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How a future prime minister saw the '72 Summit Series

Paul Henderson (left), the Canadian player who scored the winning goal in the 72 Summit Series, listens as Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the audience during a gala dinner on Sept 28 2012. Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the Canada's win over Russia in the 72 Summit Series and a dinner was being held in Toronto to celebrate the win.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Prime Minister needed a moment to let the question sink in.

"Is that today?" he asks, leaning back in his chair and turning his gaze to a far wall. "The 28th? Yeah, wow, 40 years ago today. I never thought about it that way."

Stephen Harper paced into the room looking the part of serious statesman. He was a few hours removed from meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran's nuclear program. But soon the 53-year-old politician's mind is racing back to John G. Althouse Middle School in Etobicoke. He is 13 years old. A grin – a real grin, not the stage-managed one – stretches across his face and remains there for the entire interview.

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The day is Sept. 28, 2012, and the question is on everyone's lips: Where were you four decades ago to the day when Paul Henderson popped the most famous goal in hockey history?

"We were all students and we were all in the gymnasium and I think that was the case with just about every school in Toronto," he recalls from a hotel room in Toronto, hours before addressing an event to honour the Summit Series legends. "Increasingly as the series went on, it became such a distraction that it became impossible for anyone to get anything else done."

When Mr. Henderson scored that fateful goal, "we all just went crazy," he says. "What can we say? It was an incredible."

The drama of that series, the weaving of culture and politics, would leave an indelible mark on him.

Like the rest of the country, he regarded the eight-game series between Team Canada and the USSR to be a mere exhibition. "There was no thought we were going to lose. Very few people thought we would lose a game," he says.

But then came the disaster at the Montreal Forum. It was Sept. 2. Team Canada lost 7-3. The entire country took notice. It was no longer a hockey match, but a Cold War proxy battle. "All of a sudden we're at war," Mr. Harper says. "Young people can't fully understand it because there was so much more going on then."

Somewhere over those 27 days in September, a hockey history buff and a politician were born, or at least cultivated. He watched as the Soviet Union changed Canada's game and Canada's game changed the Soviet Union.

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"We just didn't see the degree to which in the NHL – and the guys were great players – but they were playing in very rigid systems and very disciplined systems of hockey," he says. "It was not a game that had evolved a lot in the previous decades if you actually look at the record. After that point, after the '72 series … it did gradually reshape the game in a way I think is very positive."

There was a political reshaping as well, however slight. Three thousand Canadian fans brought to Moscow a boisterous enthusiasm for the game never before seen in the country. And Phil Esposito's dramatic flare captured the hearts of Soviet fans who were accustomed to grim players and understated celebrations.

"Something people forget about the Cold War is there was very little social contact between people in the East bloc and people in the West bloc," he says.

"They never met. Those interactions were highly controlled by the state in the case of the Soviet bloc. This there was actually some social interchange, some cultural interchange, and I think between that and the hockey diplomacy of the '70s and '80s that followed … I think it was part of the thaw, the changes in the Soviet Union."

Mr. Harper is rolling now. His press secretary scans his BlackBerry. Other handlers keep peeking at their watches. There is a deep-seated hockey nerd inside that power-suit – the one that's writing a history of the sport in what little free time a prime minister has – and he's letting it free. Suddenly he is talking Cyclone Taylor, who starred for the Vancouver Millionaires the last time that city hoisted the Stanley Cup, 1915. He travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and returned with a warning that Soviet hockey had progressed beyond North American hockey. "People just assumed he was old and going senile," Mr. Harper says. "People just didn't take it seriously."

He checks his boyhood enthusiasm only when he's asked about what it took to win. Many credit Team Canada centre Bobby Clarke's ankle-breaking slash on Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov with turning the series in Canada's favour.

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"I'm not going to comment on an individual," he says, lapsing momentarily into political-speak. "I'm not a big fan of violence in hockey despite the fact it's a tough, physical game."

Forty years on, Mr. Harper still finds a measure of inspiration from that desperate contest. As a leader of growing experience, he admires Mr. Esposito, who single-handedly lifted the team out of despair. "Phil Esposito's leadership was really something," he says. "That's extraordinary leadership to take a bunch of angry, bitter people and turn them – turn them towards getting the objective done. It was a great moment."

There have been great moments since. Mr. Harper was in attendance when Sidney Crosby scored the goal that won Canada Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010 – but even that euphoric moment couldn't touch the summit.

"For the country," he says. "I would say it was the most unifying event in my life."

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