central role in the country.

Made by a first-rate team, with Dave Bidini as co-writer, co-director and music director, Hugh Marsh as composer and Ravi Baichwal as another co-writer, the series is a healthily realistic look at what is often blathered about in unrealistic terms.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.